Insight: Students need to broaden their knowledge of social issues

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 10:11am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 April, 2014, 10:11am

The recent protests in Taiwan - dubbed the Sunflower Movement - were the biggest student-led demonstrations on the island in recent decades. They started on March 18 when hundreds of university students seized the legislative chamber in protest over the fast-tracking of a new trade pact with China.

The movement might have come as a surprise to many as, unlike in South Korea in the 1980s, student protests are rare in Taiwan. But in the digital age, the young slogan-chanters, intent on keeping local businesses out of the hands of mainland companies, were easily organised and mobilised. They also represent a group of fiery youths who relish their rights in a democracy - rights they cherish even more under an elected government.

Views differ on their tactics, but the students' concerted action - some had reportedly camped out for five straight nights - reflect a rising civic force. Education is the backbone of a civil society.

A less reported fact about the protests was that the students were backed by their teachers. Equally furious over the ruling Kuomintang's handling of the trade pact, many professors publicly stated their support for the protesters. Some cancelled classes during the protests while a number of universities stated that students at the protests would not be counted as being absent from their lessons.

It was encouraging to see the moral support extended to the students, not the least of which came from their teachers. In late March, students in Hong Kong and dozens of other cities also rallied in support, while expressing their own opposition to the controversial pact.

Organisers of the Hong Kong rally estimated 1,000 took part. It would be interesting to know how many Hong Kong students felt inspired by the Sunflower Movement. Indeed, banners expressing solidarity with their Taiwanese counterparts can be seen on campuses in the city.

The question remains: are we seeing a rising tide of civic-mindedness?

Senior secondary students are required to learn about social and global issues under the subject of liberal studies. The subject, unfortunately, has attracted more criticism than praise, with critics claiming it creates an excessive workload and is examination-focused, and does not help to foster independent thinking in our city's students.

Nonetheless, liberal studies has helped broaden students' social knowledge. Students at university are also exposed to a multitude of current issues through talks, exhibitions, overseas trips and other general education programmes. Universities have tried harder to connect students with the wider world but the question remains: are we seeing a rising tide of civic-mindedness? The answer could be yes, judging from the massive turnout at the anti-national education protests in 2012, but it should be remembered that many of the protesters then were parents.

To be able to speak out about social issues or injustices, someone must first be aware of the social reality. That raises the question of how knowledgeable and aware local students are of the problems facing Hong Kong and the rest of the world. The former head of Oxfam Hong Kong, Chong Chan-yau, noted on an RTHK programme that he found local students more concerned about the stock market, finance and travel, and tended to look at issues from the perspective of a consumer.

The blind social campaigner carved out an impressive career for himself as an advocate for equal opportunity. But it seems few students today know about him. Some told me they had no idea who he was. In Hong Kong, much more can certainly be done to broaden youngsters' mindsets and knowledge of the issues and people around them.