Despite introducing bilingual tests, fire service ‘still needs to do more’ to recruit Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities

Shakir Mohammad became only the third person from an ethnic minority to join the fire department

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 November, 2016, 10:34pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 November, 2016, 10:34pm

Despite failing the tests twice and being told by many of his friends to give up, Shakir Mohammad successfully achieved his dream of joining the fire department this month – becoming only the third person from an ethnic minority in the city to do so.

Born in Pakistan, the half Pakistani and half Chinese, Mohammad benefited from a pledge made in Leung Chun-ying’s 2014 policy address to implement measures that would ensure ethnic minorities have equal access to governmental job opportunities. As part of this pledge, the Fire Services Department introduced bilingual recruitment tests in 2015.

Yeung Kai-wang, assistant divisional officer from the recruitment, training and examination group, said “many people from an ethnic minority background can speak and understand Cantonese like a local, but they struggle with writing. They often told me that language seemed to be a barrier that hampered them from joining us.”

This is borne out by Mohammad who admitted he struggled with the language when he first arrived in Hong Kong at the age of seven. “I memorised Chinese characters like pictures which was quite difficult,” said the 25-year-old who now works at Tsim Sha Tsui fire station.

Recalling the arduous process to achieve his goal, Mohammad recalled failing to finish quizzes in training school on time and being made to spend up to 10 hours writing out words and phrases repeatedly in Chinese as punishment. Meanwhile, it only took his contemporaries four hours to finish. The instructor later prepared him notes and tests in English.

Despite Mohammad’s success, the department recognises that it still needs to do more to attract and recruit ethnic minority personnel, aware of the potential benefits a more diverse service would bring.

Yeung said having various ethnic backgrounds in the department could foster better services, but he said he had received only 10 applications from members of ethnic minorities in each recruitment drive.

“If a member of an ethnic minority was trapped in a traffic accident, the new recruits could understand the patient at the scene,” Yeung said, adding the new recruits would be used in districts with dense ethnic minority populations.

Pervez Mohammad, who is also half Pakistani and half Chinese, is the only person from an ethnic minority who works for the ambulance service and he agreed that a better understanding of religion could help the services.

“Not many local [ambulance service personnels] know about the food restrictions during Ramadan,” said the 28-year-old, who joined the services since 2013. “Some [Muslims] refuse to eat even when their blood sugar level gets low. I can explain to the patients of what to do.”

Those who want to be in the fire or ambulance service have to meet the language proficiency requirements of Level 2 or above in Chinese and English in the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education or the equivalent public examinations.

There will be around 140 and 200 vacancies in the ambulance and fire departments respectively next year.

Besides 370,000 domestic helpers in Hong Kong, the city is home to more than 123,000 South Asian residents – about 1.8 per cent of the population, according to the latest figures from the Immigration Department.