Hong Kong likes to think of itself as a liberal, pluralistic and diverse society. But dig a little deeper and the picture is not so pretty. Our city’s racial harmony is not achieved through tolerance. Rather it’s mostly because our minorities rarely make noise or cause trouble. Instead of being integrated, they have been socially marginalised and politically underrepresented.

Public policies promoting integration range from inadequate to non-existent. But most of all, the attitude of many Hongkongers has been that it is not even an issue.

As Legco elections loom, city’s ethnic minorities are out in cold

For many local people, diversity just means having Chinese and Caucasians working in senior positions or studying at top schools. Ethnic minorities, such as those of South-Asian origins or from the Philippines and Indonesia, might as well be invisible.

Take the latest legislative polls, billed as pivotal to Hong Kong’s political future by all the mainstream parties. Fewer than half of eligible ethnic minority residents had registered to vote, compared with 74 per cent of the general population. One in two minority registered voters said they had no intention of going to the polls, either because they didn’t know how to do it or because they failed to find anyone who would represent their interests.

More than half of Hong Kong ethnic minority electors likely to vote, but many others don’t know how to register

And they were right. Of the nine so-called “super seat” candidates, for example, only two included minority issues in their policy platforms. Virtually all of their campaign leaflets were produced in Chinese.

Compare that to the political process in Singapore, where racial quotas have been enforced for legislative elections over nearly two decades and now the government is in the midst of changing the constitution to ensure minority representation for the top political post. Although its latest move has triggered a debate over tokenism versus meritocracy and the ruling party’s true intentions, the strenuous efforts to manage race relations stand in stark contrast to Hong Kong’s systemic exclusion of minorities from the power structure.

Singapore’s first Olympic gold provides a lesson in ethnic integration for Hong Kong

Of course, with almost 93 per cent of Hong Kong’s population being Chinese, it’s inevitable they would dominate the political agenda by sheer numbers. Of the rest of the local population, about 4 per cent are Filipinos and Indonesians; 0.8 per cent Caucasians; and almost 1 per cent South Asians, including Pakistanis, Indians and Nepalese.

So minorities are a significant presence, yet small enough as to be hard to make waves. There are no electoral votes to be won in advocating for minorities, so politicians of all stripes are not keen on fighting for them.

Hong Kong today may be less overtly racist than it was under British colonial rule. But discrimination exists at a systemic level, primarily through language, education and jobs.

Government sees help for Hong Kong’s ethnic-minority students as a priority

When a society is predominantly Chinese, the inability of many minority children to write proficiently in the language presents an almost insurmountable obstacle to future advancement. This starts at an early age.

According to the Education Bureau, 44 per cent of kindergartens do not have a single non-Chinese student, while minority students are concentrated in a small number of kindergartens where the teaching of Chinese is less emphasised or rigorous.

This continues throughout the primary and secondary years. Until recently, about 30 publicly funded schools catered specifically to ethnic minorities. Some may teach Punjabi and Urdu along with Chinese and English. No doubt through good intentions, education officials both before and after the 1997 transfer of sovereignty allowed, and continue to enable, students of such schools to take a less rigorous public exam in the Chinese language when they graduate from secondary or form five.

Ethnic minority social workers face limited placement options

This, unfortunately, means many would not meet the minimal language requirements for acceptance into local universities. It also means a career in the civil service is closed to them.

Perhaps there is still the large private sector. But according to a survey of more than 1,500 job adverts from 16 local online job search services by Unison, a minorities’ rights group, only one in five job ads cater to non-Chinese speakers or readers. Indeed, almost 40 per cent of the ads were produced only in Chinese.

And because there is no organised voice or political representation in the Legislative Council and other influential advisory bodies, the government does not feel the need to be responsive to the needs of minorities beyond paying lip service and devoting minor resources to promoting their interests.

The way forward is clear. Many countries including Singapore, our arch rival, have more or less successfully implemented multicultural or racially integrative policies over many years. So what can be done?

Policies needed which give ethnic minorities level playing field

Mainstream local schools need to be encouraged or even forced to accept and integrate students from minority groups. Far greater public resources need to be provided for Chinese-as-a-second-language (CSL) training to make sure such students eventually achieve comparable Chinese-language competence. This means phasing out public exams with lower language standards.

Meanwhile, universities need to prioritise the acceptance of more minority students. The government needs to open up the civil service for their career advancement. These may mean quotas, preferential hiring and relaxing language requirements.

To be fair, the government has been doing many of these things, but at an extremely slow and cautious pace. What is lacking in Hong Kong is not so much the means but rather the will. As the city is facing so many social, economic and constitutional challenges, the issue of minorities welfare has simply taken a backseat.

Alex Lo is a columnist with the South China Morning Post