Mistakes and misreadings have put Hong Kong’s TSA dispute in a different class

Philip Yeung says the wrangling over the Territory-wide System Assessment is another sign of how fragile and fractious Hong Kong politics has become – and it’s all the more frustrating since the trouble could have been avoided

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 11:46am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2015, 11:46am

The bitter wrangle over the Territory-wide System Assessment has degenerated into a silly question of whose side you are on: for or against the government. Because it is so fragile and nervous, local politics now follows this inescapable pattern. There is no middle ground.

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Pro-establishment legislators and their political bedfellows rally behind the beleaguered education chief to defend the indefensible. Meanwhile, egged on by pan-democrats, angry parents are spoiling for a fight and calling for boycotts. What was originally a simple educational issue has turned into a political mud fight.

Education is not a contest of egos or a fight over face. It is about the next generation

The government has clearly misread the situation. Yes, the disgruntled parents made a tactical mistake in going over to pan-democratic legislators for support. Thus labelled, a protest action is virtually dead on arrival. The government stops listening, and both sides dig in their heels.

Under relentless pressure, the education secretary is finally ordering the setting up of a committee to review the viability of TSA. This buys the government some time. But why not suspend it to give everybody temporary relief?

Officials forget that this protest is driven by parents who reject the loss of their children’s childhood to a cruel and unnecessary test that has little proven educational value. With social harmony almost non-existent, we must all relearn the virtues of tolerance. Besides, being at loggerheads with end-users is never good politics.

In a knee-jerk reaction, rattled officials view the protest as another anti-government action. The dispute could have been quickly defused by sympathetic listening.

Local educators should heed the words of Phyllis Wise, the Chinese-American former chancellor of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. She recently offered this comparison of how business and education turn out their products. McDonald’s, for instance, ensures that every hamburger is of the same size, shape and taste, whereas a school seeks to produce students who are true to their own individual character and promise. By subjecting children to a cookie-cutter set of tests, our schools are giving them the McDonald’s treatment.

This stand-off is not making the chief executive any friends. It is playing into the hands of pan-democrats. Leung Chun-ying doesn’t owe any allegiance to a system that is not even of his making. Why antagonise parents who are essentially forces of stability in society?

In politics, decision-makers who are unresponsive to genuine grievances have a short shelf life. The public will tolerate missteps, if you are big enough to own up to them. What is not acceptable is to defy common sense, evidence and reason. Education is not a contest of egos or a fight over face. It is about the next generation. Those who betray this ideal are in the wrong business, pure and simple.

Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of HKUST. [email protected]