Carrie Lam’s help for ethnic minorities is appreciated, but should only be the start
Shalini Mahtani says the current administration is taking unprecedented steps to help Hong Kong’s minorities, as are business leaders, but attitudes need to change among the general population
Under Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the Hong K ong government has taken more steps to improve the lives of Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities than any other administration since the 1997 handover. By setting up a steering committee on ethnic minorities chaired by Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, allocating HK$500 million towards improving Cantonese learning in schools, and increasing the number of ethnic minorities on government advisory bodies, there has indeed been positive change.
I would like to think that this change is because ethnic minorities – many of whom self-identify as “Hongkongers” – are far more engaged in demanding a better life for themselves. In the past, lobbying was exclusive to business groups and a few human rights-focused NGOs. In recent years, the landscape has shifted. There are far more NGOs, academics and individuals actively pushing for change.
But something else has also changed, and I think it is empathy in leadership.
Drawing from my many years of working with large companies on inclusion, I learned that this sort of shift happens for one of two reasons. One, because leadership sees the business case for being inclusive. And two, more importantly, because leadership is personally affected by the lack of diversity in the community. We do not know what exactly is driving the chief executive but, whatever it is, long may it continue.
There is no doubt that Hong Kong benefits economically from its racial diversity. Hong Kong has an acute talent sho rtage; the government knows that ethnic minorities have a higher birth rate than their Chinese counterparts and, if properly trained and skilled, can alleviate some of the problems caused by the shortage of labour. Increasingly, too, Hong Kong seeks to differentiate itself from other mainland cities, and our ethnic diversity is a unique asset.
Lam’s government is willing to listen and engage in dialogue. There is a recognition that we are part of Hong Kong, too.
That is not to say that things are perfect. The government can and should do more. With one in four ethnic minorities living in poverty, incremental change is not sufficient.
On the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, on March 21, we need to recognise that improving the lives of ethnic minorities involves a two-pronged approach.
One prong is focused on the minority population itself. Hong Kong’s efforts to date have been centred on this.
The second, and much more important, prong is to focus on the majority. This involves changing the mindsets of the ethnically Chinese population. Even as ethnic minority individuals have excelled, it has been despite discrimination – both explicit and implicit – and countless barriers to success imposed by classmates, peers, teachers, schools, universities, employers, retailers, landlords, and the list goes on.
Hong Kong’s leadership needs to be brave enough to address these negative stereotypes, which are the source of so many of the problems that ethnic minorities face. To do this, Lam and her team need to combine their empathy with a bold and coherent strategy.
Shalini Mahtani is co-chair of The Zubin Foundation . [email protected]