Free universal primary education was introduced in Hong Kong only as recently as 1971. Consequently, significant numbers of people (the youngest are in their early 50s) are either completely illiterate, or so functionally compromised by the demands of the modern world that they might as well be. A far larger number – those fortunate enough to go to school at all – remain victims of misguided educational policies that ensured their competence in either standard written Chinese or English was insufficient to fully benefit from either language as an effective intellectual tool. How did this wasteful state of affairs eventuate? For decades, Cantonese was used as a medium of instruction in primary schools, with English taught as a second language. Those students whose grasp of English was deemed sufficient would switch to English-medium instruction from Form 1. Intermittent proposals in the 1970s and 80s to introduce fullcourse Cantonese-medium instruction for everybody, with English learned as a second language, were heavily resisted by church- and missionary-funded organisations, which operated English-medium secondary institutions. As major parallel and supplementary education providers, these “elite” schools carried considerable weight in the formation of government policy. Changing linguistic “lanes” at Form 1 was disastrous for many students. In their formative years, many found it virtually impossible to develop intellectually in an acquired language context. Unable to keep up with instruction in a foreign tongue that most had no real exposure to outside the classroom, otherwise capable students simply gave up and entered the workforce, taking jobs far below their true capacity. Heavy reliance on rote-learning techniques enabled others to somehow cross the finish line, but not without tremendous intellectual stunting. Local secondary-level graduates were trained to remember – not to think critically and independently. And the negative effects carried on into higher education and the workplace. At university level, particularly in arts subjects, tutorials and seminars for most local students became a waste of everyone’s time. Term papers that should have been failed due to rank plagiarism were routinely awarded passing grades. This was my personal observation, 20 years ago, as a history undergraduate at the University of Hong Kong. Thoughtful, self-aware students became embittered, as it steadily dawned on them that, for the sake of learning a foreign, “international” language, they had been cut off educationally from their own cultural mainstream, which was, in turn, often openly devalued in the institutions they attended. While the usual conspiracy theories (“this policy deliberately kept the Chinese down”) overstate the issue, it’s clear how these feelings arose. The 90s witnessed a huge flight of Hong Kong’s middle class to local international schools, where critical thinking was encouraged. Partly caused by emigration plans to Canada or Australia in the lead-up to the handover, and partly enabled by an increase in available school places, usually parents took a clear-eyed, experience-based decision. They recognised that, even at its best, the local education system no longer delivered an acceptable standard for a rapidly changing world.