Let’s be frank; for most Hongkongers, Southeast Asia – with the exception of Singapore – means three things: inexpensive beach-spa-and-sun holidays; remote (“backward”) places where the city’s legions of brown-skinned, easily exploited domestic helpers hail from; and the tropical lands where Hong Kong’s rice is grown.
And that’s it. The sprawling realities of an enormous geographical hinterland in all its ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, rich in culture with steadily growing economic and political significance to Hong Kong and the mainland, neatly reduced to a few simple clichés.
This short-sighted ignorance is by no means confined to the barely travelled and approximately educated, whose regional exposure is limited to a few socially acceptable holiday destinations such as Phuket or Bali; such views remain widespread among many who should know better.
As part of forthcoming Belt-and-Road initiatives, and in an attempt to prop up Hong Kong’s image-challenged higher education sector, the government has announced a far-reaching tertiary-level scholarship scheme for Southeast Asian students. As Hong Kong’s “international” university student contingent has gradually worked out over the past few years, beyond a fun semester or two, opportunities for self-discovery in a new city and an “overseas study experience” on their résumé, there are few compelling educational reasons to attend any of Hong Kong’s degree-issuing institutions.
From the late 19th century until the 1960s, promising students from neighbouring regions required no incentive to come here. Teenagers – many of them Eurasians – often came as boarders to Hong Kong’s leading Catholic or Anglican schools, usually with a view to eventual tertiary study here. Overall quality of education on offer in Hong Kong – allied to the lack of anything comparable in their home territories – was lure enough. But no more …
Evidence of long-standing Southeast Asian connections to Hong Kong’s educational institutions is easy enough to find. Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore all have enduring University of Hong Kong alumni associations. Until the University of Malaya was established, in 1948, no degree-issuing institution existed there, other than King Edward VII Medical College in Singapore.
As government support was limited in Hong Kong, private Southeast Asian philanthropy became vital to early institutions. The Malayan Chinese tin and rubber magnate (and, incidentally, Kuala Lumpur’s pre-eminent Triad leader) Loke Yew was a major donor to the University of Hong Kong. In grateful recognition, HKU’s main building was named after him. Tiger Balm millionaires Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par were also providers of generous scholarships and donations.
For some decades, Southeast Asia specialists were a noted presence in local academia. One leading scholar of modern Malaysia and Singapore, the late Professor C. Mary Turnbull, was based at HKU for many years. Others who had originally come to Hong Kong for further study remained here to work, and stayed on in retirement.
During my time at HKU in the mid-90s, the history department had an internationally renowned Southeast Asian specialist on the teaching staff. Unfortunately, almost no interest existed among the student body for what this professor’s knowledge could offer them. Professor X once ran his year-long Southeast Asian history survey course (a superb educational experience) for two students – myself and one other. Upon retirement a few years later, his extraordinary range of intellectual expertise was, sadly, not replaced. And this sorry state of affairs – of largely ignoring the serious study of Hong Kong’s “other” great natural hinterland – was allowed to happen, nearly 20 years ago, at Hong Kong’s premier institution of higher learning.