‘I think we are losing bargaining power’: warning to Hong Kong on innovation and technology

University of Science and Technology professor and member of Hong Kong’s high-powered ‘diversity list’ warns the window for Hong Kong to become economically self-sufficient is closing

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2016, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 April, 2016, 12:48am

The University of Science and Technology campus in Clear Water Bay was shrouded in April fog, but its myriad hallways and buildings remained familiar to Professor Naubahar Sharif – part of the very first cohort of students to step into the institution’s classrooms in 1991, and now a lecturer in the burgeoning field of innovation and technology development.

And just like the Hong Kong born and bred professor’s long history with his alma mater, Sharif also represents the Pakistani community’s entwined narrative with Hong Kong – despite the ethnic minorities’ limited say in the city’s affairs.

But hopes are that the non-Chinese local community’s lack of voice will soon change, with Sharif one of the 16 candidates on the “diversity list” revealed last month – an unprecedented registry of the ethnic minority community’s cream-of-the-crop able to sit on government advisory bodies.

All candidates self-nominated for the list to demonstrate their dedication and willingness, along with their qualifications.

The list, compiled by the Zubin Foundation with leading global executive search Spencer Stuart, is an attempt to address the extreme under-representation of the city’s non-Chinese, non-white population on its consultation boards. Just 0.4 per cent of such advisory board members are non-white ethnic minorities.

While he represents an ethnic minority, Professor Sharif is eager to contribute in his area of expertise.

“Ethnic minority rights aren’t really my expertise,” he said. “I’d like to be on government advisory boards related to innovation and technology … that’s where I can contribute the most.”

The list’s aim is to have ethnic minorities be considered not because of their race, but because of their abilities to contribute to the discussion in their fields of expertise, and to add a dimension of cultural diversity to the mix.

The China connection was both a blessing and a curse … and in the long run, it did more damage than good to the city

The professor’s expertise may as well come in use with Hong Kong’s newly established Innovation and Technology Bureau and the administration’s proclamation that it would focus its energies in developing the field.

Sharif critiqued Hong Kong for being slow to jump on the innovation bandwagon, attributing it to the city’s good fortune of having a “special position” with China, which enabled it to rest on its laurels.

“The China connection was both a blessing and a curse … and in the long run, it did more damage than good to the city,” he said.

Hong Kong was able to expand its economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s by moving factories into China, effectively cutting costs and allowed many local businessmen to earn money, he said.

The city also developed an over-reliance on the banking and finance sector – a traditionally strong area – as a safe investment portal for worldwide investors interested in China.

These developments meant there was little need to be creative and innovative.

“The advantage had entrenched us in our old ways … it was 30 more years of the same thing … that Hongkongers are reluctant to change,” he said.

Diversity list: Foundation to publish list of ethnic minority representatives willing to serve on government committees

Compared to South Korea which developed technology and related manufacturing; Taiwan which developed value-adding industries; and Singapore which developed biotechnology – all in the 1980s and 1990s, Hong Kong is very late among the “four asian tigers”, he said.

The policymakers also stuck to what the city knew and never pushed for growth, nor to diversify the economy, he said. The government did not look into investing in developing technology and high-value adding industries until much later.

Sharif said there remains a small window where Hong Kong can develop its technology and innovation, before the possibility of China withdrawing its special treatment of the city as cities in the mainland overtake Hong Kong’s in their economic importance.

Hong Kong took up 19 per cent of China’s GDP back in 1997, which dropped to just 2.6 per cent in 2014, he said.

The aim is that Hong Kong can be self-sufficient, stand on its own two legs

“I think we are losing bargaining power,” he said. “The aim is that Hong Kong can be self-sufficient, stand on its own two legs [in terms of the economy].”

Part of that would be to develop innovation and technology fields – and diversifying the economy into more value-adding industries.

Sharif himself chose to return to Hong Kong after his PhD despite having other offers at other schools, because of his attachment to his family and his identity as a Hongkonger.

Sharif’s father immigrated to Hong Kong in 1967 and followed by his mother and older siblings a few years later. The family settled down in Hong Kong, while his father worked hard to build a successful trading business.

He completed his undergraduate and masters degrees at the University of Science and Technology, and went on to complete his doctorate at Cornell University.

Sharif went to international primary and secondary schools. He said he understood bits of Cantonese, but the real learning came in university, where he was forced to learn the language – which he did.

“I’m fluent conversationally, but I cannot read nor write Chinese,” he said.

The lack of choices for non-Chinese children to learn Chinese as a second language was a major problem from Sharif’s school days to today. The professor and his wife had to go to great lengths to make sure their children had the opportunity to learn how to read and write traditional Chinese.

Language remained a major hurdle for ethnic minorities in both education and the workplace. There had been general criticism that government policies lacked a multicultural perspective.

Having ethnic minorities on advisory boards would to an extent alter that, said founder of Zubin Foundation Shalini Mahtani, the organisation which compiled the diversity list.

The list is made up of Indians – due to the minority’s larger and more well-established community, while Sharif is one of two Pakistanis also included.

“[The list] showcases suitable candidates which maybe the government haven’t been able to find on their own,” he added.

Sharif himself also said that he was fed up with the media and society for labelling all ethnic minorities as poor, uneducated and helpless.

“Ideally, representation [of non-Chinese members on the boards] would be in-sync, [in ratio] to the population,” he said, on what prompted him to offer himself as a candidate. “Part of being on those boards is also to be visible role model for other ethnic minority youth – who as we all know, some are struggling.”

“Hong Kong for me – for better or worse – is my home.”