By Siddiq Bazarwala
Although belonging to an immigrant group known for its ability to converse fluently in Cantonese, most second-generation Indians and Pakistanis – despite speaking no less than three languages – have not been given the right opportunities to thrive, much to the loss of myopic Hong Kong.
Those that can’t speak, read or write fluently struggle, because minorities at local schools are only taught to pass primary three level Cantonese – a misguided policy the government has only recently begun to recognise.
Meanwhile from schooling to employment, ethnic minorities who account for over 3.8 percent of the local population, or 254,700 residents, in Hong Kong continue to be considered outsiders. They are often discriminated against at job interviews, despite being very much part of Hong Kong’s historical fabric for more than 100 years.
I was born in Hong Kong at a local public hospital in the mid-70s and like most immigrants today spent my early years in sub-divided flats, no bigger than 120 square feet.
When I was aged eight, my family of five was allocated a 360 sq ft public housing unit in Tai Po, at a time when the Tolo Highway was still under construction. In fact as I recall, the daily commute to a government-subsidised primary school via the hilly Tai Po Road took over 75 minutes, one-way.
While cities transform themselves to reflect changing times – and Hong Kong has indeed changed a lot over the last three decades – very little has changed during this period in government policy towards integrating ethnic minorities.
Granted, there are today many more schools and community initiatives for minorities, but these social services are either available only in certain districts or targeted towards low-income families. The vast majority of minorities living across the economic strata are left well outside the fold.
On the educational front, why can India, Pakistan and the Philippines produce so many IT professionals, but Hong Kong is not able to do the same with its locally born and raised Indian, Pakistani and Filipino students?
Meanwhile, discrimination when seeking employment remains as big an issue as it ever was, rendering futile the real purpose of the toothless Equal Opportunities Commission. A lot more could be done by a sincere government-led campaign to promote the hiring of people from diverse backgrounds.
Although economic experts have repeatedly stressed the need to diversify away from our over-dependence on China, little has changed since the 1997 handover, except perhaps that we have given China a much tighter embrace.
Instead, like Singapore, we should be simultaneously building stronger business links with our Asian neighbours: key countries like India, other parts of the Sub-continent, Indonesia and the Philippines. We have a large number of workers (read ambassadors) from these countries.
As an example, if overseas workers in Hong Kong who remit the bulk of their earnings back to their home countries monthly were offered small, flexible, safe and regulated investment and entrepreneurial options here in Hong Kong, the spillover benefits in terms of job creation for the local Hong Kong economy would no doubt be huge.
During the Manila bus hostage crisis in 2010 Philippines President Aquino turned down a request for a phone call from Donald Tsang, our then-chief executive, saying he did not know who he was. This should have served as one of many painful reminders of Hong Kong’s irrelevance in international affairs.
Today, Hong Kong still remains oblivious – proud of its tall skyscrapers, financial centre and world-class infrastructure, turning a blind eye to its exorbitant rents, high cost of living, record high poverty and fragmentary education system.
While the government is proud of its white elephant projects, including the over-budget HK$110 billion HK-Zhuhai-Macau bridge as well as HK$85 billion high speed rail link, being built to bring us suffocatingly closer still to China, many people in Hong Kong no doubt feel HK$200 billion could have been better spent elsewhere.
Worthwhile public expenditure might include funding and subsidies to help alleviate the severe housing crisis, or fixing our test-focused education system, or building genuine bilateral links with countries beyond China, instead of sustaining the local construction and engineering industries.
Just over a week ago Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung announced plans to lower the Chinese language requirements for another 22 civil service positions. But the long-term solution lies in helping ethnic minorities to raise their proficiency to the same level as their Chinese peers by scrapping the parallel GCSE exam for ethnic minorities, and allocating sufficient resources to help them pass the higher DSE version of the exam, benefiting everyone in Hong Kong.
But empty statements by consecutive administrations have been made for the last 50 or more years, repeatedly failing to shrink the yawning wealth gap between the haves, the haves-not and the vast majority of Chinese and non-Chinese Hong Kong residents stuck in between.
There is a worsening wealth disparity between the small minority of ultra wealthy business people and the vast majority of Hong Kong residents, including ethnic minorities and migrants from China, who live in shoebox-sized flats while struggling to meet the rising cost of living. Property prices were high in the 70s too, but not as proportionally astronomical as they are today.
Granted, there are several doctors, teachers, police officers, TV actors, import/export entrepreneurs and white collar professionals from ethnic minorities today, demonstrating how a number of us have indeed found ways to thrive despite the challenges we had to overcome collectively as a minority group.
But there would be many more examples if the Hong Kong government developed an inclusive and holistic strategy to help minorities integrate from schooling to employment, and leverage the social, cultural and economic links of its non-Chinese residents to re-energise Asia’s world city.
Siddiq Bazarwala is a co-owner of FinTech startup in Hong Kong.