See the world from different perspectives
By Virginia Chi | January 2011
Hikathon 2010 photos.
Courtesy of the Hong Kong Unison.

How does it feel like when you are always in the minority with your interests being under-represented in the bigger group? Or when you are being discriminated just because you and your family were born in a place different from the place you are now residing?

This is perhaps not a situation familiar to local Chinese in Hong Kong, but not uncommon for the non-Chinese populace in our society. Of the 7.1 million people in Hong Kong, about five per cent are non-Chinese. That means one in every 20 persons is ethnic minorities.

To know more about the issue of ethnic minorities, a group of students and parents talked to Dr Stephen Fisher, JP, a former Director of the Social Welfare of the Hong Kong Government, in October 2010. After his retirement in 2009, Dr Fisher is now an elected Deputy Chairperson of the Hong Kong Unison, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), which is aimed at promoting racial harmony and equal opportunities in Hong Kong.

See the world from different perspectives
Hikathon 2010 photos.
Courtesy of the Hong Kong Unison.

"Just call me Stephen," Dr Fisher answered in a friendly manner when asked how he would like to be called during the interview. He then gave us an idea of what discrimination means in our daily life.

"When you go to see a doctor," he said, "you judge whether your doctor has the professional standard by checking on his or her professional training. That is a rational decision. When you want to drive, you acquire driving skills, and knowledge on traffic laws. After passing your driving tests, there you go onto the road.

"In some places in the world, however, women are not allowed to drive a car. Also, some employers in Hong Kong don't want to employ young women because they think it is easier for young women to become pregnant which will affect their performance at work. These are some examples of discrimination," he said, using references made by a judge when handling a discrimination case.

In another case, a Pakistani woman resident in Hong Kong could not find a job only because she could not open a bank account as required by an employer who wanted to hire her. Although she is a permanent resident holding a Hong Kong identity card and speaks some Cantonese, she could not open a bank account because of her Pakistani nationality.

According to Stephen, ethnic minorities do not include all non-Chinese in Hong Kong. They only include those non-Chinese who permanently live here, take Hong Kong as their home, but are economically and politically at a relatively disadvantageous position. They are mainly referred to people who originally came from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.

He said the problem of discrimination against ethnic minorities was not as serious in Hong Kong as that in some other places. He was quick to add, "Any level of racial discrimination is not acceptable because any kind of discrimination is unjust. It is not right to hurt other people just because they are in the minority."

A new role

Prior to his retirement, Stephen spent around eight years in senior positions in the Social Welfare Department, the Commission on Poverty and the former Home Affairs Department in the Hong Kong Government. He directly handled a range of issues including livelihood matters, human rights and anti-discrimination issues (in areas such as sex, family status, disability and race). As part of a Chinese delegation to the United Nations, Stephen had led a team representing the Hong Kong Government to submit a report on human rights to the United Nations.

Stephen was also heavily involved in the drafting, lobbying and promotion of the anti-discrimination legislation. Before the law was passed, he was transferred to another government post.

"I learned a lot in those years and realised the problems faced by the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Now that I have more time (after retirement), I would like to help them through my advocacy work at the Hong Kong Unison," he said.

Stephen has set some work targets in his new role. First, he wants to help the ethnic minorities to learn Chinese through the education system. Secondly, he calls for the relaxation of the requirements set by the government for applicants for civil service posts to be able to speak, write and read Chinese. And thirdly, he hopes to eliminate any discrimination against ethnic minorities from seeking social services.

Take education as an example. Non-Chinese students who do not attend specialised schools are now allocated to local schools under the same system for local Chinese, according to Stephen. With only around three to five of them in each local school and without much assistance, it is very difficult for them to catch up on their Chinese. This affects their academic performances, in turn, their chances of getting higher education, employment and better living standard in the long run, he said.

Stephen cited figures that show only one in 20 non-Chinese students got a pass in the previous Hong Kong Certificate of Education Examinations. "As the average passing rate of this group is far below that of the average local students, there must be some problems here.

"It is such a waste of resources. Like all other children, those of the ethnic minorities are also smart children. They should also be capable of studying well."

Find solution

Stephen has drawn on his own, or more accurately his daughter's, experience in trying to find a solution to the problem of racial discrimination. His daughter faced with the same problem when she went to school in Canada in 1986. Stephen took a seven-month-long stay in Vancouver when he was posted to be in charge of the Hong Kong Room at the 1986 Vancouver World Expo.

"The local school in Vancouver put my daughter in an immersion class where she received extra help for her English language skills. These classes were for students who started off learning English as a second language. When she was able to catch up, she was moved back to mainstream classes to attend lessons with all other local students.

"I can see a lot of merits in this arrangement. The other parents there did not reject us as they knew that their children could come into contact with different cultures at school," said Stephen.

Stephen's idea is to group non-Chinese students in Hong Kong into a smaller number of local schools with relatively better academic performance. With 15 to 20 students in one school, that would justify additional resources from the government to get one or two more teachers. These students could improve their Chinese more quickly with the extra help in their junior levels. As they improve their skills in Chinese, they can be moved to mainstream classes.

"Just like the situation in other countries, the other students will also benefit in this new setting by enjoying a richer community within the school," he said.

Asked whether people in Hong Kong would share a similar view with people in other places because of differences in cultures, Stephen said: "Culture can be changed. Like discrimination, it is a deep-rooted attitude. However, as it is something that involves people's mind, it can be changed."

A personal perspective

The man deeply involved with racial discrimination has his own family story to tell. Stephen's great-grandfather came from Bristol, a port city at the southwestern coast of England. In the 1880s, his great grandfather who worked on sailing ships travelled to Hong Kong and decided to stay here. He later became one of the four senior health officials at the then Sanitation Board which looked after the public health in Hong Kong. There were four geographical districts at that time: Hong Kong East, Hong Kong West, Kowloon East and Kowloon West.

Although his great-grandmother, grandparents and parents are all Chinese, Stephen was put in a French class when he was in Primary Five. When he entered into secondary school, he was not satisfied with his Chinese standard. He decided to move to another school to improve his Chinese skills. He studied Chinese mainly by himself while he was studying in university.

"I had a similar experience and I know where the problems are. I hope the children of the ethnic minorities do not have to go through the same difficult path and can study in the mainstream schools."

Lobby for support

For a veteran civil servant, Stephen knows better than anyone about the importance of political lobbying in influencing government policies.

"In political lobbying, as it is the case in many other countries, you first try to get help from people who have good network and contacts in the government. They can help arrange meetings with influential individuals for you. In some countries such as in the United States, you can employ companies to do that. In Hong Kong, however, accepting fee for the arrangement of such meeting is illegal.

"At the Hong Kong Unison, we write letters to offices of (Legislative) councillors and government officials to arrange meetings. We have started meeting some influential people. We share with them our thoughts, persuade them that the issues we are pursuing are significant and worth more attention. You try to raise the public's concern step by step, and hope that ultimately the idea we advocate will become part of the areas to be considered in policy-formulating and then policy being implemented," Stephen said.

Asked if he was satisfied with the work done so far, Stephen said he had only joined the Hong Kong Unison for a few months and more work needed to be done. The NGO does not receive funding or subsidies from the government. With the limited funds that it has raised, they have conducted Chinese classes for children of the ethnic minorities who are studying in kindergartens and primary schools. Their parents are also invited to join these Chinese classes. They also organise fun days and gatherings for the minorities groups.

How to help

How can a secondary school student or a Hong Kong citizen help?

"The simplest way," Stephen said, "is to start by asking yourself if you have any discrimination against others in your thoughts or behaviours. If the answer is yes, then ask yourself why and is it reasonable to do so?"

"When you witness a situation in which a person is being discriminated against by others, you may not have the courage to help the victim to act against the others but at least you do not follow others' behaviour blindly. That is the best you can do.

"If you really want to do more for social justice, you can become a volunteer in organisations that help the ethnic minorities," he said.

How parents can help guide young people to recognise and respect social justice and human rights?

"How parents treat other people has a direct effect on their children," Stephen said. He recalled a conversation with the late Szeto Wah, a well-known democracy advocate and former legislator in Hong Kong, when they were travelling on a minibus back many years ago. Stephen still remembered well what Szeto had told him. Szeto said: "God created man in his own image. At home, parents nurture their children based on their own image. Parents' actions and thoughts expressed, intended or not intended, are teaching their children certain beliefs and behaviours."

"In terms of discrimination," Stephen said, "therefore, how the parents treat the ethnic minorities will directly affect their children's attitude towards them."

Starting with the practical question of how to eliminate racial discrimination, the interview with Stephen brought up some bigger questions of how to live with each other. He kindly answered each question with clear explanation and real-life examples. The interview has given us a valuable lesson about the importance of reaching out to look for answers because the more we ask the more we realise how little we know about the world.

The interview was conducted by S4 students Tiffin Chung, Ryan Lam, Howard Suen and Justin Woo, and parents Virginia Chi and Teresa Hui.