Ethnic minorities marginalized by language barrier: study

September 23, 2015 19:13
Zubin Foundation chair Shalini Mahtani says Hong Kong ethnic minorities speak Cantonese very well. However, such skill is hardly enough for them to land a job as they also need to read and write Chinese well. Photo: RTHK

The language barrier is the biggest factor that marginalizes ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, according to a study prepared by the Zubin Foundation (小彬紀念基金會) and the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Comparative and Public and Law.

Thirty-four percent, or more than a third, of South Asians interviewed for the study said their inability to read and write Chinese makes it difficult for them to find jobs in the territory.

Shalini Mahtani (馬夏邐), chair of the Zubin Foundation, a non-profit think tank that focuses on local social issues, identified education as one of the key factors that affect the job prospects of ethnic minorities in the city.

In general, ethnic minorities are found to be less educated, tend to be overwhelmingly in low-skilled occupations, have lower income levels and are much more likely to be poor, Mahtani said.

This situation in turn has led to their discrimination and exclusion from economic opportunities available in the city, according to the study, which was released on Wednesday. It has also led to rising crime rates among them.

The report, entitled Status of Ethnic Minorities in Hong Kong (1997-2014), covers all areas affecting ethnic minorities, from employment and education to crime and health, providing a fairly comprehensive view of how the groups are being marginalized in the community.

From a historical perspective, early generations of ethnic minorities served as soldiers and law enforcement officers under the British colonial government.

However, after 1997 handover, an education policy that emphasizes the use of the mother tongue was adopted.

In 2003, the Chinese language was made compulsory for entry into civil service, further making it difficult for ethnic minorities to join the government.

The situation has been improving in recent years. Alternative language qualifications were allowed for ethnic minority members in civil service entrance and university admission exams in 2007 and 2008.

The report also found racial hierarchy in Hong Kong: the lighter the skin colour, the higher the chances of gaining public acceptance.

South Asians from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan were found to have a lower acceptance level, while Southeast Asians from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam have a comparatively higher level of acceptance.

Puja Kapai, director at the HKU Centre for Comparative and Public and Law, said the term ethnic minority is actually degrading and out of date, and urged the public to rethink the term, given that 63 percent of the young generation of ethnic minorities identify themselves both by their ethnic origin and as a Hong Kong person.

The history and contributions of ethnic minorities in Hong Kong should also be better recognized by including them in history textbooks, according to the study.

For instance, the Sikh and Nepalese communities played an instrumental role in defending and protecting Hong Kong.

Further studies on specific areas such as child poverty, domestic violence and crime are also needed.

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The study finds racial hierarchy in Hong Kong: the lighter the skin colour, the higher the chances of gaining public acceptance. Photo: The Zubin Foundation