Preparing Hong Kong’s education system for a multi-polar world

August 25, 2023 09:00

“The world, as we know it, is becoming increasingly multi-polar.”

This is a proposition oft-trotted out to describe or highlight the significance of events such as the ongoing BRICS Summit in Johannesburg, the war in Ukraine and the precise positions that the Global South opted for (or against) taking, and the increasing pluralisation and diversification of the primary currency in circulation in the world. A world where the USD no longer dominates, thanks to (offshore) RMB internationalisation, is no longer a far-fetched possibility. Some dub these ‘changes unseen in a century’; I call them the organic and natural byproducts of foreign policy follies of powers that have clearly over-reached, and the yearning for recognition and status of powers that have been under-represented at the world stage. A recalibration of sorts, if you will.

Yet where is Hong Kong in all of this? If our world is truly shifting away from being driven and dictated largely by an Anglo-American-Western hegemon, are our citizens - qua Hong Kongers - prepared for these drastic transformations? Are they geared up for the paradigm shifts that would be taking to our world and, specifically, our country, China? More importantly, are we equipping our next generation (and their descendants) with the ability to carpe diem and seize the opportunities that they could, in theory, grasp and forge into a genuine path ahead?

I remain cautiously pessimistic. I do not believe our education system is doing our youth a service - if anything, our atavistic and intransigent practices are holding them back.

Firstly, literacy remains a huge issue. If Hong Kong is to reorient itself towards Southeast Asia and the Gulf - which I believe is a matter of necessity and not of choice - then it is crucial that our graduates (from high school) are offered at least a chance at learning Arabic and Bahasa Indonesia/Melayu, two critical languages that would vastly bolster familiarity with and understanding of the cultures and idiosyncrasies of the peoples in, respectively, the Gulf and Indonesia/Malaysia. The imperative to learn extends beyond the domain of languages: we need workers who can navigate the complex quagmire and interpersonal dynamics constituting the political scenes in these countries, as well as possessing the subtler finesse to survive the environs of sprawling bureaucracy across both regions. There’s nothing wrong with bureaucracy; there’s everything wrong with those who refuse to or who cannot navigate it.

Secondly, Hong Kong must encourage its youth to think more discerningly and comprehensively about our society, as well as the world at large. It is not the case that the ‘West is best’, but it is equally not the case that everything and all to do with one country - whether it be their country, their friends’ country, or any other country fetishished in international discourse - can only be ‘right’. We could ill afford to nurture unthinking robots who are programmed to see only virtues and strengths in one state, and only flaws and defects in another. It is high time for balance, but also an appreciation that ultra-nationalism and doctrinaire propagation of stylised facts can in fact hamper, not advance, the interests of the public. Our youth should be given a chance at testing out thoughts of their own, whether it be in conducting public policy field studies or experiments, or critically evaluating and debating the substance of academic articles penned on the political economy of their very own city, and country (China). As much as the Liberal Studies (now defunct/scrapped) programme had gaping holes and flaws, its underlying ethos was admirable - with the intention of encouraging, as opposed to crowding out, open-ended and open-minded reflections upon public affairs.

Finally, we live in an era where the rise of advanced artificial intelligence is a pressing and real challenge. Teachers bear the responsibility of enabling their students to adapt to this ‘era of prompts’, where the primary determinant of our outputs - ten years into the future - will likely be a mixture of our ability to grasp the core value propositions and tenets of generative AI, as well as our capacity to ask the right ‘prompting questions’ to gain the much-needed response from the gen. AI. Knowing how and why to ask questions will be far more important than knowing the first-order skills concerning how to answer questions. Are our universities and schools ready? Are our students ready? I do not know - but it is high time that the powers that be began to take these questions seriously.

What can non-governmental actors do? This is a question that is oft-put to me. I would suggest that there is much that can be done. From non-governmental organisations and charities specialising in providing additional pro bono tutoring and training after school, to online e-learning platforms that are designed to facilitate the self-teaching of AI or AI-adjacent skills and knowledge, there is much that we - independent of the government - can in fact do. The question is not, “Is it feasible?”. It’s instead, “Are we willing?”

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Assistant Professor, HKU