Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Switch off the smartphones, to save children from tech addiction

CommentInsight & Opinion

Robert Badal says social media and smartphone technology are inherently addictive, and e-learning might do more harm than good. Parents and teachers need to lead by example in the fight against device overuse


January 2: the World Health Organisation listed “gaming disorder” as a mental health condition under its International Classification of Diseases.

January 6: the California State Teacher’s Retirement System wrote to Apple demanding restrictions to children’s smartphone access and support for research, citing a range of serious mental health issues connected to smartphone use supported by clinical studies.

Soon after, former Apple executive Tony Fadell, “the father of the iPod”, slammed internet and social media companies for creating widespread addiction that Steve Jobs would have opposed.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dr Sherry Turkle called this rising storm “a bottom-up backlash”. She wrote a prophetic book in 2011 Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, warning of the psychological and societal damage that is omnipresent now.

It is the nature of the beast. One of my students, Hoi Yan Shek, a Columbia University economics major, nailed it: “The key performance indicator of tech firms is the amount of time users spend and their engagement. This directly affects a company’s stock price. Tech firms must be dedicated to getting users addicted.”

And we have all been fatalistically complaisant. I was a California public school teacher when president George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act mandated classroom technology utilisation. Companies churned out e-learning gizmos that we had to deploy in our lessons. Later, as a university professor in Japan, great fanfare accompanied the new computer room’s unveiling: row after row of boxy, now obsolete, desktops. Core skills – reading comprehension or writing – were never the rationale. The pitch was some variation of the need to “expose students to technology”.

Students use iPads during a lesson at the United Christian College (Kowloon East), in Hong Kong. Photo: Thomas YauPart of this was to address poorer students’ unequal access to technology. But this argument is outdated. Now anyone can step into a shop and walk out holding a more powerful device than that entire roomful of desktops.

Ironically, the impetus propelling educational technology today is the opposite of altruism. E-learning is designed either to sell gizmos or replace paid teachers because it can be mass duplicated: cheap economies-of-scale “education”.

A newer argument for technology in schools is that students love smartphones, so they belong in the classroom – again, with no objective studies about consequences.

How many other “tech advances” with questionable effects have we unquestioningly swallowed?

The cause of tech addiction is its intrinsic addictiveness and the unhesitating belief in technology’s benefits. The standard response to the problems is to rhapsodise about the amazing “possibilities” of tech and recite “all we need is education in its proper use”. Really?

There has never been anything to match the intimate, innately addictive nature of this new technology – or anything with such profound effects that was embraced so recklessly on such a mass scale.

PostComparing it to the appearance of television is absurd: families used to watch programmes together. They didn’t take their TV to school or work. The old flip phones were pocketed until calls came in. Now, addicts compulsively clutch their devices, shutting out their surroundings. Their flashing smartphones usually ruin my Hong Kong cinema experience, despite the theatre’s on-screen “education” to switch off.

The oft-chanted reply with regards to children is that “parents are responsible”. True, but this is also another form of shifting the blame, exactly what the US gun lobby does after mass shootings. Product package warnings is another suggestion, but every cigarette pack now has gruesome warning images, yet Hong Kong is still choked with second-hand smoke.

Social media and smartphone technologies are carefully-crafted, always-with-you addictions. Founders of tech companies restrict their children’s access because they know how effective that built-in addictiveness is. A nine-year old with a smartphone won’t choose to read instead of play games or watch videos.

The “parents are responsible” slogan is an oversimplification. Their responsibility often translates into simply taking away the child’s phone, which backfires in schools where phones are permitted because there is always one child with the latest model, who immediately becomes “cool” and his or her device the object of envy. France is currently in the process of banning smartphones in primary and middle schools. A good start, but the solution for children is complex.

A child absorbs his or her environment, especially at home. “Educating” children about proper use is hopeless unless their home life reflects the message. Cellphone-addicted parents produce cellphone-addicted children. “Do as I say, don’t do as I do” doesn’t work – especially given the Hong Kong “delegating” parenting style of assigning a helper and tuition schools to be surrogate parents.

Parents must participate in their children’s education. There has been considerable documentation about the benefits of something I grew up with: parents reading with their children.

Parents are busy and may not be great readers, but the skills and attitudes engendered and the parent-child bond created outweigh the challenges. The sad truth of Dr Turkle’s book title, Alone Together, becomes painfully obvious when you see a family having dinner, not speaking, each engrossed in his or her phone.

One of the most damning references in the letter from the California State Teacher’s Retirement System to Apple was a study showing that children in a technology-free environment for five days had greater empathy afterwards. “If you don’t use it, lose it.” If we keep substituting technological experiences for real ones, we will lose everything.

Robert Badal is on Facebook at Ba Lao Shi Perfect English


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Why big data must be shared to realise Hong Kong’s smart city vision

CommentInsight & Opinion

Christine Loh says data transparency across government departments and access to information from private companies providing public services are needed to create a smart, sustainable city

Experts have warned that Hong Kong could slip behind in the use of big data. The challenge requires data sharing across government departments, so they can compare information and assess correlations for Hong Kong to function better across the board. Being a smart, sustainable city is all about maximising efficiency by saving as well as sharing resources.

Managing a city in the age of the internet of things requires governments to have the relevant data in the first place. In some cases, authorities have the data because essential services, such as electricity, water and transport, are provided by the public sector.

There are cases where all or some of those services are in private hands. Unless there are arrangements whereby private operators are required to provide the data to the authorities, accessing it is not easy.

In Hong Kong, electricity data belongs to private companies as power generation and supply are in private hands. While the electricity companies provide excellent services at a reasonable cost to users, they are not obliged to share all their data with the government. Now that energy saving has become a major part of the city’s climate-change efforts and creating a smart city is another policy objective, not having the data is an obvious hindrance.

The new schemes of control reached last year for the two electricity companies are more data transparent than before but there is room for improvement. Data for individual buildings would enable the government to draft sharper policies and help occupants be more energy efficient.

This contrasts with freshwater supply, which is provided by the Water Supplies Department, where the government has the full range of data to consider what it can do to save water. While it uses technology to identify leaks and get public water pipes fixed quickly, the department only stepped up dealing with private water pipe leaks after a highly critical Ombudsman report in 2015.

Another problem is the inability to raise water tariffs. The government is fully aware Hong Kong’s cheap water encourages wastage but fears legislators will object to any increase. So, the challenge in this case has not been the lack of data for analysis but the lack of will to deal with problems.

Mobility data presents other challenges. While the government is the largest shareholder of the MTR Corporation and can presumably access the data it needs, this is not the case for all other trips. Buses, minibuses, taxis and ferries are all operated by private companies. Small providers, such as minibus owners, may only collect minimal data.

Private companies providing public services say they can’t share data because of privacy issues or because it is commercially privileged information. In the case of water supplies, no one has complained about the government knowing how much water users consume or indeed waste. It is hard for the energy companies to make a case on privacy grounds. As regards whether releasing the data would lead to unfair competition between the two electricity providers, there could be arrangements whereby the full data could be given to the government on a confidential basis, which the government could then release publicly in a form that avoids unfair competition.

Transport data is mostly anonymous, although new services such as Uber don’t want anyone to access their personal ride histories. Even here, the companies can provide data without showing details about riders.

Data is king and it is a major policy issue for the government to work out with the private sector.

Christine Loh is chief development strategist and adjunct professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s Division of Environment and Sustainability

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How higher education in Hong Kong reinforces social inequalities

CommentInsight & Opinion

Paul Yip and Chenhong Peng say the sub-degree programmes that tend to attract youth from less-privileged backgrounds cost more to attend yet offer less wage potential than a full degree. It’s time for officials to do more to help those who fail to earn a government-funded university place

The higher education sector in Hong Kong has experienced substantial expansion in the past 30 years. In the early years of the colony, university education was aimed primarily at the Chinese elite who could take up a public service role after graduation. In 1965, just 2.2 per cent of the university-age cohort were enrolled in a degree programme.

It was not until the late 1980s that the government decided to expand the higher education sector. The first wave of reform came about by raising the number of publicly funded degree places.

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology was established in 1991. And, in 1994, three institutions – Hong Kong Polytechnic, City Polytechnic and Baptist College – were granted university status. As a result, the participation rate of students in publicly funded first-year, first-degree programmes grew from 8.8 per cent in 1989 to 18.1 per cent in 1996.

Then came the second wave of reform in 2001, in which private education providers were encouraged to offer self-financed sub-degree programmes. Including these associate degree programmes, the tertiary education participation rate nearly doubled, from 33 per cent in 2000 to 64 per cent in 2006.

On the whole, this expansion has raised the education level of Hong Kong society. But how has the huge increase in the supply of tertiary graduates affected wages? And how have the returns to tertiary education in Hong Kong – both at the degree and sub-degree levels – changed over the past 20 years?

To find out, we analysed data from the 1996, 2006 and 2016 population census reports, based on male workers aged 24 to 35. In 1996, holders of sub-degree certificates earned 40 per cent more than their secondary-school-educated counterparts. However, the earning difference slumped to 13 per cent in both 2006 and 2016. The decreased returns to a sub-degree tertiary education partially support the argument of credential inflation.

A sub-degree certificate also appears to confer little advantage in the labour market compared to a secondary-school certificate. This echoes the findings of the Education Bureau’s most recent survey of employer opinion on degree and sub-degree holders who graduated in 2013.

According to the survey report, employers gave sub-degree graduates a performance rating of 3.35 out of 5 on average. Among the nine major aspects of performance, they performed poorest in management skills (3.13 out of 5) and proficiency in English (3.15). Moreover, there was significant discrepancy between employers’ expectations and graduates’ performance in analytical and problem-solving skills, work attitude and interpersonal skill.

Degree holders fared marginally better than their sub-degree counterparts in terms of wage returns. In 1996, degree holders earned 70 per cent more than their secondary-school-educated counterparts. The earning difference fell to 42 per cent in 2006 and further dropped to 37 per cent in 2016.

In the employers’ survey, about 75 per cent of employers said they were satisfied with the performance of the degree holders they hired.

The transition from elite higher education to mass higher education in Hong Kong has primarily been achieved through the expansion of self-financed sub-degree programmes. The intake of full-time sub-degree students skyrocketed from 2,600 in 2000/2001 to 19,800 in 2014/2015.

A recent study found that in 2013, 30 per cent of the young people enrolling in a sub-degree programme came from families living below the poverty line. As sub-degree programmes are mainly self-financed and the annual tuition fee can be as high as HK$40,000 to HK$50,000, these young people would probably have to take out a loan to pay for their education. Despite such hefty investment, however, the returns are low.

By contrast, the increase in the publicly funded degree programmes has been rather stable. The student intake increased from 14,200 in 2000/2001 to 17,500 in 2014/2015. Almost half (48.2 per cent) of the young people enrolled came from the wealthiest 10 per cent of families, and only 7 per cent came from families living below the poverty line.

In summary, our analysis suggests that the higher education system, to some extent, exacerbates the level of inequality in Hong Kong. Students from rich families are more likely to enrol in publicly funded degree programmes and enjoy the higher returns they generate while students from poor families are more likely to enrol in a self-financed sub-degree programme, which only generates low returns.

It is the time for government to take a hard look at its higher education policy. It should try to improve the quality of self-financed sub-degree programmes, which would help to raise wage potential in the labour market.

Furthermore, some form of subsidy or compensation is necessary to enable children from disadvantaged families to enjoy greater access to publicly funded degree programmes.

In view of the substantial financial surplus this year, we should provide education and training for those who did not make the cut to a government-funded degree programme. Flexible financial support should be provided to the young people who want to improve their skills and education.

The window of opportunity for skills enhancement closes fast, especially for those aged 15 to 24. If they aren’t helped to improve themselves, they will find it hard to enjoy upward mobility. At the end of the day, Hong Kong will lose its edge if its young people don’t advance themselves.

Paul Yip is a chair professor (population health) and an associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Hong Kong. Chenhong Peng is a PhD student in HKU’s Department of Social Work and Social Administration

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Why inching forward on traffic fines and parking fees won’t halt Hong Kong’s congestion woes

CommentInsight & Opinion

Paul Stapleton says the government’s reluctance to substantially raise penalties for traffic violations and parking meter fees indicates a lack of commitment to curbing congestion and pollution. However, the unrestricted growth in the number of private cars on the roads is the core problem

Two news items last week illustrated the perverse logic of Hong Kong legislators regarding the realities of moving around the city. The first was the news of the 25 per cent increase in fines for five traffic violations.

On June 1 this year, drivers who violate one of the five, such as illegal U-turns, will pay a fine of HK$400, up from HK$320. The last time the fine was raised was in 1994. In other words, with the increase, the new fine hardly reaches 21st-century pricing levels once inflation is taken into account.

The government originally proposed a more reasonable, but still paltry and overly generous 50 per cent increase, which included several more infractions; however, a Legislative Council subcommittee of both pro-democracy and pro-establishment members, balked at this so the government had to settle for a measly 25 per cent.

The second item was about a proposed increase in parking meter fees. Similar to the increase for driving violations, the government proposed doubling the maximum metered parking fee, in existence since 1994, to at least HK$4 or HK$5 for every 15 minutes.

Once again, however, our elected officials found this increase too high and proposed a much smaller rise.

This myopic view held by our elected representatives in opposing reasonable increases in driving fines and fees is yet another example of legislators failing to see the forest for the trees. Here, the “trees” are the supposedly unfair penalties imposed on drivers.

The lawmakers’ rationale is that a large increase will only punish the poor, and commercial vehicle drivers. Instead, they argue that the solution is to increase the number of parking spaces. But this completely ignores the larger forest, which is the fact that car owners in Hong Kong represent less than 10 per cent of the population, yet they contribute a staggeringly oversized proportion to congestion and air pollution that is suffered innocently by the other 90 per cent.

Just what is wrong with penalising drivers of private vehicles in a city that has arguably the best public transport system in the world?

Most Hong Kong commuters use public transport, such as the MTR and public buses. Photo: Edward WongWith private vehicle growth at about three per cent a year (against negligible growth in the number of roads), why shouldn’t drivers of private vehicles be heavily penalised?

Higher fines and fees could act as an incentive for drivers to take public transport, which in turn would reduce congestion, all to the benefit of the eco-warriors taking the bus.

In effect, however, the raising of traffic fees and fines is a stopgap measure that does little to address the real problem, which is obviously that there are no controls on the number of private cars on the road. With thousands more cars on our roads each year, more creative solutions are called for.

Here, our lawmakers need not reinvent the wheel. Both Singapore and London have successfully reduced congestion through electronic road pricing. The model has been tried and tested. All we need is the leadership to take the first steps.

Several years ago, when I moved into a New Territories flat that overlooks an expressway, traffic jams below my apartment were rare. In the past couple of years, casual glances out of the window inform me they are much more frequent during rush hour, and almost guaranteed when the weather is wet. With dozens more cars coming on our roads every single day without any new roads being constructed, this is both unsurprising and unsustainable.

Driving in this city is not a necessity; it is a privilege, and the makeshift increases in fines and parking fees do nothing to address the underlying problem.

Isn’t it time for our leaders to consider the other 95 per cent who stand on motionless buses during their daily commute while breathing in the exhaust of all those private cars?

Paul Stapleton comments on local social and environmental issues

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Don’t rush to judge Hong Kong justice chief Teresa Cheng over her illegal structures scandal

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Grenville Cross says other ministers have continued to serve after illegal structures were unearthed at their homes, and all the evidence must be considered before Teresa Cheng faces charges or is forced to resign

Although new Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah finds herself in hot water over the illegal structures at her home and that of her husband, Oscar Poon Lok-to, some perspective is nonetheless essential. However reprehensible, illegal structures at ministers’ homes have not previously been treated as a resignation – or a prosecution – issue, and Cheng should not be treated differently.

The Buildings Ordinance (section 14) provides that building work shall not be carried out without the permission of the Building Authority, and that anyone contravening this is liable – unless the work is minor – to a fine of HK$400,000 (US$51,000) and imprisonment for two years on conviction. However, Cheng insists that the changes had already been made when she bought the property, and that there was nothing suspicious about them. If true, they must have been of a high standard, or Cheng, a qualified engineer, would presumably have realised something was amiss.

Once it becomes aware of illegal structures, the Buildings Department has a general policy to apparently issue removal orders rather than rushing to prosecution, which would probably overload the system, given the scale of the problem. Prosecution may be unavoidable if the changes are vast, as with the “underground palace” basement discovered in 2011 at the Kowloon Tong home of the former Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen. Tang’s wife, Lisa Kuo Yu-chin, who accepted responsibility for its construction, was fined HK$110,000.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, has, however, concluded that Cheng’s integrity is not an issue, reflecting her previous stance on this issue.

In 2012, for example, when then-chief executive Leung Chun-ying apologised after illegal structures were discovered at his Peak home, blaming “negligence” on his part, Lam, then chief secretary, declared that his integrity was not in question. A rap over the knuckles has always sufficed for officials with illegal structures, provided they take remedial action.

While then food and health secretary Ko Wing-man apologised in 2012 for not seeking approval before merging his two penthouse flats in Kowloon Tong, Exco member (now convenor) Bernard Chan admitted that a rooftop trellis and balcony canopies at his Happy Valley home were illegal, but said they were being demolished. Then-education minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung even apologised for having failed to remove an unauthorised extension at his Happy Valley home for five years, and for disregarding a demolition notice issued in 2006 by the Buildings Department, for which, bizarrely, he was responsible.

Since illegal structures are a clear problem for ministers and an embarrassment for the government, it beggars belief that the issue was not apparently canvassed when Cheng was positively vetted. Had she lied when asked about the structures, this would be an integrity issue, but there is no evidence of that.

If, however, Cheng deliberately misled the bank when signing the mortgage document in 2008, by concealing the existence of the 538 sq ft basement, this would put a very different complexion on things, but that is certainly not the only possibility. The basement may not have been revealed because it was not thought necessary, or because of an oversight, or because it did not exist at that time, and was only constructed thereafter, and the police investigation must now determine where the truth lies.

What is, however, unprecedented is that, once the Buildings Department and the police have completed their respective inquiries, newly appointed director of public prosecutions David Leung Cheuk-yin will have to decide on the possible criminality of his own boss, who is also the official in overall charge of public prosecutions. This will clearly place Leung in an invidious position and, yet again, the need for Hong Kong to have an independent public prosecutions department, as elsewhere, is vividly underscored. Assuming she survives her present ordeal, Cheng will hopefully have the courage to go down this path.

Cheng will, presumably, recuse herself from any involvement in the processing of her own case – and Poon’s – and the public should be assured of this. Leung will need to ensure that everything is done to demonstrate that Cheng’s case is handled appropriately, including greater transparency by the Justice Department. Outside legal advice will need to be obtained, both on the strength of the evidence and on any public interest considerations which may arise. If a decision is taken not to prosecute, the public will need a clear explanation.

In the meantime, an unseemly rush to judgment must be avoided.

Former Hong Kong secretary for development Mak Chai-kwong leaves the Court of Final Appeal in Central in January 2016. In 2012, Mak was accused of taking advantage of the

In 2012, after just 12 days in office, secretary for development Mak Chaikwong, an eminent public servant of vast experience, was hounded out after frenzied allegations that he had abused the civil service housing allowance system in the 1980s. It took him almost four painful years to clear his name, but this he did in the Court of Final Appeal in 2016, but by that time it was too late for him to resume his career.

Cheng also has formidable credentials, and it would be a travesty of justice if she were to be treated in a similar fashion. She must receive due process, and the investigations must take their course. Although the time may come when Cheng has no option but to step down, that point has not yet been reached, and it would be a great loss for Hong Kong if she departed prematurely.

Grenville Cross SC is a criminal justice analyst