Generation 40s – 四十世代

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20 years on, and the fight against prejudice and bias continues in Hong Kong

CommentInsight & Opinion
Alfred C.M. Chan urges the government to address reforms to anti-discrimination laws, as suggested by the Equal Opportunities Commission, because equality also makes good business sense

In seemingly the blink of an eye, the Equal Opportunities Commission has completed 20 years of serving the Hong Kong community. On December 20, 1996, the Sex Discrimination Ordinance, under which the commission was established, came into full force when its employment-related provisions became effective. Since then, the EOC has been implementing the four related ordinances to give voice to those facing discrimination on the grounds of their sex, marital status, family status, pregnancy, disability and race.

In the 20 years to August this year, the EOC had handled more than 13,300 complaints and innumerable inquiries, and secured over HK$100 million in compensation for the complainants, as well as other forms of redress through conciliation and legal action.

While these figures represent the commission’s achievements through the years, a more important part of the work – perhaps less quantifiable and tangible – is to encourage social change. This is because prejudice, bigotry and often traditions are the biggest enemies of equality. For discrimination to be defeated, mindsets have to be reformed, and it is best done through education – one of our key areas of work.

However, since some of its work clashes with deep-rooted social values and the vested interests of different groups, the EOC faces controversies and opposition from time to time. For example, the judicial review initiated against the Education Department  on the Secondary School Places Allocation System in 2000 and, more recently, the advocacy for better protection for the rights of LGBTI  (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex) people, have stirred vigorous, and at times acrimonious, social debates.

Despite the sometimes controversial nature of its work, the commission has gained increasing recognition from society at large. Two decades ago, few were aware of its existence. Today, many understand the values it stands for and defends.

The latest Equal Opportunities Awareness Survey, results of which were released in July, showed 98 per cent of respondents were able, upon prompting, to identify the EOC as the organisation tasked with promoting equal opportunities and eliminating discrimination in Hong Kong. This can be compared to 95 per cent in 2007 and 87 per cent in 1998.

Contrary to popular belief that equality is merely “decorative” for a money-driven city like Hong Kong, equality actually makes good business sense.

In recent years, there has been a conscious movement for diversity and inclusion policies to be made explicit among high-flying businesses  across a number of sectors, including finance and banking, law, information technology, and design and fashion.

The rationale is simple: people should be valued for what they are capable of, rather than who they are, because talented people find better incentives to contribute to a society where they feel welcome and at home.

The big corporations in ”Asia’s world city” know very well that an anti-discrimination policy championed by the government is crucial for Hong Kong businesses to go global and stay competitive. It also implies that the EOC plays a significant role in shaping Hong Kong’s future. To maintain Hong Kong’s competitiveness, the commission finds it necessary to update anti-discrimination laws in tune with the times.

Migrant workers in Hong Kong march against being subjected to racial and sexist slurs, in April 2015. Photo: Franke Tsang

Between July and October 2014, the EOC consulted the public on their views on reforms to the existing anti-discrimination legislation, and submitted 73 recommendations, 27 of which were deemed of higher priority, to the government in March this year.

Apart from better safeguarding those vulnerable to discrimination, the reforms aim to make the scope of protection more comprehensive, and equal opportunity values a vital element of public policies.

We once again urge the government to seriously consider these recommendations, which Hong Kong gravely needs to live up to its reputation as a world-class, civilised and developed society, and revise the legislation to offer all those living and doing business in Hong Kong the protection they deserve.

For my part, I feel fortunate to have arrived at the door of Hong Kong’s gatekeeper on the equality front as it reaches its 20-year milestone this year.

Alfred CM Chan is chairperson of the Equal Opportunities Commission

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First, a cabbie. Next, a legislator of South Asian descent in Hong Kong?

South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion

N. Balakrishnan

N. Balakrishnan says the election of London’s first Muslim mayor is proof of how prejudice can be overcome – and this will be true in our city, which recently welcomed its first Pakistani taxi driver

Two men surnamed Khan have made the news recently – one in Hong Kong, one in London. Both have a success story to tell, but the difference in what they aspired to speaks volumes about social progress and prejudice in the two cities.

Here in Hong Kong, Shehzad Mamood Khan has become the first Pakistani cab driver; in fact, he’s the only non-Chinese taxi driver in the city. In London, Sadiq Khan had loftier ambitions; he has just been elected as the first Muslim mayor of the city; in fact, he’s the first Muslim mayor of any major Western city. His father was a bus driver in London, so one could say that both Shehzad Mamood Khan and Sadiq Khan hail from the transport sector, even though they have ended up at very different points.

Perhaps South Asians have some sort of competitive advantage in the transport sector. The highest-ranking South Asian civil servant in Hong Kong, Haider Barma, a third-generation Hong Kong-born ethnic Indian – was transport secretary before disappearing from the civil service under “localisation rules” in 1996. One cannot help but wonder whether, with another South Asian transport secretary, a South Asian taxi driver would have emerged sooner.
If London can travel the road to integrate its minorities, so can Hong Kong

I do not wish to criticise too harshly the situation for ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. I remember how bad things were for ethnic minorities in London in the late 1970s when I was a student there and how it would have been unimaginable for a Pakistani Muslim to become mayor. So, if London can travel the road to integrate its minorities, so can Hong Kong.

As a student in the 1970s at the London School of Economics during the pre-Thatcher era, I noticed the city was experiencing visible signs of decay – in more ways than one. The majestic India House building nearby was streaked with black lines and soot, for one. And on one occasion, as I walked nearby, some people in a passing car shouted out: “Paki go home!” It was my first week there and it took me a while to figure out what they were shouting about, so naive was I about politics in Britain at the time. I had just arrived from the US, which is no stranger to racism – but at least no one ever shouted at me to go home.

Skinhead gangs of young white thugs roamed the streets and people in many ethnic ghettos, usually South Asians, lived in terror. I remember going to Brick Lane in East London and finding terrified Bangladeshi families living in boarded-up houses. Today, the area has been gentrified and is full of tourist attractions.

So if London can go from skinheads to a Pakistani mayor, there is hope for Hong Kong, where minorities do not live in fear of being attacked by Chinese gangs.

I would like to believe that I contributed in some small way to the elevation of a “Khan” when I helped elect Daud Khan as the first South Asian president of the LSE student union. The majority of the students were white at the time, proving even then that it was possible to overcome ethnic divisions.

In Hong Kong today, with direct election for many legislative constituencies, Pakistanis and Nepalis, with their numbers concentrated in certain areas such as Jordan and other economically disadvantaged districts, are emerging as important “swing” voters. Despite their small number, in a situation where the majority Chinese community is divided, minority votes can be the difference between victory and defeat. So in some cases, minorities are already punching above their weight here.

Who knows, one day, Hong Kong, too, might have its own Khan in a position of leadership. One of the campaign issues of London’s new mayor is to provide affordable housing to the masses, in a place that has become the capital city for the world’s capitalist class. So the masses of London and Hong Kong – especially the young – have one big thing in common: the hard-to-achieve ideal of “affordable” housing.

I have seen London transform itself from a place of “Paki Go Home” slogans to having a Muslim mayor. Let’s hope Hong Kong can travel down the same route and one day see a South Asian representative in the Legislative Council or even the Executive Council.

N. Balakrishnan is a Hong Kong-based businessman