Every year, right around the beginning of summer break, a significant portion of the Hong Kong population engages in an extreme sport called breath-holding – when students waiting for secondary school placement or Diploma of Secondary Education exam results and their parents are put through the torture of holding their breath and sleep deprivation.
And every year, I find myself asking the same question: does it have to be this way? This cruel punishment has become part of life, but the question is: are our students and parents better for it?
But these are just two of the many hurdles youngsters and their guardians have to cross. We put them through the skewer just months after babies are born. The baby gyms and playgroups make sure we train our young to jump through hoops to prove themselves protégés. And this continues throughout the school years.
We’ve come to just accept it. Parents rarely complain any more because that takes time and energy away from fighting the system. And that system determines their children’s paths as early as kindergarten – either you are deemed top-performers or you are under-performers.
Richard Choy Wai-chak, a top scorer in the DSE exam, and his classmates at Queen’s College in Hong Kong on July 12. Photo: David Wong
The reality is that we have an uber-elitist education system. We talk about study stress and youth suicide, but just take a look at the perfect DSE scorers – rather, the schools that churn them out – and we know that getting a place in one of our “elite schools”, ideally by first grade, is most important.
Parents talk about “winning at the starting line”; our children are deemed winners or losers as soon as they start primary school. It’s a test of how resourceful parents are.
The decline in mental health among children in Hong Kong, and parents being pushed to breaking point, have made headlines, but the government has done too little.
Further, our education system does not fully prepare students for the world outside of school or after graduation, and that world is most definitely not their oyster. When even university graduates find themselves stuck with limited career options, on the “slow track” on the job and earning ladders, what happens to those deemed under-performers from the get-go?
A Kwai Shing Lutheran primary school student and her parents are pleased with her secondary school allocation result, on July 11. Competition is a fact of life for Hong Kong children. Photo: Xiaomei Chen
Hong Kong is said to have developed a “youth problem”. We would be deluding ourselves if we believe that the education system isn’t a huge part of it.
If the system doesn’t brand and label our kids at such a tender age, instil social stigmatisation along with the warped values attached to test scores so early on in life, then perhaps our children would not be suffering the early onset of hopelessness, frustration and disillusionment.
They say hard work pays off. They say it’s not about the test scores. Yet, our system is all about a very narrow set of test scores. They say Hong Kong is a pluralist society, but our elitist education system proves otherwise. They say young people are supposed to dream, but students barely have enough time to sleep, let alone dream. Our students are given too much lip service and not enough of the real tools and opportunities they need for life outside of campuses.
Our students are judged by numbers, not by their talents, passions, or character. And yet, we’re still trying to figure out why our youths have issues with their identity.
It’s not the lack of “Chinese-ness” in the curriculum that is the crux of the problem. No amount of national education or youth development programmes can address the “youth problem” unless we stop labelling our students, reducing them to mere test-takers and feeding them institutionalised hypocrisy.
Our students aren’t failing us. We are failing them.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
How will Hong Kong youngsters dream if they can barely sleep?