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Multicultural Education Review
ISSN: 2005-615X (Print) 2377-0031 (Online) Journal homepage:
Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education: How
Market Force Creates a Cultural Niche for Ethnic
Minority Students
Wai-chi Chee
To cite this article: Wai-chi Chee (2011) Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education: How Market
Force Creates a Cultural Niche for Ethnic Minority Students, Multicultural Education Review, 3:1,
To link to this article:
Published online: 16 Mar 2015.
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Date: 26 October 2017, At: 09:07
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education:
How Market Force Creates a Cultural Niche for
Ethnic Minority Students
Wai-chi Chee
The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong
In Singapore, wearing the tudung (Muslim headscarf) to public schools
is not allowed because, the Singaporean government argues, this will
jeopardize Singapore’s racial balance. Wearing the hijab to state schools
is also prohibited in France, given secularism as state policy. The Hong
Kong government, in contrast, does not ban wearing ethnic/religious
clothing to public sector schools, and claims that accommodating
diversity is a manifestation of ethnic harmony. Why such difference?
This paper examines Hong Kong’s embracing multicultural education as
an institutional response, under the threat of student shortage, to the new
challenge of neoliberal marketization of education, and argues that this
has resulted in empowering ethnic minority students to enjoy a niche of
freedom in religious and cultural expressions.
Keywords: multicultural education, ethnic minority education,
education reform, neoliberalism in education, nation building
It was lunch hour when I first went to this school in Hong Kong twelve
months ago to talk to the Principal about doing fieldwork on campus1.
Having taught for years in a school with all Chinese students, I found the
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
scene astonishing. Although the students were in school uniform, variations
caught my eyes: Chinese students, South Asian students, Southeast Asian
students; students in short-sleeved shirts, students in long-sleeved shirts,
students in dress, students in dress plus trousers; students wearing turbans,
students wearing headscarves, students wearing bindis, students wearing
beard, students putting on eye-lines, students having henna tattoos. On the
playground, girls in headscarves played volleyball; round the corner, a group
of South Asian students danced with what sounded like Indian music coming
from a CD player on the floor; up one floor, another group of Southeast
Asian students danced, I guessed, Filipino dance. I learned from the teachers
that what I had seen was a typical lunch break. They affirmed that the school
emphasizes an appreciation of the cultural diversity of the students.
This has led me to wonder why the tudung (Muslim headscarf) controversy
which happened in Singapore does not happen here, or why we do not have a
local version of the French ban on wearing the hijab to government-operated
schools. Let me give a brief account of the Singapore tudung controversy. On
the first day of the school year in 2002, four 6-year-old girls wearing Muslim
headscarves to school was considered challenging the national homogeneity.
It was reported as an act of “civil disobedience” in the mass media. On the
third day, all four girls were suspended from school. The Singaporean
government argues that the headscarf is not part of the school uniform and
that allowing exceptions will jeopardize Singapore’s racial balance. The then
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said, “Schools provide the common space for
us to mingle and socialize as Singaporeans, and not as Chinese, Eurasians,
Indians, Malays, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus or Muslims… If religious
clothing is allowed, our schools will become polarized along racial and
religious lines, as children will tend to mix with those who look and dress
similarly. Our efforts to build a nation will be severely set back” (Mydans,
2002). As Bokhorst-Heng (2007) has observed, Singapore avoids ethnicbased preferential policy to envision a nation of “unity in diversity” (p.635).
While Singapore’s nation-building hinges upon an institutionalized control of
racial balance, the French government embraces secularism as state policy.
The ban on conspicuous religious symbols from publicly-funded schools,
said to be targeting at hijab in particular, came into effect at the beginning of
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the new school year in 2004. The state of France argues that this is the application of the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.
The case of Singapore and France, where diverse identities are subordinated to promote a shared identity, demonstrates an identity-based multicultural education which points to the larger imperatives of imagining the
nation and nation building (Anderson, 1983). In contrast, Hong Kong seems
to have a different understanding of multicultural education which celebrates
diversity. This paper examines the Hong Kong version of understanding the
meaning and possibilities of multicultural education, and argues that its
multicultural education policies and practices are built on the logic of
neoliberalism, which sees the primary goal of education as enhancing the
competitive edge of Hong Kong in the global economy, and which proclaims
that education should operate as a free market. Under the threat of the decline
in Hong Kong’s student population, schools need to compete for students in
order to survive. Thus, the relaxed school uniform policy has to be
understood in the light of schools’ initiatives to accommodate differences as
the ethnic minority students have become an important source of student
intake for the less competitive schools, a number of which have shifted to be
designated schools for ethnic minority students in order to secure student
enrolment. The schools encourage students to express their different ethnic or
religious identities to show the cultural diversity of the schools, which is seen
to be a plus in attracting ethnic minority students. This market-based pragmatism accompanying Hong Kong’s education reform, I argue, has resulted in
empowering the ethnic minority students to enjoy a niche of freedom in
religious and cultural expressions. This speaks to the general conclusion of
the major works on the ethnic minorities in Hong Kong which claim that they
are subject to institutionalized discrimination and social exclusion (Frost,
2004; Ku, 2006; Ku, K. Chan, W. Chan, & Lee, 2003; Ku, Chan, & Karamjit,
2006; Ku, Chan, Karamjit, & Unison Hong Kong, 2005; Loper, 2004; Plüss,
2006; Wong & Mathews, 1997).
The school described at the beginning of this paper, which I will call
Bauhinia School, is a multi-ethnic government secondary school with ethnic
minority students predominantly from non-Chinese speaking communities.
There are about 1,000 students with the rough ethnic composition of: 40 per
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
cent Chinese, 15 per cent Filipino, 15per cent Pakistani, 10per cent Nepalese,
6 per cent Indian, 4 per cent British National (Overseas), and 10 per cent
others. It was the first school in Hong Kong where Hindi and Urdu languages
were introduced. Data for this article are largely drawn from my on-going
fieldwork, involving participant observation and semi-structured interviews,
at this and another secondary school admitting a large number of ethnic
minority students. Supplementary data came from semi-structured interviews
with three teachers teaching at two primary schools with a large majority of
ethnic minority students.
According to the 2006 Hong Kong population By-census, there were about
17,300 non-white non-Chinese ethnic minority students among the total of
some 961,000 students in the primary and secondary sectors of Hong Kong
(Census and Statistics Department, 2006). The white ethnic minority students
in Hong Kong, and to a large extent the students from affluent Asian
countries such as Japan, usually go to private sector international schools and
are therefore not the target of discussion of this paper. The ethnic minority
students in Hong Kong are officially known as Non-Chinese Speaking (NCS)
students. Since the South Asian students are the dominant group, NCS
students are commonly referred to as South Asian students in everyday use,
despite the fact that some of them are from Southeast Asia or other places.
In Hong Kong, the ethnic minority students’ right to wear ethnic dress to
public sector schools is decided upon by the school principal instead of the
state. The most common requests from parents include wearing Islamic
clothing for Muslim girls and turbans for Sikhs. My recent survey revealed
that only a few of the public sector schools in Hong Kong with a greater
number of NCS students refused to allow Muslim students to wear
headscarves. The general position of the schools, as demonstrated by
Bauhinia School above, is that they celebrate cultural diversity on campus
and state that mutual understanding and acceptance is the key to ethnic
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Mitchell (2003) has observed that neoliberalism in education calls attention to global competitiveness. The turning point for the marketization of
education in Hong Kong is the start of a series of education reforms marked
by the endorsement of The Reform Proposal for the Education System in
Hong Kong (Education Commission [EC], 2000) by Hong Kong’s first Chief
Executive Tung Chee Hwa, in his Policy Address in 2000. This proposal
spells out the need for education reform prompted by the challenges from
neighboring economies: “Our future lies in today’s education” (EC, 2000,
p.1), and “[t]he world is undergoing unprecedented changes… Hong Kong is
also facing tremendous challenges posed by a globalized economy… In the
tide of changes, everyone has to meet new challenges… an important mission
of education is to enhance the knowledge, ability, quality, cultivation and
international outlook of the people of Hong Kong” (p.3). The 2006 Progress
Report restates such need: “[t]he 21st Century sees us facing substantial
changes in the economic structure within a globalized world. To meet the
challenges posed by these unprecedented changes, education systems and
measures must progress in tandem to sustain the development of Hong Kong”
(EC, 2006, p.3).
The standardization and monitoring of quality education, covering the
scope of academic structure, curricula and assessment mechanism, involve
setting quality indicators, standardizing mechanisms for both self-evaluation
and external evaluation, enhancing transparency and performance-based
accountability, and bringing in different stakeholders. The measures introduced include on-line publication of the school profiles by the Committee on
Home-School Cooperation2, the Value-Added measures3 of secondary
schools, the School Management Initiatives4, and the External Review and
School Self Evaluation5.
The reform brings in the market rhetoric of choice, competitiveness, and
accountability, which is crystallized in the state policy of what is locally
known as “school killing,” where schools with inadequate student intake are
ordered to close down. Under the unfavorable situation of a shortage of
students as a result of the plummeting local birth rate, schools need to
Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
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compete among themselves for student enrolment. In this context, the NCS
students who were once excluded outside the mainstream education system
of Hong Kong have become an important source of student intake. I argue
that schools have resorted to admitting the NCS students as a pragmatic
survival tool, and hence accept that it is the school that should change to
adapt to the needs of the NCS students so as to attract them, instead of
requiring the NCS students to conform to the existing norms of the school.
Prior to 2004, NCS students did not participate in the Central Primary One
Admission System or the Secondary School Places Allocation System.
Instead, they were mostly allocated to 16 schools (9 secondary and 7 primary)
which the then Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB)6 suggested should
admit ethnic minority students and where the medium of instruction is
English. But in reality the choice was far below 16 because the top ones are
highly competitive, and as a result most NCS students went to a handful of
lower-banding schools which admitted NCS students.
Since 2004, there has been a change in the policy which has made it
eligible for NCS students to participate in the Primary One Admission
System and the Secondary School Places Allocation System, making it
possible for NCS students to choose mainstream local schools where the
medium of instruction is Chinese. The official statement is that NCS children
are encouraged to enroll in local schools to facilitate their integration into the
community as early as possible.
The Education Bureau document “Education for Non-Chinese Speaking
Children” (Education Bureau, 2009a, p.1) states that “[e]ligible children
between the ages of six and fifteen, irrespective of sex, ethnic origin,
religious or ethical belief, family status and physical or mental ability, have
the right to enjoy basic education in public sector schools. Starting from the
2008/09 school year, free education has been extended to include senior
secondary education provided by public sector secondary schools.”
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It is also affirmed that the government policy is to encourage NCS children
to study the local curriculum to integrate into the community as early as
possible and to align with the Government’s language policy of biliteracy
(written Chinese and English) and trilingualism (spoken Cantonese,
Putonghua and English). In the Hong Kong curriculum, Chinese is the
medium of instruction in most primary and secondary schools, with English
taught as a core subject from Primary One.
In accordance with this policy change in 2004, EMB has been inviting
schools which have admitted a critical mass of NCS students to become
“designated schools.” These schools are provided with extra financial and
professional support to enhance the learning and teaching of NCS students,
particularly in learning of the Chinese language. The support measures
include an annual recurrent grant of up to HK$600,0007 depending on the
number of NCS students, training program for Chinese language teachers in
primary schools, Chinese Language Learning Support Center to provide
remedial programs after school hours, and 4-week Summer Bridging
Program for Primary One to Four NCS students. The number of designated
schools have increased from 15 (10 primary and 5 secondary) in the school
year of 2006/07 to 28 (19 primary and 9 secondary) in 2010/11. Seventy
schools (58 primary and 12 secondary) admitting NCS students have formed
a support network, where the designated schools act as exemplars to share
There is a general trend towards a more inclusive education for NCS
students into the mainstream education. While it may be true that the change
in Primary One and Secondary One school place allocation had the aim to
help NCS students adapt to the local education system and integrate into the
community, what was happening in the education sector at the time sheds
light on the timing of this policy change. I argue that this policy change was
implemented at a time when the schools were threatened closure because of
the sharp decline in student enrolment and the policy was a timely measure to
relieve the threat.
The Hong Kong Annual Digest of Statistics, 2010 Edition (Census and
Statistics Department, 2010, pp. 290-291) reports a sharp decline in Primary
One student enrolment in public sector schools from about 69,400 in 1999 to
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
about 40,500 in 2009, a decrease of approximately 29,000 in just ten year’s
time. A similar plummet in Secondary One student population in public
sector schools is noted: from about 73,900 in 1999 to about 63,600 in 2009.
In the same year of the policy change in 2004, a total of 53,800 students
joined Primary One intake allocation exercise compared with 59,300 the
previous year, a drop of 5,500 students (Joanilho & Ng, 2004). The decline
has also been exacerbated by the arrival of fewer One-way Permit holders
from mainland China (immigrants from mainland China coming to Hong
Kong for settlement, mostly spouses and children for the purpose of family
reunion), probably as a result of the outbreak of the SARS8 epidemic in 2003.
The number of One-way Permit holders dropped from 53,507 in 2003 to
38,072 in 2004 (Home Affairs Department, 2005, p.7).
According to the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU),
more than 800 primary teachers lost jobs in 2004 because of the class cut
(HKPTU, 2004). In March 2004, EMB ordered 31 primary schools to stop
recruiting Primary One classes in the following academic year as a result of
the insufficient student intake. In general, a school is expected to close three
years after the cessation of its Primary One classes. In reality it is likely to
shut down sooner as existing students tend to change to other schools.
In reaction to EMB’s order, HKPTU and the Subsidized Primary Schools’
Council organized a series of protests against the closure of under-enrolled
primary schools, joined by more than 20 schools, with nearly 80,000 parents,
teachers and students (Chan, 2004; Joanilho & Ng, 2004).
For the 2003/04 school year, a school was not allowed to operate Primary
One classes if the total number of Primary One students allocated to the
school was less than 23. However, not all primary schools with fewer than 23
Primary One students had been ordered by EMB to stop operating Primary
One classes. EMB explained that schools were selected on the basis of the
results in the central school place allocation exercise. In other words, schools
which were less popular among parents would be the targets of closure.
The NCS students who first took part in the Primary One allocation
exercise in 2004 became an important source of student intake for the schools
facing the threat of closure. According to EMB, more than half of the 541
NCS students have chosen Chinese-medium primary schools. Of these 541
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students, 290 have been offered primary school places on a discretionary
basis9. Of the remaining 251 students, 168 have been allocated to Chinesemedium schools in the Central Allocation stage (Ng, 2004).
A teacher at one of the designated primary schools told me, “When we
were under the threat of closing down five years ago (in 2004), we decided to
apply to be a designated school to admit the South Asians. It was not easy;
many other schools fought for the South Asians and wanted to become one of
the designated schools to secure the number of student intake. We did a lot of
work and finally succeeded. Now about 80 per cent of our students are South
At present, the trend of the decline in enrolment still continues, and the
NCS students will likely to continue to be a significant source of student
intake for the less competitive schools. Moreover, the problem once faced by
primary schools has gradually extended to the secondary section. The
Education Bureau estimated that the number of Secondary One students will
decrease from roughly 63,600 in 2009 to 42,000 in 2014, a decrease of more
than 30 per cent (“Jiaoju,” 2009).
Three suggestions have been made to handle the problem of insufficient
student intake:
Restrict the number of secondary class to a maximum of four per
Reduce the number of students in each class
Allow the schools with insufficient student intake to change to
special schools, like designated schools for non-Chinese speaking
students (mostly South Asians)
The NCS students once again are seen as a remedial measure for the
under-enrolled schools, this time the secondary ones.
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When the designated schools make adaptation in curriculum planning,
teaching and other areas to admit NCS students, the general approach seems
to be accommodating for diversity since NCS students have different ethnic
and religious backgrounds. Five months ago, I started to do fieldwork at
another publicly-funded secondary designated school which I will call Lily
School. The school claims to be providing a multicultural educational
platform to broaden students’ international horizons and to nurture mutual
acceptance and appreciation. The principal said, “We have more than 1,400
students from more than a dozen of ethnic groups; it is important to
accommodate diversity and cultivate mutual acceptance to create a harmonious campus.”
The official guidelines to schools also encourage them to adopt an accommodating policy. As stated in the “Consultation Paper on Developing a
Supplementary Guide to the Chinese Language Curriculum for Non-Chinese
Speaking Students” by the Curriculum Development Council (CDC), “NCS
students coming from Pakistan, the Philippines, Nepal and India have
different religions, cuisines and costumes. When they learn Chinese language,
there will be different learning progress rates and ethnic needs.” (CDC, 2008,
p.22) In the section entitled “Religions” (pp.22-23), it is stated that:
Pakistanis are usually Islamic, Filipinos usually Catholic. Nepalese usually
believe in Buddhism or Hinduism while Indians in Hinduism or Sikhism.
In the design of teaching topics or classroom activities, teachers are
reminded to pay attention to the sensitive topics related to religion in order
to avoid unnecessary misunderstanding. Moreover, language requires
continuous learning and any cessation will affect the learning results.
Since there are different practices for different religions, some NCS
students may have to go back to their homeland to join religious activities
on certain designated dates. It is inevitable that their progress may be
affected if they miss the learning of Chinese language for a period of time.
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The section “Cuisines” (p.23) asserts that:
Teachers are reminded to heed students’ different cuisines in designing
teaching topics, selecting learning materials and arranging for cocurricular activities or outings. For example, Pakistanis mainly eat food
‫[ل‬ha laal] as permitted in the Koran, such as चपात [cha paa tee], curry,
but not to eat pork or drink alcohol. Filipinos have no particular restriction
over meals. Nepalese mainly eat rice, curry and दाल [daal], together with
‫[ا ر‬a chaar]. The eating habit of Indians is similar to Nepalese. They
mainly eat rice, curry, दाल and चपाती but do not eat beef.
And under the section “Costumes” (p.23), it is written that:
Pakistanis, Indians and Nepalese have their own unique national costumes,
while Filipinos wear fashionable clothing. Teachers are reminded to pay
extra attention to students’ emotion and to take care of students’ need
when differences between cultures are involved in the process of teaching.
The need to cater for differences and to promote harmony is declared again in
the section “Respect for Cultural Differences” under “Learning and Teaching
Strategies” (pp.47-48):
Education is to promote racial harmony, and “Respect for others” is one of
the key teaching tasks of Hong Kong education in Values and Attitude.
Such concept is covered in moral and civic education and is already
embedded in different Key Learning Areas or subjects. NCS students have
different religions, eating and drinking habits and costumes as well. When
teachers design curriculum or materials, diversified contents are encouraged and some sensitive topics of taboo should be avoided.
It has been observed that, during my fieldwork in Bauhinia School and
Lily School, students are allowed the freedom to carry out religious and
cultural practices such as wearing headscarf, turban, or beard. They are also
allowed other religious signs and objects, such as bindis, henna tattoos, eye
lines, pendants, rings and bracelets. Muslims students are excused for being
late for Friday afternoon classes because of their obligation to do prayers at a
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
mosque. Absence of leave is granted for students to return to their hometowns for important banquets or festivals.
These two schools emphasize the multi-ethnic environment and highlight
the importance of understanding and accepting diversity. Students are
encouraged to express their ethnic identity as long as they respect the
differences. As described at the beginning of this paper, in Bauhinia School,
during lunch hour, it is a common scene that students with the same ethnic
origin get together and enjoy themselves by engaging in ethnic dances or
listening to ethnic music. In Lily School, a week-long multicultural festival is
held annually where students are encouraged to wear their own costumes and
to present ethnic performances. There are also different ethnic food stalls.
This year the Principal was in charge of a food stall selling fried halal
(permissible food according to Islamic law) chicken wings. At the same
school, during “adaptation activities” which are part of the initiation program
for the newly-arrived students, the one thing that the teachers emphasize most
is probably “respect for others.”
It seems “respect for others” is also the standpoint taken by the designated
schools in general. A teacher at a primary designated school told me, “My
father is Pakistani and my mother Chinese, and I’m a Muslim. Very often my
colleagues turn to me for advice about Muslim practices when they’re not
sure. For instance, when they see a student wearing a certain item, they will
ask me whether it’s a religious sign or just a fashion accessory before they
decide they should allow it or not. If it’s a religious item, we’ll surely allow it.
Even if we’re not sure, we’ll still allow it as long as the parents request.”
In order to get a view of the bigger picture whether the relaxed uniform
policy of the two schools where I am doing fieldwork is also true in other
designated schools, I did a quick telephone survey about the uniform policy
of the 28 designated schools and managed to get response from 24. Only one
school said that students are not allowed any variations to the school uniform;
one school said that Muslim female students are allowed to wear trousers, but
not headscarves; and one the other way round, i.e., girls can wear headscarves but trousers are allowed only at special festivals. The rest of the
schools allow both trousers and headscarves (three request application from
parents beforehand). The uniform policy is relaxed in general even for
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schools with religious background. Among the schools which allow students
to wear headscarves, one is a Taoist school, three Catholic, and one Christian
Nationals’ Evangelist.
The religious or ethnic identity of students does not seem to be considered
to be posing any threat to the unity of the school, or the unity of society at
large. A frequent comment from teachers is that it is their religion and so it is
fine for them to stick to their religious obligations. The schools consider the
practical issues more than the religious concern. When asked about the
uniform policy, a school replied that in general Muslim girls are not expected
to wear headscarves until they go to Primary Five or Six (at the age of about
10), but the reason given has nothing to do with conforming to uniform.
Rather, the school just considers the potential danger of young kids wearing
scarves playing with each other, in the process their scarves may be pulled
and they may get hurt. Another school said that the uniform problem is not a
big concern for them, adding that the language problem is far more pressing.
It seems the general approach of the schools is to avoid confrontation and
to accommodate diversity, which is advantageous for them to attract more
NCS students and to comply with the official guidelines set by the Education
Bureau. They would rather direct their energy into solving other more “real”
problems like language proficiency and academic performance.
I believe the Education Bureau approves the leeway for the relaxed
uniform policy because it helps the government to look good. On the one
hand, it goes in line with the state’s advocating Hong Kong as a global
metropolis which celebrates cultural diversity (though many have argued that
under the veneer Hong Kong is very much a Chinese city; for instance, see
Ku, 2006; Plüss, 2006). On the other hand, it provides an English environment on campus; English has always been highly valued by parents and the
society in general as an important asset for upward social mobility and to
maintain Hong Kong’s status as an international city.
Schools in Hong Kong in general accept there are diversities among NCS
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
students and do not feel the need for standardization. I have argued that NCS
students have gradually entered the mainstream education in Hong Kong
largely as a result of the education sector’s response to the challenge of
student shortage. These schools see NCS students as an important determinant of their survival, and the general approach is to change the existing
school practices to adapt to the students’ needs, instead of requiring the
students to adapt to the school.
When a school decides to apply to be a designated school, they are aware
that they need to change to cater for a different group of students. The change
is usually tremendous. A teacher of a designated schools said, “It was like
turning the school upside down. We changed the curriculum, the teaching
materials, the school rules… and our mentality.” So, to them, variations in
the uniform are just a minor change among the major ones. And in general
schools do not see it as an important concern when they have something
more difficult to handle. Most of the schools quote language as their primary
Cultural diversity is encouraged on campus; it is seen as one important
characteristic of designated schools to attract NCS students. By emphasizing
diversity it is easier for the school to accommodate differences, and the
school need not take the trouble to set “standards,” which is something they
do not know how to handle. By accepting varieties, they also avoid the risk of
confrontation with parents which, as some teachers told me, is their worst
nightmare. Some schools take an even more positive view that such diversity
attracts not only NCS students but also local students, since their medium of
instruction is English.
In general, English-medium schools are considered to be superior to
Chinese-medium schools. In 1998, after Hong Kong’s handover to China, the
then EMB made it mandatory for secondary schools to use Chinese as the
medium of instruction. Only those schools which “have been operating
successfully with English-medium teaching and have good results”
(Education Department, 1997, p.3) could apply for exemption on condition
that they met certain requirements concerning students’ English proficiency,
teachers’ capability to use English as the medium of instruction and other
support strategies and programs (pp. 4-5). Initially 100 schools were granted
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permission to use English as the medium of instruction; after a series of
protests and appeals, a total of 114 were finally classified as English Medium
(EMI) schools. All the 114 EMI schools, without any exception, were Band 1
schools10. The message was clear: only the best can learn in English. Choi
(2005) argues rightly that the mother-tongue education policy is in fact an
elitist English language selection policy. While EMI schools are the elite and
brand names, Chinese Medium (CMI) schools are usually seen as second-rate.
This hierarchy is confirmed again with the recent changes under the finetuning arrangements for the medium of instruction for secondary schools.
Starting with Secondary One from the school year of 2010/11, secondary
schools can have greater flexibility in adopting English as the medium of
instruction. The secondary schools that have shifted their medium of
instruction fully or partially to English are considered “upgraded” and have
attracted more admission applications (Siu, 2010).
Similarly, the designated schools gain status by employing English as the
medium of instruction since Hong Kong parents in general see English as an
essential asset for personal social upward mobility. Two teachers from two
different designated schools told me similar stories, “Some Hong Kong
Chinese parents said they had chosen our school because of the cultural
diversity here. They want their children to be exposed to different cultures.
And more importantly, their children have ample chance to practice English
every day.” It seems that these designated schools have also become an
alternative for Hong Kong Chinese parents who want their children to be
educated in an English environment but cannot afford the expenses of
studying in international schools, or Hong Kong Chinese students who are
not competitive enough to get to one of the Band 1 English-medium schools
but still want the advantage of an English education.
The significance of education as institutionalized socialization is well
documented (Bakken, 2000; Brock & Tulasiewicz, 1985; Dolby & Rizvi,
2008; Garrett & Baquedano-López, 2002; Jones & Vickers, 2005; ReedDanahay, 1996; S. Wakil, Siddique, & F. Wakil, 1981). Multicultural education policies and practices are lenses through which researchers can examine
the larger set of underlying values that are being used to create an understanding of society. In Singapore, the function of education as a state
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
apparatus for nation building is expressed distinctly by their Ex-Prime
Minister Goh Chok Tong, as discussed in the introduction of this paper.
Torres (1998) has observed that the state plays “a major role in providing for
the socialization of the citizenry and in creating the appropriate symbolic
conditions for nurturing the political culture of the people” (p.15). The
ideology of imaging the nation, in the case of Singapore, has a lot to do with
its geopolitics, given the fact that Singapore is surrounded by Muslim
neighbors. Singapore deems it necessary to keep a racial balance within the
nation-state, and allowing exceptions to school uniform is considered to be
jeopardizing this balance. The implication is that cultural diversity is
problematic in building shared values and a cohesive society. Multicultural
education is a state effort to sustain social cohesion. French prohibition on
wearing the hijab to state schools is based upon the constitutional principle of
separating state from church. Wearing the hijab, said to be an “ostentatious”
religious object, violates secularization of education. The mission of building
consensus is also embedded in the vision of multicultural education.
This paper explores how the Hong Kong experience can inform multicultural education. The states of Singapore and France see too much emphasis on diversity as a barrier to building common ground; in the case of
Hong Kong, diversity is celebrated through a notion of mutual respect. This
paper has argued that Hong Kong’s multicultural education policies and
practices have demonstrated an alternative form of imagining the nation
based not so much on the discourse of the state but on the discourse of the
market. In his 2009/10 Policy Address, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive,
Donald Tsang, announced the six new industries, on top of the four
traditional pillar industries, to enhance long-term growth and to broaden
Hong Kong’s economic structure11 (Hong Kong Government, 2009).
Education is among the six new industries (with a focus on developing
private tertiary education). There is clear recognition of the logic of
neoliberalism that education is an industry which can benefit Hong Kong’s
economic growth.
In line with this logic of neoliberalism and the belief in the primacy of the
free market, ethnic minority students are recruited into the mainstream
education when their participation is essential to the survival of the schools.
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Their cultural needs are accommodated and diversity is celebrated as ethnic
harmony. This analysis is akin to “Hong Kong’s market-based national
identity” put forward by Mathews, Ma and Lui (2008). But the key difference
is while “Hong Kong’s market-based national identity” is more concerned
with how much Hong Kong people pick and choose to belong to China in
different situations as a pragmatic strategy, the pragmatism demonstrated by
the education sector of Hong Kong is how much they pick and choose who
belongs to Hong Kong’s mainstream education, and by large Hong Kong
society, as a survival instrument.
The market mechanism in the education sector of Hong Kong has opened
up an entrance for more integration of NCS students into mainstream
education, and at the same time enabled them the freedom for religious and
cultural practices. Although it can be rightly argued that this manifestation of
multicultural education is similar to what Banks (2001) and others call a
“food and festival” approach, or what Weaver (2000) terms “surface culture,”
which tends to favor cultural artifacts over the underlying values and
meanings, it is important to note schools do not just stop there. I see efforts of
teachers in addressing the practical issues of helping these disadvantaged
groups in academic achievement including hiring NCS teaching assistants to
help with translation and parent liaison, and providing tailored remedial
teaching and activities, with a focus on Chinese language. To secure
continuous enrolment, the school needs to produce successful students; thus,
the success of the school is intrinsically linked to the success of students.
Before the implementation of the more inclusive education initiatives, NCS
students were largely excluded from the mainstream education and a very
low percentage made their way to university. Teachers’ emphasis on
academic attainment may be a practical approach to address realistic needs.
While it is true that the majority of the NCS students who join the
mainstream education after the shift in education initiatives are still at
primary and secondary schools, and that there is not yet sufficient evidence to
conclude the impact on their access to tertiary education, we can justifiably
anticipate that the social and cultural capitals they gain through mainstream
education will empower them to participate in the mainstream society after
they leave school, whether they go to university or not.
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Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
Central to the ideal of multicultural education is to reduce ethnic, cultural,
and social divisions with the ultimate aim of promoting equal chance for
success for all. Although it is too early to conclude whether this ideal can
come into fruition under the Hong Kong mode of multicultural education,
there is good reason to be optimistic as it provides a platform for the young
generations of the dominant Chinese group and their counterparts of the
ethnic minorities to interact with each other on the ground of mutual respect,
encourages ethnic minority students to take pride in their cultural background,
and urges teachers to address the practical issues of helping these students to
advance academically.
Although it can be argued rightly that NCS students can have easier access
to only the lower-banding schools, we are beginning to see a change. Lily
School is among the first batch of schools which admit NCS students. In the
course of about ten years, it has managed to change from a private school to a
Direct Subsidy School12 with both English-medium and Chinese-medium
classes, meaning that they perform well enough to be entitled government
funding and at the same time can retain more autonomy in running the school.
Taking a more positive stance, the NCS students and the less competitive
schools complement each other and work towards a more inclusive education
in Hong Kong.
Acknowledgement: I thank the three anonymous reviewers for their
1. This school is one of the fieldsites for my on-going research on education and
2. The publication of secondary school profile was first introduced in 1999 to
provide information for parents to choose schools in the Secondary School Places
Allocation System.
3. In the Value-Added measures, the predicated score of the students in public
examinations is compared with the actual standard score to calculate the value-
added performance of the school. In other words, this is to measure whether the
students perform better than, worse than, or more or less the same as predicted by
their level when they enter the school. If the students perform better than expected,
the school has successfully “added value” to them. More information about
Value-Added measures is available at
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4. The School-based Management Initiative was first introduced in 1991. The
Education (Amendment) Ordinance, which came into effect on 1 January 2005,
has made it legally mandatory for all aided schools to establish an incorporated
management committee, which should include sponsoring bodies managers,
elected parent managers, elected teacher managers, the principal, alumni managers, and independent managers. More information about School-based Management Initiative is available at
5. The Quality Assurance Inspection was first implemented in 1998, and was
subsequently replaced by the External School Review in 2004. Schools are also
required to undergo the School Self Evaluation, which was implemented in 2003.
More information about quality assurance measures is available at
6. The Education and Manpower Bureau (EMB) was renamed Education Bureau
(EDB) on 1 July 2007.
7. The exchange rate of US Dollar to HK Dollar is roughly 1:7.8.
8. “SARS” is the short form of “Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome.” Its outbreak
in Hong Kong in 2003 caused more than 300 deaths.
9. The Primary One Admission System (POA) is divided into two stages:
“Discretionary Places Admission” (DPA) stage and “Central Allocation” stage.
During the DPA stage, parents may apply to only one public sector school
whether in or outside the school net in which they reside (the whole territory is
divided into some 30 POA school nets; the number of school nets for the 2010
September admission is 36). A school can have up to 30% of its Primary One
places to be allocated in the DPA stage. Children who have not been offered a
discretionary place will participate in the second stage, “Central Allocation” stage,
which is computer-programmed and the “Random Number” generated for each
Neoliberalism and Multicultural Education
applicant will decide the order of priority in allocating school places. More
information on Primary One Admission System is available at
10. Primary school leavers were ranked according to their academic attainment from
band 1 to band 5 and secondary schools were ranked accordingly (the number of
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allocation bands was later reduced from five to three in the school year of
11. The four traditional pillar industries are financial services, tourism, trading and
logistics, and professional services. The six new industries are education services,
medical services, testing and certification services, environmental industries,
innovation and technology, and cultural and creative industries.
12. The Direct Subsidy Scheme (DSS) was introduced in September 1991 with an aim
to enhance the quality of private school education by providing non-government
secondary schools with subsidies. Under the scheme, DSS schools receive public
funds but are free to decide on their curriculum, fees and entrance requirements
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Wai-chi Chee is a Ph.D. candidate at the Department of Anthropology of The Chinese
University of Hong Kong, and a visiting predoctoral fellow at the Harvard Graduate
School of Education, Harvard University. She has extensive experience in secondary
education in Hong Kong. Her research interests include education, culture and identity,
migration, governance, and globalization. Geographical areas of her research include
mainland China, Hong Kong, and South and Southeast Asia. Her current research
focuses upon the adaptation of migrant students in Hong Kong. Her recent publication
is “When the Cultural Model of Success Fails: Mainland Chinese Teenage Immigrants
in Hong Kong” in Taiwan Journal of Anthropology 8(2): 85-110 (2010).
Telephone: +852 2609-7670
Postal Address: Department of Anthropology, Humanities Building, New Asia
College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, N.T., Hong Kong
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