Skip to main content

A Climate of Coercion 壓迫的氣候

Imagine there has been a spate of thefts in your office. Every day, news of stolen wallets, cell phones and other valuables terrifies the staff and dominates water-cooler conversations. Scrambling to come up with a solution, management decides to ask each employee to volunteer to have their bags searched by building security every time they leave the office. 

This “Turn-Yourself-In” program, so called because of its voluntary nature, has left people scratching their heads: who, you wonder, would choose to have a stranger look through their belongings when they can simply walk straight through the door?

Is there reasonable suspicious?

But that is exactly what our government is doing to tackle the growing drug problem in the city’s public schools. After a brief period of public consultation, Education Secretary Michael Suen (孫明揚) unveiled a city-wide school-based drug test program (校本驗毒計劃) in which students are encouraged, though not required, to participate. Trials are set to begin in Tai Po (大埔) district beginning December this year. So far the scheme has received widespread support from school principals in the district amidst mild muttering from critics over the potential adverse effect on teacher-student relationships.

At first glance, the school-based program appears expedient, even clever. The scheme’s voluntary nature allows the government to not only sidestep a lengthy legislative process – mandatory drug tests, the kind that has been implemented at a number of international schools in the city, require new legislation to be drafted, argued and passed – but also avoid unwanted public debate over privacy rights that could plunge the administration into another political crisis. 

That explains why the Education Secretary and Sally Wong Pik-yee (黃碧兒), Commissioner for Narcotics, have gone to great lengths to stress the voluntariness of the program, reassuring students that refusal to take part in the scheme will in no way be construed as an admission of guilt. At a press conference in August, a straight-faced Suen promised, “we hope the scheme will be effective by the fact that it is completely voluntary and we will keep the data confidential.”

Sally, the latest villain

But therein lies the fundamental (and fatal) problem of the school-based program. If the program is truly voluntary, as authorities have claimed, then it is destined to fail because students simply can’t be bothered with the silliness. After all, being called out of class in the middle of the day to urinate into a plastic cup isn’t exactly what teenagers consider fun these days. Those who use drugs – the very target of the program – will most certainly snub it unless they want to turn themselves in and risk being expelled or locked up. So is the big hoopla just another publicity stunt certain to fall flat on its face?

Perhaps not. 

What the government doesn’t say much about, or at least hopes that no one would pay much attention to, is all the harassment that comes with not taking part in a scheme that is “voluntary” only on paper. In practice, if a student strays from the fold and checks the “no” box on the consent form, then parents, social workers and school officials will descend on him like angry villagers carrying torches and pitchforks, waving banners that say “denial is proof!” 

To sugarcoat these dire consequences, however, Suen offered non-participating students this gentle warning: “social workers will try to find out the reason for the refusal [to take part in the program] and inform the principal who will then decide whether there is a need to arrange counseling for the student.” And so if it all works according to plan, every student will be scared into checking the “yes” box and the program will achieve its stated goals to deter and detect. Bureaucrats score major political points for a job well done and parents sleep better at night. Everybody wins.

Suen, a slick politician

Well, everybody except for the students. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the entire success of a voluntary scheme hangs on a single assumption: that teenagers are too ignorant to realize that they can, and probably should, say “no” to voluntary testing. There are about two dozen reasons why a person would refuse to take a drug test other than having something to hide. Privacy is one, confidentiality is another. 

My personal favorite, I just don’t feel like it, should be the default answer to anyone asking for an explanation. In the office theft analogy, if ever building security dare even raise an eyebrow over your refusal to have your bag searched, you would bark right back at him with a reminder that the program is supposed to be voluntary. But we are not to expect the same civic awareness of our students, are we? That’s why we end up with a scheme whose very creation is based on the intimidation and disempowerment of our youths.

But that is not all. The same way students are pressured to take the drug tests, school officials are coerced to cast their “yes” vote to the scheme before they have time to figure out whether it actually makes any sense. Fearful of appearing soft on drugs or worse, trying to conceal drug problems in the schools they run, public school principals have uniformly embraced the government’s proposal and in doing so proven themselves to be just as easily intimidated as teenagers. Cloaked with truisms like “inaction is fatal,” “save our children” and “no time to lose,” the force of coercion sweeps from our classrooms to the principals’ offices, flattening anything that stands in its way. Angry villagers, it seems, are everywhere in our public schools.

Six months after its trial in Tai Po, the school-based program will be reviewed for its effectiveness. The scheme may well turn out to be a smashing success, but it still will not cure the logical fallacy inherent in a “Turn-Yourself-In” program. To confront our teenage drug problem, mandatory testing seems inevitable and the legislative pill, hard as it is, has to be swallowed. Our government is doing the city enormous disservice by shying away from the legislative process, a process designed precisely to deal with situations where competing societal interests are at play. That is, after all, what we pay them to do.

Popular Posts

Seeing Joshua 探之鋒

“We are here to visit a friend,” I said to the guard at the entrance. 
Tiffany, Joshua Wong Chi-fung’s long-time girlfriend, trailed behind me. It was our first time visiting Joshua at Pik Uk Correctional Institution and neither of us quite knew what to expect.

“Has your friend been convicted?” asked the guard. We nodded in unison. There are different visiting hours and rules for suspects and convicts. Each month, convicts may receive up to two half-hour visits from friends and family, plus two additional visits from immediate family upon request.
The guard pointed to the left and told us to register at the reception office. “I saw your taxi pass by earlier,” he said while eyeing a pair of camera-wielding paparazzi on the prowl. “Next time you can tell the driver to pull up here to spare you the walk.”
At the reception counter, Officer Wong took our identity cards and checked them against the “List.” Each inmate is allowed to grant visitation rights to no more than 10 friends and fam…

About the Author 關於作者

Born in Hong Kong, Jason Y. Ng is a globetrotter who spent his entire adult life in Italy, the United States and Canada before returning to his birthplace to rediscover his roots. He is a lawyer, published author, and contributor to The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Free Press and EJInsight. His social commentary blog As I See It and restaurant/movie review site The Real Deal have attracted a cult following in Asia and beyond. Between 2014 and 2016, he was a music critic for Time Out (HK).

Jason is the bestselling author of Umbrellas in Bloom (2016), No City for Slow Men (2013) and HONG KONG State of Mind (2010). Together, the three books form a Hong Kong trilogy that tracks the city's post-colonial development. His short stories have appeared in various anthologies. In 2017, Jason co-edited and contributed to Hong Kong 20/20, an anthology that marks the 20th anniversary of the handover. In July 2017, he was appointed Advising Editor for the Los Angeles Revie…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Media Attention + Upcoming Events 媒體關注 + 最新動向

Upcoming events and speaking engagements in 2018


Commencement of spring semester at Faculty of Law of University of Hong Kong, LLM program
Course: International Securities Law
Venue: Centennial Campus, Pokfulam
Dates: 26 January - 27 April

Book launch of HK24 (2017 anthology by Hong Kong Writers Circle)
Venue: Bookazine, Prince's Building
Date: 13 February
Time: 6:30 - 8:30pm


Speaker for Enrich HK's "Ask the Experts" series
Topic: TBD
Date: February

Talk at Kellett School
Topic: "Faith"
Venue: Wah Fu, Pokfulam
Date: February
Time: TBD

Moderator at screening of documentary "The Helper"
Venue: BNP Paribas, Two IFC
Date: 28 February
Time: 11:30am - 2:30pm

Speaker at Wimler Foundation legal workshop
Topic: "Understanding Hong Kong Culture"
Venue: Philippine Consulate General, Admiralty
Date: 18 March
Time: TBD

Book launch of 《香港二十: 反思回歸廿載》, Chinese translation of PEN Hong Kong anthology Hong Kong 20/20: Reflections on a Borrowed Place
Venue: TBD
Da…

The Hundredth Post 第一百篇

This month marks the third birthday of my blog As I See It, a social commentary on the trials and tribulations of living in Hong Kong. The occasion coincides with the 100th article I have written under the banner. Having reached a personal milestone, I decided to take the opportunity to reflect on my still-young writing career and wallow in, dare we say, self-congratulatory indulgence.

It all started in November 2008 on the heels of the last U.S. presidential election. I was getting ready to create a personal website as a platform to consolidate my interests and pursuits. To do that I needed content. That’s how my blog – or my “online op-ed column” as I prefer to call it – came into being. 
Before I knew it, I was banging it out in front of my iMac every night, going on and off the tangent and in and out of my stream of consciousness about the odd things I experienced in the city, the endless parade of pink elephants I saw everyday that no one seemed to bat an eyelid at. Though singi…

The Joshua I Know 我認識的之鋒

When I shook his hand for the first time, I thought he was the strangest seventeen-year-old I’d ever met.
It was 2014, and considering how much Hong Kong has changed in the last three year, it felt like a lifetime ago.
Joshua sat across from me at a table in the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, with his iPhone in one hand and an iPad in the other. I ordered him a lemon iced tea with extra syrup.
He was eager to begin our conversation, not because he was excited about being interviewed for my article, but because he wanted to get it over with and get on with the rest of his jam-packed day.
During our 45-minute chat, he spoke in rapid-fire Cantonese, blinking every few seconds in the way robots are programmed to blink like humans. He was quick, precise and focused.

He was also curt.
When I asked him if he had a Twitter account, he snapped, “Nobody uses Twitter in Hong Kong. Next question.”
I wasn’t the least offended by his bluntness—I chalked it up to gumption and precocity. For a te…

When Free Speech Isn't Free 當言論不再自由

The school year had barely begun when two incidents—both testing the limits of free speech on campus—unfolded at Chinese University and Education University and sent management scrambling for a response.
On Monday, at least three large banners bearing the words “Hong Kong independence” were spotted in various locations at Chinese University, including one that draped across the famous “Beacon” sculpture outside the school’s main library. Within hours, the banners were removed by the school authorities.
A few days later, a sign “congratulating” Education Undersecretary Choi Yuk-lin (蔡若蓮) on her son’s recent suicide appeared on Education University’s Democracy Wall, a public bulletin board for students to express opinions and exchange views. Likewise, the sign was taken down shortly thereafter.


That could have been the end of the controversies had university management not succumbed to the temptation to say a few choice words of their own. In the end, it was the reaction from the schoo…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…

Hunger Game 飢餓遊戲

Every Chinese New Year I buy myself a tangerine tree for good luck. Ripe fruits fallen to the ground will mould and turn white and green within 36 hours.
Every Thanksgiving I roast a turkey big enough to feed twelve. Leftovers taste better the next day but will spoil by the week’s end even when kept in the fridge.


The unifying theme of these two unrelated household anecdotes is that unprocessed food does not last. Spoilage is part of nature’s metabolism. So how is it possible that the Valencia oranges on my kitchen counter look exactly the same as they did five weeks ago at the store, or that the expiration date stamped on a can of luncheon meat reads “March 2018”? I can’t help but wonder what really is in our food.
Our appetite for things that taste better, look nicer, last longer and cost less, from breakfast cereal to meat products and fresh produce, is insatiable. Consumer demand has spurred the growing use of pesticides, flavorings, colorings and preservatives in the food indu…