18 October 2009

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?

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 (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.”

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.

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.


  1. Is drug testing in schools appropriate?
    Due to the problems of privacy, personal safety of students...etc, I am puzzled whether drug tests in schools are appropriate in Hong Kong.
    Actually students will not fully cooperate with the government =.=
    Is this policy a waste of capital?


  2. The drugs problem becomes more and more serious than before. Why do young people take drug? Because they have something unhappy and lack of care from family.


  3. Thanks for your comment, Wing.

    Whether drug tests are approproate in Hong Kong depends on one's personal views. But our government trying to dodge the privacy issues by implementing a "voluntary" program when there is nothing voluntary about it is not only hypocritical but also insulting to our students.


  4. I'm glad to see a passage on this drug test proposal.

    For an open society like Hong Kong, it is a very much under-discussed issue. I can only come up with two explanations:

    1. when it comes to certain moral principles, people in Hong Kong is not open enough to give the deserved controversy to the topic.

    2. The public is being confused with this entanglement of morality and technicality, and is unable to response sensibly to this fundamentally flawed idea.

    I particularly like the "I just don't feel like it" part. Maybe we should learn to say it more under the rule of stupidity.


  5. Thanks, K., for your comment.

    I agree with you that this issue is under-discussed, also judging from the slow flow of comments I have been receiving on this article. I also agree with the explanations you offered, and in fact I think most people just assume that any measures to fight drugs, whether well thought-out or not, must be a good thing. The more we think like that, the more our government will treat us like children. We cannot afford to have another Singapore in the world.


  6. For those parents who know their children are drug addicts, they don't care to reconfirm. for those in doubt, they don't want to know the truth. for the rest, they don't want to waste money for a negative result.


  7. Well, i would say the youth's drug problem is being a tool for HK government to "show" how much they care about the youth. I am pretty sure the youth will continue to take drugs and it will have negative affect on them. Education is the key for the youth to stay away from drugs. Shamefully, HK government seems only good at money-making policies and nothing else.


  8. Gordon, well said.

    Judging from the budget HK government put in education, one can tell that the government doesn't care much about our next generation (our future society to be exact). Very short-sighted.


  9. But does anyone find the idea of a "voluntary test program" ridiculous?


  10. No I don't. what genius and creative solution do you expect from the government. They are offering a fast, easy and "tangible" way out. Yet, of all the opposing parties and people, they are not offering any better alternatives either. Classic lose-lose-lose situation.


  11. Well said, Phil. But I still think it's stupid. Waste of time and money.


  12. Thanks for this article Jason. The current education system is one big deterrent to overseas people with school-age kids moving back to HK. Another masterpiece from the Education Dept! Still can’t get over the disheartening impacts of 母語教學 on the young generation in the last 10 years.

  13. Dear Jason,

    I’m sure you must get lots of fan mail for your articles, but I just couldn’t resist joining the fan club and sending you fan mail like a screaming teenage groupie.

    I came across your blogspot randomly today on facebook and was so inspired by your work. I see from your profile that you’ve returned to Hong Kong for three years – the same amount of time as I have – but I feel that, in stark contrast with you, I know very little about Hong Kong or China, not to mention having a bold and unique take on its current events. Sometimes I feel like Hong Kong is a rat race on steroids, and its so easy to just work so hard at keeping your head above water that you just stop giving a damn.

    So far I’ve read “A Climate of Coercion” and “Six Decades of Blood, Sweatand Tears” and found these articles as insightful as they are informative. If only I’d come across something like this sooner – then I’d think I would be more in touch with what’s going on around me, on and around this speculiar little island.

    It would be an understatement to say your writing is the most thoughtful thing I’ve read in quite some time. Keep up the great work and I look forward to reading more of your stuff.



  14. Thanks, Hilda, for the kind words. Please keep reading and leaving me comments!