Monday, March 31, 2014

Connecting Myanmar

The seminar on refugees from Myanmar was organised by “Connecting Myanmar”.  This student-initiated organisation have grown out of the Migrant Outreach Education Initiative (MOEI) organised by the University of Hong Kong.  According to the Connecting Myanmar web site, 20 students joined MOEI and went to Myanmar in summer 2011 to teach English to the refugee children at the Thai-Burma border. I am the proud father of one of their members. 

This summer they are planning to send teams to Myanmar to work on law projects, a journalism training project and a migrant school renovation project, in Yangon and Maesot at the Thai/Myanmar border. These young people are the pride of Hong Kong. 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Refugees from Myanmar

Last week I went to a seminar on experiential learning at the university of Hong Kong. It happens that on the same day, some students from the organisation Connecting Myanmar organised a seminar on the Refugees from Myanmar. I had known a bit about the issue, and the seminar deepened my understanding.  According to Prof. Ian Holliday, there are two major issues: the long-standing conflicts involving the ethnic minorities to the north and east, including the Karen and the Kachin.  Many refugees have fled from the conflicts and now languishing in refugee camps at the Thai border.  In recent years there is a peace process going on inside Myanmar, and there is hope that the conflicts can be resolved internally. 

The more worrying is the situation with the Rohingya, in the western Rakhine state, bordering Bangladesh.  They are Muslims.  Many Buddhists Burmese consider them foreigners from Bangladesh. These has been a lot of conflicts between the two groups.  Some Rohingyas have tried to move to other countries but nobody seems to want them.  It is a worrying situation. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Skype at your service

This afternoon, another team of my students went to the Christian Action Worker’s Retraining Center in Choi Hung to teach computer classes for a group of migrant workers. This is already the third class.  My students and the domestic helpers from the Philippines and Indonesian seemed to be getting along quite well.  Part of the reason may be they were discovering the joy of Skype.  They were calling each other in the classroom.  

They plan to call their home country, their friends, and in one class, Nigeria.  Many of them do have access to computers in Hong Kong. Some have their own laptops, or smart phones.  Some can use their employers’ computers.  

Many of my students on this team are from mainland China.  Some mainland students were concerned that they may not be able to serve effectively in Hong Kong, not being able to speak Cantonese.  In this case, it is not an issue.  So far, they are doing fine.  They have prepared their lessons well, and they are pretty much on schedule.  After the service, we discussed the lesson today, and adjustments that they have to make.  One thing I encouraged them to do is to get to know the migrant workers better, how they plan to use the skills we are teaching them, so we can better help them.  In the end, we hope to better understand how technology (or the lack of such) is affecting their lives, and how it can be better used to improve their lives.  

Saturday, March 22, 2014

STEM at your service

This morning some of my students were helping some secondary schools students build a hydraulic robot arm.  They were using card boards, plastic syringes, and other simple implements to build robot arms that can pick up marbles.  Boys and girls worked together enthusiastically. It was obvious they were having fun. They had to figure out how to turn linear motion into circular motion, to use water to transfer power, to design graspers, to join links to each other yet allowing them to turn at the joint, to strengthen parts, … 

It was obvious they were learning something about science and engineering, and enjoying it - which was the purpose. My students are taking a class on service-learning related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), basically trying to make learning STEM more enjoyable. It looks like they are doing quite well.  A good start.  

Friday, March 21, 2014

Women of the Burmese Universities

One of the many things that impressed me was the numerous women in the Burmese universities.  There are so many of them, both students and teachers.  OK, I visited only 2 universities.  In both of them, the women outnumbered the men.  Even at the University of Computer Studies. In fact, most of the teachers and professors that we met were women.  

In a typical computer science department in Hong Kong, or elsewhere, the men usually outnumber the women, perhaps by a ratio of 3:1.  Here it seems to be the reverse. I did ask some of the locals.  They said one usually work with computers inside, where the women prefers to work, while the men prefers to work outside.  The same applies to education.  I don’t know whether this is the real reason.  It is certainly an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps someone will study it.

At the conference that we attended, there were more than a hundred rectors, vice rectors heads of departments, and professors.  And many of them were women, much more so than in other countries.  Amazing. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Shwe Dagon Pagoda


Shwe Dagon dominates the Yangon skyline.  It sits on a hill, with no tall buildings nearby, hence can be seen from quite a distance.   Legend says it is 2,600 years old.  It is said to be the most sacred pagoda for the Burmese, containing eight strands of hair from Gautama Buddha, and other relics from several other buddhas. 

When I visited on a weekday afternoon, there were a lot of people, but it didn’t feel very crowded, partly because there were quite a bit of space around the central stupa.  There were a lot of intricate carvings and paintings, telling many marvellous stories. 

There were plenty of pious lay people praying at the pagoda.  

And monks, of course. 

Some were bathing the buddha statues. 

The place was kept sparkling clean by an army of sweepers. 

And moppers. 


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Chestnuts stir-fried with Sugar (糖炒栗子)

In winter we often find vendors stir flying chestnuts in a big wok with black sand, sprinkled with sugar.  This particular one at Flower Market (花墟) is particularly rich.  In addition to chestnuts, they have ginkgo (白果), peanuts (花生), and walnuts (合桃).  

Not only that.  They also have chicken eggs, quail eggs, and sweet potatoes () - both yellow and purple ones. 

That time, I bought ginkgo.  Yummy.  


Monday, March 17, 2014

The Plight of the Refugees

It is estimated there are 5,000 refugees in Hong Kong.  Many have been stuck in Hong Kong for years, some as many as 10.  Most of them wish to be settled somewhere else, perhaps the USA, Canada, Australia or Europe.  In order to so that, they have to convince the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they are escaping from persecution and torture for reasons such as politics and religion.  

It is notoriously hard to do that.  According to Vision First, a group who has been helping the refugees, Hong Kong has received 12,000 torture claimants in the last 21 years, and have accepted 5.  Even after their cases are accepted, they still have to wait for a host country to accept them, and there is no guarantee that it will happen. 

In the meantime, they cannot work in Hong Kong, or even do volunteer work without pay.  For a long time, until recently, their children - even those who are born in Hong Kong - cannot attend school.  Apparently, the Hong Kong government does not want them to live too comfortably here, for fear that more will be motivated to come to Hong Kong. 

Perhaps some of them are not really refugees or escaping from torture.  Perhaps some of them did come to Hong Kong for economic reasons.  But surely we can afford to treat them a little better?  Many of the refugee claimants I know are able bodied adults. Some speak English, some speak French. It is said that Hong Kong is facing a labour shortage in some areas and some business owners are even suggesting that we should import some workers.  Is there really no way that we can accept some of them to settle in Hong Kong? Or to allow them to work for their keep?

There are several groups who are helping the refugees.  They are all small and severely short of resources.  Some of the refugees are saying that they do not trust even these groups, except the newly formed "Refugee Union".  I talked with some of them and it seems that part of the information they have at hand may be a bit shaky.  

I hope that something can be done before things get out of hand.  But I am not very optimistic given past history.  


Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Cry of the Refugees

 A number of refugees are protesting in front of Wu Chung Building in Wanchai, where the Social Welfare Department is.  They are protesting against the ISS-HK, Hong Kong Branch of the International Social Service.  They are also protesting against the Welfare Department, who gave a contract to the ISS-HK to provide food and accommodation to the refugees.  They complain that the ISS-HK is short changing them, and there is corruption in the process. 

One of the refugees told me that the condition of some of the places provide for them to live in are filthy, that some of the huts that they are living in were built illegally, that the ISS forged his signature, that the benefits that they actually receive are only fractions of what the government is giving them.  He complained that the police refuse to take his case when he tried to make a report of these “crimes”.  He has been in Hong Kong for 6 years.  He said he speaks Arabic and is knowledgeable about information technology.  He can work as a teacher or translator.  But he is not allowed to work.  He said they trust no organisation other than the newly formed “Refugee Union”. 

have no way to verify these complaints but it is clear that they are very upset about how they are treated. I heard that there are at least 5,000 of them in Hong Kong.  Many of them have been here for many years.  Many children have been born here and know no other home.  For a prosperous place such as Hong Kong, this is really a shame.  



Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Higher Education in Myanmar

I went to Myanmar in early February to attend a conference on higher education, organised by the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia, attended by hundreds of rectors, vice rectors, professors, teachers and administrators of numerous universities in Myanmar. After decades of isolation, Myanmar is opening up.  And so are her universities. This conference is part of the process of reforming the higher education system in Myanmar.  

One of the major interests of the United Board is service learning. We have collaborated with the United Board on a number of projects and we are invited to come here to talk about our experiences, and to explore possible collaboration with local universities.  Our talk was very well received and we are well on the way to planning projects in collaboration with two different universities this summer involving robotics. There are also many opportunities for collaboration with other universities and NGOs.  We are excited about coming to Myanmar. 



Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Fake research publications

Professors in universities spend a lot of their time doing research and publishing their results in academic conferences and journals.  Organising such conferences can also be lucrative business because there are plenty of researchers who are happy to pay the registration fees, to get their papers published.  Part of the consequence is a proliferation of conferences - and papers.  It has long been known that some such papers are of low quality. Some of them are not even real papers written by human beings.

Several years ago (in 2005), researchers at MIT released a paper-generated machine, SCIgen, that can produce fake computer science papers. Since then, more than 120 such papers have been found to have been accepted and published in conferences.  Recently there was a report on Scientific American / Nature on the phenomenon. 

There is another interesting observation in the report,  “Most of the conferences took place in China, and most of the fake papers have authors with Chinese affiliations.”  The report did not explain further why that was the case.  However, a number of possible and obvious reasons come to mind quickly. 



Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Expense or Investment?

The government-appointed working group on long-term fiscal planning warned that Hong Kong could be facing deficits in a few years time, and as heavily indebted as Greece - if the city’s spending grows at the current pace.  

The government is very happy to hear that, because it gives the government more excuse to spend less, and certainly not to embark on major investments. On face value, it makes sense.  The more you spend, the less you have.  Hence it is prudent for the government to spend less.  

However, this line of thinking does not take into account that investing in education can improve the quality of the work force, raise the productivity of the economy, increase national product, generate more taxes, and increase income for the government.  Similarly, investing in medical care can improve the health of the population, leading to a similar increase in income in the future.  The key is whether the money is spent properly.  A deficit in the short term (because of increased investment) can lead to a healthy and long lasting  surplus in the long term. 

On the other hand, if the education and medical systems are not properly maintained and improved, productivity decreases, resulting in a decrease in income.  A surplus in the short term (because of reduced investment) can lead to serious and long lasting deficit in the long term.  

Unfortunately, our officials usually do not have their sights set on the long run - they probably do not expect to stay in position for that long - and often opt for good, short term performance instead.  That seems to be what is happening.  So sad.  


Sunday, March 02, 2014

March for Freedom (of Speech)

The attack on Kevin Lau Chun-to (劉進圖) triggered a mass protest march today.  

Recently I have been less inclined to participate in protest marches. Not because injustice has abated.  More often, it is because many different groups are marching together, for different reasons, obscuring the focus of the protest.  

This time, it is very focused.  The violence is so brutal and in your face, that it is hard not to  want to respond.  

Some pro-establishment types have been trying to paint this attack as un-related to freedom of the press and speech.  But their arguments are so feeble and laughable that they probably do not believe themselves. 

Many people apparently feel the same as we do.  

Our daughter went with a friend.  As soon as my wife and I got out of the MTR station, we bumped into a pastor and a good friend that we have known for years.  When the march was getting started, we bumped into a law professor from HKU who has taught our daughter.  We may not win, but we should not give up without a fight.