Equal Opportunities Commission



Annual Day “UTSAV 2011”
Organised by Brilliant Learning International Ltd

“Why We Learn”— Speech by Mr LAM Woon-kwong, Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission


Good afternoon. I am delighted to be here.

Today, we are here to celebrate the importance of learning and education. So I want to share with you a few thoughts.

The great futurologist, Alvin Toffler said, “The illiterate of the 21st Century won’t be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Why did he say that? It is because with the spread of universal education worldwide, there are going to be very few who cannot read and write. But just being able to read and write is not going to mean much in this Century.

Toffler calls it the Post Industrial Century, where demassification, diversity, and acceleration of change will be its calls. What do these concepts mean?

Demassification means that the days of mass production of standard products for all is rapidly fading. Products will be increasingly targeted at individual consumer’s taste; they are going to be produced just in time so there will be minimum need for wasteful stocks; and they are going to be priced much more sensitively to cater for the different purchasing powers of different consumer groups. In short, production is going to be knowledge-based. Information technology has managed to amass for business tremendous amount of consumer information never capable of being captured before.

What does diversity mean? The new Dean of the Harvard University Business School, Nitin Nohria, is an Indian. This is the first time that this top Business School is headed by an Asian, itself a welcoming sign of diversity. Dean Nohria said, “If the 20th century was the American Century for business, the 21st is decidedly a global Century.”

Business is going to continue to prosper in a pace never known before. Technology will spread even faster with the internationalization of education and increasing mobility of students and professionals. Nations and corporations are going to compete on and for talents. To lay waste to talents on grounds of their ethnicity, language, religions, gender, physical disabilities, age and sexual orientation will be foolish for any government or corporation. So students, you are going to face much better opportunities if you can gear yourself up to face the needs of modern economies.

What do I mean by this last concept: acceleration of change? The decades ahead are going to witness major transformations in economic and social change, led by three technological developments which are now already very advanced: they are information technology, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence.

What information technology has done to our daily lives is already well known. But the thing to remember is that you have seen nothing yet! The potential and pace of IT development is going to go on at a breathtaking pace. By the time you kids come out to work, all of what you are now yearning for: the iPhone, iPad, Facebook etc will be museum pieces. Very soon, you will need no fixed workplace because you can roll your workstation up like a piece of paper and carry them around and start working anywhere: no more sockets, no more printers, no more hard discs, because everything are going to be transacted through what we now call “iClouds”.

Genetic engineering is now already so advanced that it is certainly within reach of your generation, for example, to decode your DNA so you can quite accurately predict how long you are going to live and what illnesses you are going to develop. When your tissues or organs fail, you will be able to  replace them as easily as you now replace your car’s component parts. Technologically, these predictions are by no means far-fetched. But I do admit that, on ethical consideration, whether they will be allowed to be lab tested or utilized as fast as the technology allows would be harder  to predict.

Likewise, artificial intelligence is no longer science fiction. It is being used in everyday life already: from your rice cooker, to your car’s GPS system, to your latest version of iPhone. Scientists, not futurologists, now agree that before this Century runs out, we will be witnessing the first “manufactured organic intelligence”: a creative combination of the three technologies: information technology, genetic engineering, and artificial intelligence.

Exciting and somewhat horrifying too, isn’t it? Why am I telling you all these? It is because, again like Toffler said, “You have got to think about the big things while you are doing small things, so that all small things go in the right direction.

For the young ones in this hall, try to imagine what your life is going to be like:

  • you are going to live on average until 100;
  • you will hence have a considerably longer working life;
  • but the line between your home and your workplace will be blurred when you don’t have to be stationed in expensive offices;
  • you will be on shorter work hours because what your employers want from you is your brainpower, not your physical labor, and brainpower is not counted by the hours;
  • you and your family will be spending more leisure time on sports, recreation and all the fine things that our cultures help to develop;
  • you will be travelling extensively both for work and for pleasure, and you won’t need to carry passports around anymore because all your personal data will be checkable on the spot, through biological means;
  • language will no longer be communication barriers because easy-to-carry instant interpretation gadgets are going to be a standard item in your bags;
  • you no longer need to carry paper money when transactions will all be electronic;
  • trade will be totally free;
  • prosperity will be more widespread;
  • governments will be less tyrannical;
  • global population will stabilize; and
  • generally the world will become a better place for you all.

This is a brave new world ahead of you, all within reach of your lifetime if (and that can be a big if) we can continue to resolve human conflicts through peaceful means rather than by deploying our nuclear arsenals which will be available to practically all nations for those who want it.

That is why Toffler warned us to be able to “learn, unlearn, and relearn”. The world is changing so fast that most of what is taught to us through schools and universities are going to be obsolete very soon. Lifelong learning is no longer a tedious term coined by parents and teachers to get you to do your homework. It is a necessity in life, just like air, food and water. Those who don’t heed these words are going to be stuck at the bottom for life. It is as simple as that.

As a lifelong endeavor, learning is an active process, meaning that you have to make an effort at it. Learning does not just mean getting your diplomas or degrees. Learning is also an interactive process, meaning that it is constantly shaped and changed by your interactions with the world. That is why initiatives such as the courses offered by the Integrated Brilliant Education Centre are such a positive step towards helping students to understand their own culture, their own roots, and their own position in life.

Given the openness of Hong Kong, it is not difficult to engage in lifelong education if you want it. Perhaps you might have recently arrived. Perhaps you were born here, or your family has been here for many generations. Just a look around this hall is testament to Hong Kong’s diversity. Each of us has been enriched by the many groups who have chosen to call this place home. And Hong Kong, as a result, is better for it.

Being in this open City and with so much opportunity to learn is invaluable. We, the Equal Opportunities Commission, will work hard to maintain equal opportunities for all, in particular for those underprivileged groups who may be facing difficulties adjusting to the very different style of life in this City.

We set up a special Working Group last summer to tackle the problems faced by ethnic minority students in local schools. The Group met with principals, teachers, parents, students and other stakeholders. It has just completed its Report and will be presenting a set of recommendations to the Government, seeking to improve the present unsatisfactory situation. So for those of you who may feel that what I have been talking about is remote because of the problems you are facing, I would like to assure you that you have not been forgotten and that we will continue to work hard to defend your right to full and equal opportunities for good education in this City.

Thank you.