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4 November 2013

Headlines surrounding the standard of living in Hong Kong – from income equality to education and the environment – haven’t been too positive over the past couple of months. Recently, it’s taken the forward-thinking ideas of a local secondary school to show some new perspectives.

But first, let’s start with education as a whole. Once considered one of the best places in Asia for both secondary and tertiary schooling, many in the city see the quality and prestige of Hong Kong’s learning institutions beginning to fall. Five out of the city’s six higher learning institutions slipped down a recent list that assesses global university performance and while Hong Kong is still an attractive city for foreign students to experience a year abroad, local teenagers are finding it harder than ever to secure a place at one of the city’s schools.

This summer, over 28,000 secondary school students attained the grades needed to secure a publicly funded spot at a Hong Kong university. But with only 15,000 of those spaces made available each year (a figure frozen by the Hong Kong government since 1994, which is lower than the number offered in Taiwan, Macau or Singapore) thousands of qualified young locals have been forced to seek other more expensive or lower quality options.

Income equality is also suffering. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” seems to be ever-widening. Last year, the number of millionaires in Hong Kong increased by over 35 per while the city’s first official poverty line (only established last September) found that nearly 20 per cent of residents here live in poverty.

The environment tale is also a sorry one. New faces in government are putting solid plans in place to clean up Hong Kong’s air, water and waste issues but the city is still a long way off from being a beacon of environmental sustainability.

So when the US Green Building Council announced the winner of its “Greenest School on Earth” competition last week, it probably came as a surprise to many Hong Kongers that this year’s winner was a low-income secondary school in the Lam Tin neighbourhood in Kowloon. The Sing Yin Secondary School appears uniformly institutional from the outside but a closer look reveals planted walls, roof-mounted wind turbines and solar panels. Inside, motion sensors detect when rooms are empty in order to turn-off air-conditioning and lighting and even the downward momentum of the school’s elevator is used to generate energy.

However, it’s not just these design elements that contributed to the school’s award. From its language teachers who set essays on pollution problems to sports teams being tasked with cleaning up their pitches, Sing Yin’s approach to environmental care is a holistic one.

Sing Yin Secondary School should be a place that others in Hong Kong look to for inspiration. Not only does it boost pride in the region’s state-education standards but it is doing its part to reduce the city’s environmental woes. The school is arming its low-income students with a specialist knowledge and an approach to living that will set them head and shoulders above many in their generation.

Aisha Speirs is Hong Kong bureau chief for Monocle.


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