Second Chances

Among my circle of family, friends and acquaintances, many don’t know that I never went to university.

After all, it’s not something a person brags about and for various reasons they do know that I have a genuine degree from a prestigious UK university. The explanation for this seeming contradiction is simple: life gave me a second chance.

After six years of high school I passed in three A level subjects, but the grades in two of them were not good enough to win a university place. So I stayed behind for another year, studied the same two subjects again, repeated the exams, and got exactly the same result. Not a single university was prepared to offer me a place. I was devastated. A whole year wasted, and my hopes for the future in ruins. (Charles Windsor, by contrast, got a place at Cambridge with just two A Levels. And now he is a king. Is it any wonder I am a republican? But I wouldn’t swap my journey for his)

I felt humiliated and gave up, but my mother didn’t. While I “laid flat” she went to the education department office herself and collected the application forms for entry to other tertiary institutions. When despite repeated nagging I declined to complete them (too afraid I would be rejected again), she deployed the nuclear option: no dinner until at least one of the application forms had been filled in. Outgunned, I complied. That is how I ended up in a small college in Bristol where I studied for, and obtained, a degree in Economics from London University.

Armed with this qualification, I have since enjoyed a varied and rewarding career which has included part time lecturing to tertiary students, some on Masters courses. The first time I entered a university campus, it was in the capacity of honorary professor. There were two key features of this reversal of fortune: the system provided an alternative route to success if the first failed, allowing a good degree to be studied for externally; my family provided the support necessary to overcome fear of repeat failure. These two factors combined to give me a second chance.

These events all took place more than half a century ago. The only reason I repeat them now is because a young individual within my immediate circle is an a very similar position. Despite good results at the end of high school she did not gain a place at her favoured university and owing to a mix-up over back-up applications did not get any offer. It is not always easy to help people in such circumstances. Hong Kong families sacrifice a lot to secure quality education for their children then look forward to the burden being relieved after graduation. In the best circumstances, there is then a reverse flow of funds, supporting parents in their old age (Rowse children please note). The consequences of failure can be serious for all concerned. The family’s investment has been wasted, the individual feels shame and humiliation.

In the current case there are reasonable prospects for a turnaround. The academic results were good enough to withstand an unscheduled gap year so future entry to a solid school should still be open. Family and friends remain supportive. The components are there for a second chance so that what might have been a lifetime failure becomes instead merely a pause on the road to success.

But future prospects for all our young people are not so bright. I am thinking now of the many thousands arrested in the course of the social disturbances of 2019.

The numbers are mindboggling. Fully 10,000 people, many of them young, were arrested by police. Of these some 6,000 still do not know their fate a full three years after the events in question. This is unacceptable. It may seem trite to say, but justice delayed is justice denied. Overuse of the expression does not make it any less true.

Some of the outstanding cases are wending their way through our court system, but many are not. Those in the first category have good grounds to complain why their cases are taking so long to be concluded, and no doubt judges will take this factor into account in sentencing in the event of a guilty verdict. But it is scandalous that there are still so many in the second category who do not even know if charges will be brought against them, and if so for what.

No advanced society should be running its affairs in this way. Such a long period of uncertainty is akin to torture of the individuals concerned. Once again I strongly urge chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu to set a firm deadline for the Department of Justice to either bring charges or drop the case. Given his track record in the police force, nobody is going to accuse him of being soft on national security.

When all the dust has settled and the cases concluded, we will still need as a community to decide how to treat those convicted of public order offences.

I have no sympathy for those who picked up weapons or threw Molotov cocktails or smashed up public facilities. They must serve out their time. That said, I hope as a community we can take a compassionate approach and support the Correctional Services Department in securing their rehabilitation. Among them are many potentially useful citizens who could still make a success of their lives and contribute to Hong Kong society.

We should give as many as possible a second chance.