Dean's Speech: Marymount Secondary School Speech Day 2016 - Noblesse oblige

17 June 2016

Supervisor Dr Hui, Principal Mrs Ma, honoured guests, teachers, parents, friends, and most of all graduates, ladies and gentlemen,

As graduates of Marymount Secondary School, you are a most fortunate and privileged group: intelligent, well-educated and among the cream of Hong Kong’s youth. This privilege comes laden with expectations and preconceptions. Some will regard you as products of a so-called “貴族學校”. By virtue of your talents and education, you are indeed part of a modern-day “aristocracy”, with the potential to join the highest stratum of society and take up leadership positions. But like aristocrats throughout history, your privilege comes with responsibility.

There is a good deal of turmoil in the world today and, more importantly, a dissatisfaction with traditional leadership. This has led to confrontation and anger, and challenges to social order. In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump as his party’s presumptive nominee has legitimised sexist, racist and derisive outbursts of anger towards those who hold different views, even within his own Republican political party. In Europe, the radical right-wing National Front in France and radical left-wing parties in Spain and Greece have similarly espoused intolerant views. There is shouting, there is violence, all underpinned by a sense of fear. Even in Hong Kong, needless to say, we have been experiencing the tensions and gridlock that arise when positions harden and distrust sets the tenor of political discourse. Undoubtedly, some or most of you have been challenged to take a position on those tensions. But first, as part of the modern elite, it is imperative for you to understand the root causes of this anger and the need for moral leadership.

Extremist politicians such as Trump are canny enough to realise that people are deeply disenchanted with their traditional elites and feel that they have failed them. There are competing and complex reasons for this. About ten years ago the writer, Thomas Friedman, wrote that the world is getting flatter – by which he meant there was more competition and fewer barriers and hierarchies between people. It was an optimistic assessment of the world, suggesting that through globalisation, digitisation and the Internet, there would be greater opportunities for more people. With these opportunities come higher expectations. In a sense, the flatter world has been a push factor propelling people’s aspirations.

In contrast to this has been a pull factor bringing people back down to Earth – that of the growing inequality of wealth. The French economist Thomas Piketty became famous three years ago when he published Capital in the 21st Century, which looked at the distribution of wealth over the past two-and-a-half centuries in Europe and the US. Using housing data, he demonstrated that inequality has worsened in these places since the 1970s. He went further and laid the blame on capitalism, which has been the dominant economic order of modern times.

Piketty’s point about housing as a source of inequality has relevance to Hong Kong where owning one’s own home is beyond the reach of a significant number of Hongkongers – and certainly beyond the reach of those with low incomes and few resources. Here we are in one of the great cities of the world where about 40 per cent of people live in publicly subsidised housing of one sort or another, and where their neighbourhoods are increasingly concentrated at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale. In 1976 about half of the households living in public housing earned incomes below the median for the Hong Kong population; by 2011 that share had risen to three-quarters of households. Young people who grow up on public housing estates have far fewer strong role models than a generation ago, because they are increasingly surrounded by poorer households that are elderly, led by single parents, or recently arrived from outside of Hong Kong. All of this can contribute to low expectations for the future. 

What is more, educational opportunities to break out and ascend into the middle classes or higher have not expanded substantially over the past two decades. This is good news for those of you who will go to university. The average rate of return for a university degree education has increased from 16.6 per cent in 1976 to a very high 22.7 per cent by 2011. But this is not good news for society as a whole because it exacerbates divisions between the haves and have-nots. The number of government-funded university places as a proportion of eligible students has barely changed over the past two decades, and the elites, or modern-day “aristocrats”, such as yourselves, have the best chances of securing a place. Consider if you had been educated in a school where no one in your class was going to university. Would you aspire to do so? Would you even think it were possible? So not only are you a very talented group of young women – and no doubt have worked very hard to be where you are today – you are also fortunate to be born at this time, when your talents are highly valued and you have the opportunity to capitalise on them.

Why am I banging on about these issues to you, when you are on the threshold of your exciting lives? It all comes back to the notion of responsibility.

In Europe and China, we can find the traditional concept of the noblesse oblige – the idea that a person of high social rank or wealth should conduct himself or herself with dignity, that they should balance their privilege with a duty towards those who lack such privilege. We do not talk of nobles today, or even really of aristocrats, rather we use terms like leaders and elites. How can the self-professed elites find a way of sharing their wisdom, their knowledge, their competencies and generally their endowment? This is the moral side of noblesse oblige.

Your education has imbued you with teachings of universal truths and universal goodness. Marymount’s mission refers to caring for the poor and building a just and compassionate society. As budding members of the elite, you must ask yourselves, what is your moral obligation to others less fortunate than you? Others who may come from a school that few may have heard of, or who have not even completed their schooling? If you say you have no extra obligation above and beyond your own welfare and interest, then perhaps you are not so deserving to be a graduate of this school.

Your school has also encouraged you to be reflective. You have a responsibility to think for yourselves, to avoid being led by the populist mood and instead to seek your own truths through enquiry and contemplation. This is a crucial quality for leadership. You need to understand the issues that need addressing. And you need to use your compassion to help guide others to well-reasoned positions. Leadership today is about persuasion rather than browbeating people into following a particular path. Leaders need to be flexible not with the truth – as Mr Trump and his ilk can be – but with how people might be persuaded to arrive at a common vision. Absolute adherence to that vision is not necessary.

It would be ideal if we lived in a utopian world of equals, with no leaders. Whether through native intelligence or other abilities, social networks or wealth, inequalities pervade our world. We need caring, thoughtful leaders who desire to smooth out some of the disparities and promote values of mutual respect and compassion. Graduates, you have the natural abilities and advantages required to take up such a leadership role. I hope your education here at Marymount and your future studies prepare you to rise to the task.