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Speech at the Opening Ceremony of the 13th ICMI Comparative Study Conference

Speech by Mrs Fanny Law Permanent Secretary for Education and Manpower at the Opening Ceremony of the 13th ICMI Comparative Study Conference

Professor Cheng, Mr Lopez-Real, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is both my honour and pleasure to address such a distinguished group of eminent experts and scholars in mathematics education from over 15 countries. On behalf of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government, I welcome all of you to the 13th ICMI Comparative Study Conference for a comparative study on the cultural traditions in mathematics education in East Asia and the West. Hong Kong is proud to play host to this Conference as the theme underscores the uniqueness of Hong Kong, Asia's World City where the East meets West.

2. The first great mathematician, Pythagoras, believed that mathematics held the key to beauty and philosophy. We can see mathematics in the curve of a sculpture, or the arch of a building. We can hear it in hip-hop rhythms, or bluegrass harmonies. Mathematics is the foundation of engineering, computer science, software design, economics, statistical analysis, and any number of professions. And now, it has become a sport. Every year, the IMO mathematical olympiad offers young mathematicians the opportunity to compete against their peers from all over the world.

3. Mathematics also enters into politics and everyday life. In Hong Kong, we practise "one country, two systems"; we are battling with deflation against the odds of a fixed dollar peg and significantly lower costs just across the border; and we have to balance the budget amidst demands for more services without raising fees or taxes. Indeed, mathematics permeates all walks of life. It is difficult to succeed in the modern world without some mathematical knowledge and skills.

4. For those of you who may not be familiar with the story of Hong Kong, I wish to take a few minutes to share with you how Hong Kong has fared since it became a Special Administrative Region of China on 1 July 1997. The transition of sovereignty from the United Kingdom to China was seamless. We have been enjoying a high degree of autonomy as promised in the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong, which lays down the framework for the visionary concept of "one country, two systems".

5. The four pillars, on which Hong Kong's stability and prosperity rest, are as sturdy as before. They are: the rule of law upheld by an independent judiciary, a level playing field for business, a clean civil service and the free flow of information.

6. This year, Hong Kong has retained its rating as the freest economy in the world by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. We continue to enjoy free flow of information and freedom of speech, with some 50 newspapers and 740 periodicals being published in Hong Kong, 12 satellite broadcasters up-linking signals from here, and about 120 international media organisations having offices in the SAR.

7. Our social and economic institutions remain unchanged. Our position as an international centre for trade and business, financial services and shipping industry has been maintained. A large number of residents who emigrated before 1997 have returned to Hong Kong; and over US$22 billion of foreign capital have flowed into Hong Kong over the past five years. All these bear testimony to the successful implementation of "one country, two systems".

8. Applauded for his success in upholding "one country, two systems", our Chief Executive, Mr Tung Chee Hwa, was re-elected for a second five-year term. On the day he was sworn in, a new Ministerial-style system was inaugurated to provide a more open, accountable and forward-looking government with the appointment of non-civil servants to take charge of policy decisions.

9. The biggest challenges facing the new leadership are the combined impact of globalisation and the rapid economic development in the Mainland. This called for responses in re-structuring the Hong Kong economy, and upgrading the educational levels of the people of Hong Kong.

10. Since he took office in 1997, the Chief Executive has accorded the top priority to improving education, with over 60% increase in investment over the past five years. At present, education is the single largest item of recurrent government expenditure, making up 24% of the annual budget. We have launched a comprehensive review of our education system, including an overhaul of our curriculum to meet the needs of the 21st century.

11. In the area of mathematics, we conducted a holistic review of the mathematics curriculum in 1997 and carried out research studies in parallel to support the curriculum reform. Dr Frederick Leung, who is the co-chair of today's conference has assisted us in a comparative study of the mathematics curricula of major Asian and Western countries. He will speak about this in one of the plenary sessions. The findings of this study have provided useful input to the mathematics curriculum of Hong Kong.

12. Under the revamped curriculum framework, mathematics education is one of the eight key learning areas. The curriculum aims not only to provide students with mathematical knowledge but also to nurture their thinking skills and positive attitudes to help them learn how to learn, to be a lifelong learner and develop the confidence and adaptability to cope with change in the knowledge economy.

13. We also provide enrichment programmes for gifted students. For example, we offer credit-bearing and customised enhancement programmes in conjunction with universities, and organise a multi-disciplinary mentoring scheme to broaden the horizon and stretch the potentials of gifted students. These efforts have borne fruits.

14. In the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Hong Kong students ranked fourth both in Grade 4 among 26 participating countries, and Grade 8 among 41 participating countries. In the International Mathematical Olympiad 2002, 5 out of 6 members in the Hong Kong team won awards consisting of one gold, two silver and two bronze medals.

15. We see the strengths of our students in computation and problem-solving. We value the professional skills and commitment of our teachers, and the high regard for mathematics among parents. Building on these strengths, we would like to see more emphases being put on nurturing high order thinking skills and conceptual understanding of mathematics among students, to encourage more action research among teachers, and to develop more school-based curriculum customised to the learning needs of individual students. How to assess high order thinking skills and to cater for learner differences in large classes are two issues which we are grappling with and hope to benefit from overseas experiences in this conference.

16. I wish the sharing and discussions in the next few days rewarding and stimulating. To all our overseas visitors, I wish you an enjoyable time in Hong Kong and bring home pleasant memories of this vibrant city.

17. Finally, may I ask you for a favour in solving this mathematical puzzle that a student once put to me? He started off with two statements, which have become the cliches of the 21st century. First, knowledge is power, and second, time is money. As a physics student, he learned that "Power = Work/Time". Since "Knowledge = Power" and "Time = Money", he deduced that "Knowledge = Work/Money". Solving for money, he got "Money = Work/Knowledge". In other words, as Knowledge approaches zero, Money approaches infinity, regardless of the amount of Work done. So, his question is: why bother going to school?

18. Thank you.

Last revision date: 21 October 2002
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