Fariha Salma Deiya Bakar, 20, whose family is from Bangladesh, speaks fluent Cantonese, Mandarin, Bengali, Hindi, English and the Filipino tongue of Tagalog. Born in Hong Kong, the university student may become the city’s first ethnic minority lawmaker if she realises her ambitions.
“I want to see more ethnic minority representatives in the government, and make Hong Kong a better place for ethnic minorities to live in,” Bakar says.
And, the City University student may already have a foot in the door – as a Legislative Council assistant, one of a few South Asian faces in the city’s lawmaking body. It all started when her parents moved from Bangladesh to Hong Kong 25 years ago as regional managers for the local branch of a garment and accessory company. They settled in the city hoping for a better life for their children.
The family of four, including Bakar’s 15-year-old brother, live in a Yau Ma Tei flat in Kowloon, and go back to Bangladesh every two years to visit relatives. Having learned Cantonese since the age of two, she speaks like a native and says the language is key to building a life and career in the city. “Cantonese is important. If I do not master it, I may have a lot of difficulties finding jobs, whether I have a degree.
“Cantonese is part of Hong Kong culture and important for a sense of belonging here.”
Bakar chose Cantonese as a compulsory course in school while most of her ethnic minority classmates studied it as a second language. Apart from taking courses, she also watched television dramas and read local newspapers to immerse herself. She even wrote down words from newspapers to memorise character strokes, she says.
Her efforts have paid off, and she has blended seamlessly into society. About 90 per cent of her friends are locals, she says. “If I wasn’t eager to learn Cantonese, I wouldn’t have what I have today.”
But Bakar is aware that she is only one of a few fortunate ones in her community who have adapted to life in Hong Kong. “I realised how lucky I am that I grew up in Hong Kong so happily, but for some others around me, it is not the same. They face difficulties in a lot of things – from getting a spot in kindergarten, to opening a bank account and renting a flat,” she says.
She recalls a Pakistani friend who met a landlord refusing to rent to “people of other races”.
According to the 2016 population by-census, there were a total of 584,383 ethnic minority residents in Hong Kong, amounting to 8 per cent of the city’s population. Excluding domestic helpers, the number was 263,593 – 3.6 per cent of the total.
Critics say ethnic minorities are under-represented in the government. Among the nearly 1,500 staff members serving on 100 publicly available advisory bodies, only 1.9 per cent are people from ethnic minority groups, according to NGO Zubin Foundation. Bakar says she feels a responsibility to raise awareness of fair and equal opportunities for ethnic minorities. “This is the focus of everything I do.”
Three years ago, she joined City University’s Project Ethnic Minority Empowerment. The group has offered mentorship classes for ethnic minority secondary students, giving them guidance on how to lead an easier life in Hong Kong.
Bakar’s aspirations also extend beyond the campus – in 2017, she was a summer intern for the Democratic Party, where she helped organise events and workshops for the elderly and design posters and leaflets.
Then in 2018, more opportunities came knocking, starting with an initiative called the Diversity List last March. Bakar nominated herself to a list of ethnic minority members that are qualified and committed to serving in government committees. She became the group’s youth representative speaker.
“When people asked what my aspirations were, I said I wanted to be a legislative councillor to make Hong Kong a better place for ethnic minorities,” she says. She was noticed by her current boss, lawmaker Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, while giving a speech at a forum. “He asked me: ‘Do you want to work for my office?’” she recalls. That was how Bakar got her part-time job as a Legco assistant.
“My colleagues were astonished because I’m an ethnic minority member and only 20 years old,” she says.
Since August last year, Bakar has been working from 10am to 6pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at Kwok’s office at the Legislative Council Complex. She conducts policy research, as well as drafting and translating speeches and press releases, monitoring the development of important issues, especially those involving ethnic minorities.
Bakar says she has managed to balance her tight schedule between work and her studies. “It comes from passion,” she says. “I think there is no such thing as not having enough time. For example, if you have time to lie down on your bed and scroll on your phone, you have time for much more meaningful things.”
As for the future, the sky’s the limit: Bakar says apart from her Legco dream, she is open to a variety of careers, from being a lawyer to swim coach, and even an actress.
“In Hong Kong’s entertainment industry, there are not many workers from ethnic minority groups. I want to see more diversity on TV.”