Prestige: Hidden JEMS

Feb 2011

In a performance-oriented society, Christine Ma is an anomaly. The founder of a local learning community, JEMS (Junior Excellent Members of Society), she cares less about academic achievement than character development, and champions this on a daily basis in an after-school centre that teachers values and builds self-esteem.

Ironically, Ma herself appears to be an overachiever, having earned degrees from the London School of Economics and the University of Pennsylvania in economics and education, as well as pursuing an usual entrepreneurial practice at a relatively young age. But if you ask her, these successes were a product not only of hard work and discipline, but also of a warm and supportive family that encouraged her to unlock her own potential.

Her father, businessman and former Secretary for Commerce and Development Frederick Ma, was one of Hong Kong’s best-loved politicians during his time with the government, and it’s heart-warming to find his daughter as adoring as his constituents. In fact, since his retirement, the politician has followed in his daughter’s footsteps, stepping into the education sphere as an honorary professor at the University of Hong Kong (in addition to a corporate role at China Strategic Holdings).

Education isn’t Ma Junior’s single passion. As an ambassador for Plan International, she attended last year’s launch event for the charity’s Because I am a Girl survey, a global study that shares personal stories of underprivileged girls in developing countries, drawing articulate conclusions from them.

Alongside headstrong females such as Christine Liao and Cindy Yeung, she represents this atypical charity organization, whose mission appears to be less fund-raising focused and more academic. As Ma muses, it’s through this illumination that we can come to a better understanding of the world and its issues – and then, following the light to the end of the tunnel, come out a new person. Her enthusiasm is so very infectious, her manner so certain, it’s entirely possible to believe that this one woman can change anything.

How did you decide to start JEMS in the first place?

I’d been in education for a little while. I’d also been serving in church for a little while, and in that time I worked with a lot of teenagers. I realized that they face a lot of issues, but it all stems from a few root issues, which come down to identity. A lot of problems they face deal with relationships, usually with family – a lot of things grow out of that. When you hit your teenage years, it’s a lot harder to change things, and it’s a lot harder to deal with certain issues. When you get older, the more set you are in your ways.

So the theory goes, “prevention is better than cure.” It’s better to prevent someone from having low self-esteem than to help them fix it. It really starts before they hit high school, so 12 and under. There’s a lot of focus on education; every parent wants to educate their child, otherwise we wouldn’t have all these “tutor kings” and I think that’s great; I’m totally for pursuing academics and skills. But I think what goes with that is character. How to make life choices. How to communicate with people. We talk about raising leaders, and that’s what every parent wants. A leader is only a great leader if their values are right. Those things don’t just boil down to your skills. It boils down to character – your identity, your relationships and how you serve the community.

There was an option, when I was thinking about what to do, to open an education centre teaching English. But so many people do it, and people do it well. I wanted to put something on the table that could complement everything they’re doing. And this is the way that I’m offering it.

In Hong Kong, we tend to be more results-driven with children. Is it a challenge to explain to parents what you’re trying to achieve?

Yes. We’re doing something that’s very new. They think that these things should be taught at home, or at Sunday school. But we want to give a framework and vocabulary that parents can use to teach. It has been challenging, because it’s very abstract. A lot of parents think, “You’re just sitting here talking about theory with my kid, why should I pay you to do that?”

We’ve had students saying that their grades have improved. If a person’s character is better, they will be happier, they will not have so many issues, then academic performance should go up. I was recently listening to a lecture and the professor was saying that emotional education actually generates the greatest results in academic performance. It isn’t as tangible as learning phonics, sure. But this is a lifetime investment. Studies show that whatever happens in the first 12 years of your life has a huge impact on the years after.

Smoking and drinking and sleeping around… those aren’t problems that come up when your daughter is 14. Those are problems that started when she was seven. She was neglected and felt that she was ugly and not loved. Let’s go to the root, so when they build the building of their life, it’s not going to crumble because the foundation is weak.

How did you get involved with Plan International?

My PR director is involved with a lot of their planning, and a lot of their events. Plan talks a lot about investing in a person, a child. It then goes into family, and the hope to change a community. And that’s actually how [JEMS] started. We have three circles that we talk about: identity, relationships and community. We talk about investing in a child and their own identity, their own value system, their own confidence – and that, in turn, should affect their relationships with other people. If you have self-confidence, it means that you can invest in other people’s lives, not just think about yourself and how you’re not good enough. As you build relationships and family, it should actually change a whole community. That’s when we can go out and do more for the community.

My PR director saw that and she told me about it, and said [Plan] would like to invite me to be their ambassador. But the cool thing is that it turns out one of my family members was a beneficiary of Plan back in the ‘50s, and I had no idea. I’d already agreed to be an ambassador, but it also gave it more of a personal touch.

What do you think is important about Plan’s survey, Because I am a Girl?

When they were sharing with me what they found in this report, it was a piece of knowledge for me. That if you invest in girls, the impact it has on families and communities is actually greater than if you invest in a boy. They’re saying it’s because women are in general more relational. So if you give a girl an education, she thinks about how it can help her family, how she can impart that knowledge or share resources with the rest of her family, and how that can, in turn, change the community. That part of the survey really stood out. If we can invest in young women, if we can give them an education, which so many young women do not have, that’s when we can start seeing some social changes.

Did any stories in particular touch you?

I was reading a story about a girl in Africa, and how her brothers had been sold into slavery in the city. The mother didn’t know, she was actually still waiting at home, hoping her dreams would be fulfilled because she sent her two older boys out. Her daughter, who was very smart, had to drop out of school to take care of the younger siblings. That just broke my heart. Number one, you’ve got a mother who’s pining away after her sons, who are doing something that isn’t what she thinks. And secondly, a clever girl is deprived of educational opportunities.

I’m halfway through the book. Normally I can read very quick, in a day or two, but with this, I can only read a story or two and then I have to put it down and let it sink in, because it’s very emotional. It’s not just a story, you know it happened. After you read a story like that, what can you do?

I love the tale of the starfish; I don’t know if you know it. It’s about a man walking down the beach, and there are lots of starfish on the shore, and he picks them up and throws them back in the sea. A littles boy comes up to him and asks what he’s doing. The man says, “They’re going to die, so I have to throw them back in the sea.” The little boy says he can’t do it, there’s too many. And the man picks another up, throws it in the sea and says, “Well, I made a difference for that one.”

I think, when I read a book like [Because I am a Girl], about these little girls, I think, I’m in Hong Kong, halfway across a world. What can I do? I just have to remind myself and other people, just because you can’t change a country or nation, one child does make a difference. And that’s why Plan is wonderful, because it doesn’t just invest in the big picture, in only policy change. It’s child-focused. Let’s make a difference for this person in this community. Let’s see sustainable development and change in a community.

How do you think the book will impact the people who are featured? Will readers be impacted to action?

I certainly hope so. The head has to come before the hands. If there is knowledge, hopefully that will propel people into doing something. As women growing up in Hong Kong, we’ve had similar opportunities to men. So we’re very ignorant of the fact that this still happens around the world. This survey coming out, for Hong Kong at least, I’m hoping that young women, people like me who grew up having wonderful opportunities, don’t take it for granted, and in the things that we have, we will be able to give back. The pledge that I took for Plan was that because I was given the opportunity to live out my dreams, I shouldn’t just take that and live it out. I should empower and impart so that other people can.

In Hong Kong high society, the norm isn’t to conduct a survey, it’s to throw a fund-raiser or a charity ball. Why do you think Plan chose to take this more academic route?