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?
I don’t know why, but I think it will work. When it comes to doing a fund-raiser that’s about having a ball and people getting their photos taken, that’s a one-off thing, so the contribution will be one-off. In order to understand what’s happening, one thing that we teach here is that you have to realise and empathise. Compassion leads to action. I don’t think [holding a fund-raiser] is the most effective or sustainable way of doing things. It you actually get people to really understand the issues and the problems, they’ll invest not just one night or one lump sum, but an entire life.
What do you teach at JEMS that allows students to retain this philosophy of empathy and compassion throughout their lives?
We can only be a part of the puzzle. It has to be family – parents – and school. It has to be a lifestyle. If you’re used to doing something – and we teach kids up to age 12 – if they’re used to giving and sharing and serving, it’s part of life, it’s easy for it to be sustained. The problem with a lot of community work and service is that it’s packaged as a one-off thing. Even in school. It’s one school visit, or going there, doing a show and then leaving. The way it can be sustained is if you have the environment to nurture it, like here. If it’s instilled as a lifestyle, it’s likely to continue.
That’s one thing we really treasure, having parents really embrace these values as well.
Maybe it is one-off, or selfish, but it’s still helping. So is that really a bad thing?
Whatever is done that helps people, that’s great. And I think in the progress of helping people, even if it’s done out of somewhat selfish motives, I believe people’s hearts can change. But if there is an option, a better way of doing things, then I think we should pursue it.
It’s not to say, “Let’s stop all fund-raising balls.” Great things can come out of that. A lot of people have been plugged into charities and NGOs because of those things.
Education is a very female-dominated industry. Do you see that as a form of gender inequality?
I’m totally for gender equality, but I also believe that males and females are very different, and I’m very comfortable with saying that. I think we were created to be different, and I do think that we’re gifted in different ways. I do think that women are generally more sensitive. We’re more nurturing, emotional, relational. And that helps when you’re a nurse, when you’re a teacher. Men are a little more logical, and I don’t think that’s an insult to either gender when we say those things. Just as physically we’re different in our make-up, so to make ourselves something that we’re not, that’s not healthy either. The divide that we see now is very normal, so I don’t have huge issues with it. But that’s also because I’ve never been hurt by that.
Your father being a prominent figure in local politics, were there different pressures? Do you think that if you were a boy, you might have felt more pressure to follow in his footsteps?
When I was choosing my major in college, [my parents] said to choose economic because it’s practical. Most Chinese parents are like that. “Daddy was a banker, it’s great!” My mom had her own business at the time; she was in property management and design. And it was like, “Oh, you like design, what about this?”
Honestly, I think it was just about parents opening up options. As an 18-year-old, you don’t even know what half the jobs in the world are. You only know about doctors, nurses and firemen, that’s what you learn in school. What does a banker do? You have no idea.
But I think for my dad, when I said that I really felt like I had a passion for education, he said, “That’s OK, you do it.” They were part of the exploratory process, but my dad said, “You have to do what you like, you have to do what you’re passionate about. That will be what brings you to success.” My dad is someone who’s also very passionate about education. He never really pursued it, but now he’s a professor, he’s speaking at a lot of schools… he loves it! He loves working with young people and he’s great with kids. So his heart resonated with that.
If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?
Are you sure that’s one question? That’s a lot in one! I don’t even know where to start, but I think one thing, and it’s just the first thing that comes to mind, is family. It breaks my heart to see families – not just broken ones – families that are physically, legally still together, but are not even operating as family. I feel like a lot of issues that come up are because of a lack of family. I would want to see more families together – really together, really supporting each other, walking together. So I would change families, which would then change the world.