Bureaucrats never like to admit that they have been forced to change their minds. This may explain why the Government is tying itself in knots trying to deny that it performed a hasty U-turn in allowing the United Muslim Association to rent a derelict school near Yuen Long for just $1 a year.
This is the site for which, a few weeks ago, the Government wanted $35,000 a month in rent. It said the association had 'failed to justify on educational grounds' its plan to open an English-speaking school in the New Territories. To charge any lower rent 'would result in duplication of resources'.
All that has changed since then is that the South China Morning Post has highlighted the unfairness of such a stance when the Canadian and Australian International Schools both use high-quality government properties for nominal rents. Yet, rather than admit that the publicity forced it to see the error of its ways, the Education and Manpower Branch is seeking to maintain that previous statements were merely a description of some of the factors it was considering.
There is more than a matter of simply avoiding official embarrassment at issue here. While the U-turn is welcome, for the administration to concede that it came about because of press reporting would be to expose the arbitrary way in such decisions are made. Hong Kong's land is the most valuable government asset. Allowing its use at a nominal rent is a generous privilege which is only granted to a few organisations, such as the Fringe Club and the Bar Council.
This would seem an area for which there should be clear criteria. Yet the U-turn over the Muslim school suggests that no such criteria exist: otherwise why was the original decision so easily reversed? In this case, the end result has been a just one. But, if such decisions can be so easily influenced, the way is open for less worthy organisations to apply pressure to secure similarly privileged treatment. That is a far cry from the level playing-field, of which the Government likes to boast. If the administration cannot bring itself to admit that it has performed a U-turn, it should at least produce public guidelines to avoid giving rise to future uncertainty.