Worth the wait

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 January, 2003, 12:00am

SCMP, January 23, 2003

The resignation of Housing Authority chairwoman Rosanna Wong Yick-ming in 2001 over a series of public housing construction scandals was a milestone in Hong Kong's political development. It was the first time that a public official had stood down to take political responsibility for a department's lapses. The strong public demand for senior officials to be held accountable for major blunders was to spur Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to introduce a ministerial system in July last year to clearly separate political and administrative accountability.

Yet, politics was only one dimension of the case. In deciding to get to the root of the scandal, even after heads had rolled, the Legislative Council has done the public a service. The report of its investigation, published yesterday, shows that the exercise, which took two years and $14 million to complete, was worthwhile. Apart from conclusively laying blame on the officials concerned, the report has, as this newspaper suggested then, identified problems inherent in the system that had allowed malpractice among contractors.

It has also found that officials, when faced with enormous pressure to achieve production targets aimed at addressing a perceived 'shortage' of housing, were more concerned with meeting construction deadlines than ensuring quality.

Quite apart from being a record of what was wrong with the public housing construction programme, the report should also provide food for thought for students of public administration. In essence, a large bureaucracy was directed to fulfil an unrealistic production target, thereby exposing its lack of flexibility to adapt to change, as is the case with most public sector bodies.

How ironic it is that Hong Kong now faces a glut of empty flats. The public housing programme has been drastically scaled back, and the reasons for its very existence are being challenged. The only sure way of stopping similar scandals recurring is for the government to withdraw from the business of building homes.


milestone (n) originally this was a stone marker that showed the distance in miles to a certain place. It also implies a significant event that marks the turning point in the development of an issue

stand down (phrasal v) to resign from an official position

spur (v) to encourage, to stimulate someone to do something

heads roll (idiom) people lose their jobs

inherent (adj) naturally a part of something, Example: Quite apart from the fact that we simply have no idea what inherent problems a cloned person will carry, nature has a way of putting all sorts of obstacles to survival. Species will be threatened by limited gene pools and a lack of the capacity to adapt. (SCMP, January 12, 2003)

food for thought (idiom) something that causes one to think carefully Example: The film does provide food for thought at a time when our world teeters on the brink of war. (Young Post, January 5, 2003)

Discussion points

- In your opinion, what is the best way for the government to demonstrate accountability? Under what circumstances do you think it will be appropriate for an official to step down after a mistake?

- Is housing a commodity? Should a government be very hands-on in its housing policy? Why? Can we learn from any neighbouring cities or countries?