One relic that few would miss

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 December, 2004, 12:00am

The Antiquities Advisory Board is something of a relic itself, being perhaps the worst surviving example of the colonial government's old manipulate-and-control 'advisory' system. Ever since it was established in 1976, the board has lurched from one bungle to the next. The most recent scandal - a decision concerning the Central Police Station taken without a quorum - is only the latest in a string of similar and, incredibly, identical fiascos.

In 1987, at the height of the battle over the preservation of Ohel Leah Synagogue, the board also made an important decision without a quorum. At the instigation of the government officials who essentially stage-manage the process, the board's chairman directed that members should submit their views in writing and the votes would then be tabulated. Not only did this contravene the procedures clearly set out in the Antiquities Ordinance, it meant that the vote could be interpreted and manipulated by senior officials. That is exactly what happened, leading to a huge controversy.

One wonders how the same thing could have happened again in 2000, when not only was a quorum lacking; a representative of the proposed development was present at the meeting when the board decided against preservation of the old village at Nga Tsin Wai. A South China Morning Post editorial at the time said: 'That is an extraordinary way for the board to behave ... perhaps it is the board [rather than Nga Tsin Wai] that is not worth preserving.'

Another remarkable failure was the board's refusal to examine the woeful situation in the system of archaeological contracting run by the Antiquities and Monuments Office (AMO), in spite of repeated efforts by myself and others to bring up the matter. The Hong Kong Archaeological Society made several requests to meet the board in the 1990s; all were refused. The situation came to a head in 2002, when the two highest officials in the AMO were arrested by the ICAC for alleged fraud.

The board has consistently failed in its avowed objective of providing expert and objective advice on preserving Hong Kong's heritage. The reasons for this run deep in the appointee system of the advisory boards. The government is fond of claiming that the individuals selected for their expertise are more likely to give unbiased advice than those elected by and accountable to the public. This view is seriously flawed. As I observed during a brief stint as a board member in 1987-88, these individuals are loath to rattle the hand that appointed them. Eventually, a don't-rock-the-boat, or worse, a yes-man mentality develops. Two current members have admitted they are basically rubber stamps on most issues.

This is reinforced by holding meetings behind closed doors. Officials maintain that this enables members to speak their minds freely. The reality is that it merely encourages appointees to go along with what the government wants, something they would be much more reluctant to do if the meetings were open.

The final plank in the structure of manipulation is the selection of board members. The government has studiously avoided appointing activists, even to the subcommittees, preferring prominent figures in community service who seldom attend and rarely have an informed opinion.

Lately there seems to be a predominance of members on the board with no specific expertise relevant to heritage. Without activist members, the board has shown no interest in reform. Periodic outcries at the board's various fiascos and ineffectual performance have had no impact. It is high time, as the Post's recent editorial stated, to restructure the board. It is one relic that Hong Kong does not need to preserve.

William Meacham is an honorary research fellow at the Centre of Asian Studies of the University of Hong Kong