West Kowloon Cultural District

Getting it right on West Kowloon

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 April, 2006, 12:00am

Chief Secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan put on a brave face when he announced a fundamental rethink of the West Kowloon Cultural District project in late February. He denied the project would have to start from scratch, and maintained that a relaunch would in fact speed up the construction of the cultural complex.

He explained that a review of the arts and cultural facilities by a consultative committee he chaired would provide greater flexibility and scope for the building and financing of the complex.

Speaking during Legislative Council question time last week, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen dismissed claims that a rethink of the project was a setback for strong governance.

'It is widely known that the West Kowloon project is one closest to my heart. To start afresh on this landmark project was a truly difficult choice. However, it is exactly because of the project's far-reaching implications that extra prudence is called for.

'We should have the courage to review and rectify our decisions; and this in itself demonstrates our commitment to 'people-based government'.'

Mr Tsang's admission of failure - in seeking public support for the single-developer model - has set the stage for taking the cultural complex back to the drawing board.

On Thursday, the government announced the formation of a consultative committee, chaired by Mr Hui, and three related subcommittees. The subcommittees, led by three unofficial members of the Executive Council, will look into different aspects - performing arts and tourism, museums and finance.

More importantly, movers and shakers from the arts and culture circles and financial experts have a heavy presence on the four committees. Notably absent are the developers. Political parties and legislators have only a marginal presence.

If last week's announcement has not caused a stir, it is because the credentials and backgrounds of the government appointees have silenced the critics and the sceptics.

Ordinary people are comfortable leaving the planning and development of the cultural hub to the experts as long as the project does not become - or is perceived as - yet another giveaway to property giants.

With the wisdom of hindsight, it is clear that the government had seriously underestimated the depth of the concern in society about collusion with developers.

However committed and entrepreneurial the three short-listed developers may have been, the public did not trust that they had the right mindset and expertise to promote arts and culture.

It was only in February - almost 30 months after it invited participants to bid under the single-developer model in September 2003 - that the government began to face the reality that the project was heading for a Titanic-like end if it stuck to its course.

It now sounds irrelevant and futile to ask whether the government had consulted the same batch of arts and cultural experts before 2003 and, if it did not, why not.

One is also tempted to consider whether policymakers may have been blinded by intellectual arrogance, the imperative of administrative convenience or a feeling of paranoia about dealing with Legco.

Judging from the memberships of the official think-tanks on West Kowloon, it is clear Mr Hui understands the utmost importance of getting it right from the start and rebuilding public trust in the decision-making process.

The simple truth is that members of the arts and culture sector will be both the experts on and the users of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

Securing their participation will be crucial in seeking consensus in society on contentious issues that may arise on the future of West Kowloon and the broader issue of cultural development.

With the new bodies named, West Kowloon is open for a rethink on facilities, new ideas and visionary planning for what could be the most exciting project and the one closest to the hearts of everyone who calls Hong Kong home.