Selective use of the facts

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 December, 2006, 12:00am

Selective disclosure is an art. A good example of how it can be exploited to advance one's cause is being played out in the continuing saga over the preservation of the old Star Ferry pier in Central. As activists tried to stop the demolition of the historic icon, it was revealed that a study of the structure's heritage value had apparently been 'hidden' from the public.

The 2001 study on the historic value of the Star Ferry pier, particularly the clock tower, formed part of the environmental impact assessment of the Central reclamation. The report's author argued that the structure was worth preserving, as it was a landmark associated with the development of public transport and the 1966 riots sparked by a five-cent fare increase.

But, unlike the reports of other studies on the reclamation, it was not posted on the website of the Environmental Protection Department. Officials maintained that there was no question of them trying to hide the report. They said it had been available for public inspection at the relevant office, as required by law: they blamed technical problems for the missing hyperlink to the report on the website.

The explanation is a reminder, to those who want to take on the government, not to accept official information at face value. The government, like any other organisation, does not have an obligation to arm its critics with facts and figures unfavourable to its causes.

Short of a thorough investigation to learn why the hyperlink was missing, one cannot help but feel that the 'technical problems' were the result of deliberate oversight. The government is determined to reclaim that part of the harbour. It has, therefore, been selective in giving the public access to the relevant reports.

The government has not breached any law, as it is not a legal requirement to post environmental impact assessment reports on the internet. Following a public outcry, a hyperlink to the report has since been established. With hindsight, it's clear that the activists who used civil disobedience to try to block the demolition of the clock tower were too slow in asserting their case. They should have spoken up a lot earlier: by now, theirs is a lost cause.

But the government must not be allowed to use similarly questionable means to get what it wants again. If the government were sincere in owning up to its oversight, then it would amend the relevant legislation, or introduce binding guidelines, to ensure that all relevant reports on major projects are readily available for public access on the Web.

Above all, it would review the scope of our heritage conservation regime. Under existing rules, the Star Ferry pier was not considered worth preserving, as it was less than 50 years old. But what happened at the pier, during its relatively short lifespan, was of high historical and social interest. It is a shame that this was not given adequate consideration when the decision was made to tear it down.

Ironically, while the clock tower that generations of Hongkongers have grown up with is being torn down, the replacement Star Ferry pier has adopted a mock-Edwardian style that harks back to an even earlier era - too remote in time for them to appreciate.

The old mechanical clock will be placed at the new pier for public viewing, and an electronic clock that sounds like it has been installed.

The whole arrangement is as odd as tearing down the Great Wall and then using concrete and steel to build a replica. What Hong Kong needs are genuine cultural legacies that provide living links with our past, not recreated structures of a bygone era.

C.K. Lau is the Post's executive editor, policy