Punish officials who flout the law
No one is above the law in Hong Kong. Nor should anyone think he or she has such a right. But the controversy over illegal structures has revealed the extent to which this particular law has been abused. Public figures including senior officials, tycoons and lawmakers have been found culpable.
The scandal has now extended to the cabinet, with education minister Michael Suen Ming-yeung apologising for his failure to remove an unauthorised extension on the ground floor of his home in Happy Valley for five years. It is staggering that he felt he could ignore a demolition notice issued by the department he supervised in 2006 when he was lands minister with direct responsibility for illegal structures. Separately, a report in this paper revealed that a large mansion owned by a company with close links to toy tycoon Francis Choi Chee-ming had been built illegally, complete with landscaped gardens encroaching on a vast piece of government land in Tai Po. More cases are expected to come to light as the saga continues.
Suen said he took no action because he thought the area occupied was very small. This is, no doubt, the attitude adopted by many property owners. But that is the root of the problem. And if a government minister thinks there is no need to comply with the legal requirements, what hope is there of ensuring everyone else abides by the law?
The problem has been allowed to persist for too long. In the New Territories, illegal structures are now numerous and widespread. This has occurred precisely because the situation has been tolerated. But the extent of the problem does not turn an illegal structure into a legal one. There has been a blatant disregard for the law that cannot continue. There is a need for a fundamental change in people's attitudes. And that must be driven by effective enforcement of the law. Passing a law is meaningless unless it is applied. No doubt, the vast number of illegal structures poses a logistical challenge for the government. But that difficulty must be overcome. Those who have broken the law must remove their illegal structures. If they refuse to do so within a reasonable time, they must be punished. Until that happens, people will continue to break the law.
Officials and lawmakers should be setting a good example. If they have broken the law, they should not escape censure. Calls for Suen to resign have been mounting, but there is no indication he will do more than apologise for his actions.
The chief executive's order for his team to come clean on illegal structures is a belated step to restore public confidence. He has to prove that the ministerial system does not turn a deaf ear to calls for the censure of political appointees who knowingly breach the law.