Bureaucrats must loosen purse strings
The government is looking closely at the Mega Events Fund. Among the questions is whether to continue with it and if so, how it can be streamlined to help the targeted communities - sports, arts and culture. To answer the first, the tourism-boosting initiative set up in 2009, and due to end in April next year, must go ahead. Money is badly needed for people wanting to put on a spectacle that can raise the profile of Hong Kong. And the only avenue these days seems to be the government as funds from the private sector dry up.
The other issue as to how the funds should be distributed is a bit more complex, or at least, that is the case right now. This is simply because of the bureaucratic approach, which comes as no surprise considering the government departments involved. The Tourism Commission runs the MEF on behalf of the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau. It is safe to assume that civil servants overly worried with putting their jobs and reputations on the line - a legacy of the controversial HarbourFest held to rejuvenate Hong Kong after the 2003 Sars outbreak - have taken the cautious approach, whereby every dollar is miserly accounted for. Nothing wrong with that, if not for the burden on successful applicants.
This hardship stems from the very root of MEF disbursement. For example, if an entrepreneur wants to stage a sporting event or an arts exhibition and sold it to the MEF, he or she would get only half the sum agreed to. The balance is given after the event when an audited report is presented to the MEF. For a small sporting body - and most of the 70 or more national sports associations are just that - this presents a conundrum. They need the money, but to get it they have to come up with a bridge themselves.
This is the bind the Hong Kong Cricket Association finds itself in. For the first time, the Sixes got support from the MEF this year, to the tune of HK$3.5 million. But it has been given only HK$1.75 million of that amount and the balance will only be paid once all the boxes have been ticked by the government.
The Sixes was expanded this year to three days and 12 teams, including an All Stars team, all in the hope of making the event, which is now well-known in cricketing circles around the world, bigger and better. To achieve this, the association needed money up front to pay for the airfares of the teams from Australia to Ireland, hotel accommodation and other expenses. But what the association got was half with the promise, yes promise, that the balance would be paid if all pre-conditions were met.
One such condition was that the event attract 10,000 people. What if it had rained, as it did last year when a sodden Saturday resulted in empty stands? This would have meant the HKCA failing to meet the required numbers. Would the MEF then keep its promise and cough up the balance? We won't know, for thankfully it didn't rain two weeks ago and the Sixes concluded successfully. The issue of how the money is disbursed is flawed. MEF applicants are forced to gamble. If they want more money, they have to find more themselves, too. For instance, the Hong Kong Golf Association was awarded HK$8 million for next month's showpiece in Fanling. It would have got half, with the balance to be paid later. In the case of golf, the organisers are lucky as they have a sponsor, UBS, which can carry most of the financial load pre-event. But what about all the small sporting associations who do not have a major title sponsor?
If they go and take a short-term loan from the bank, they are still forced to pay interest. And then what if the MEF reneges on its promise as has happened in the past as one impresario in the arts circle found to his chagrin when he was left with a HK$1 million debt after apparently failing to meet all conditions?
This places a burden on the small guy hoping to make it into the big time. Not every event in Hong Kong is the Hong Kong Rugby Sevens, although every event is aspiring to become so. This is what the people behind the MEF have failed to grasp.
The MEF, which was set up with HK$100 million, is a great idea and every national sports association wants it to continue past next April. But what everyone would love to see are changes to how the funds are disbursed. The fact that nearly HK$50 million is still left in the kitty is proof the scheme, at least the disbursement side of it, has been ill-conceived. The civil servants who cooked up this idea must look at its flaws and find a fairer system. It is a shame, for those unspent funds would have gone a long way to making this city an events capital in Asia.