Lai See

Urgent action needed to combat Hong Kong's killer air

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 August, 2013, 5:13am

The ghastly air pollution which has descended over Hong Kong this week is a reminder of what remains a pressing problem for the city.

Every year we enjoy a period when the prevailing wind switches from the northeast to the southwest, and if it is strong enough keeps the foul toxic air at bay. This year we have mercifully enjoyed a more extended period of clear skies. It started in late May rather than the normal early to mid-June and this has been accompanied by winds that have been sufficiently strong to keep the atmospheric pollution at bay. We have now reached the time of year when that will change. The clearer skies we have enjoyed have masked, at least to the naked eye, our continuing problem of unacceptably high levels of roadside pollution.

The government to its credit, after years of neglect by previous administrations, intends to introduce proposals to eliminate vehicles with old diesel engines and measure and control emissions from other vehicles. But these proposals have yet to be introduced into the Legislative Council.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people are dying unnecessarily as a result of the toxic conditions in which we live. According to the Hedley Environmental Index, there have been 1,875 avoidable deaths so far this year because of air pollution. The index shows that over the past five years there have been an average of 3,200 avoidable deaths a year as a result of Hong Kong's filthy air. As we have remarked before, if we were told that bird flu would cause 3,200 deaths over the next 12 months there would be panic and the government would move a lot faster to implement solutions. This is an urgent problem.


SFC rejects head accusation

The Securities and Futures Commission often gives the impression of being a rather dull and colourless organisation. This is perhaps because it plays a "dead bat" on most issues, to use a cricketing term. But we are pleased to see evidence of wilder spirits at work within the organisation. It recently received a missive from Lindell Lucy drawing the SFC's attention to the dangers of investment-linked assurance scheme (ILAS) products. These have been a lucrative source of income for the insurance industry but have had unhappy consequences for a number of people who have bought them. Lucy's girlfriend had made the mistake of taking out such a policy.

Lucy, and others, believe the current arrangements lead to mis-selling and ILAS products should come under the tighter ambit of the SFC. The SFC however maintains a somewhat legalistic stance in arguing that given the way the ordinance is worded they are insurance products. This does not go down well with Lucy, who in his e-mail says: "With all due respect, the SFC needs to pull its head out of its a**. Does putting an insurance wrapper around securities magically transform them into something other than securities?" Stephen Tisdall, senior director for intermediaries licensing and conduct at the SFC, replies: "I am relieved to be able to advise you that the SFC's head is not located in the particular part of its anatomy to which you referred." But he then goes on to reiterate the SFC's position, suggesting perhaps that Lucy's initial observation on this is not so wide of the mark.


Legal affairs

We see that Director of Public Prosecutions Kevin Zervos wants to have his cake and eat it with respect to the Securities and Futures Commission. Zervos steps down on September 8 but he is not going quietly. His recent comments about overworked judges and "tensions" with the SFC over prosecution matters have raised some eyebrows. In his annual report he says that the SFC's powers, which enable it to prosecute certain kinds of cases in magistrates' court, should be taken away and transferred to an independent prosecutor. Other than referring to tensions, he doesn't indicate what the problem is. What cases have been prosecuted and shouldn't have been, or have there been cases which the SFC should have prosecuted and didn't? Zervos doesn't say.

Meanwhile, there is some irony that although the SFC prosecuted Simon Chui Wing-nin, a former assistant director of finance at Citic Pacific, for insider dealing, the case is referred to in Zervos' report as "HKSAR v Chui Wing Nin Simon", suggesting it was a Department of Justice case.