Lai See

Yet another damning report on government archives

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 1:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 1:01am

Just over two years ago the Director of Audit issued a damning report on the state of the Hong Kong government's archives. The government, according to the report, had failed in just about every aspect of its remit, from looking after records, vetting them, and disposing of those no longer required. The report prompted a debate in Legco over the need for an archive law to give a legal backing to arrangements for dealing with records and archives, and to give the Government Records Service (GRS) some spine.

The then Chief Secretary Stephen Lam Sui-lung loftily told Legco such a law was unnecessary and that the government was taking "administrative" measures to address the commission's criticisms. Just over a year later the current Chief Secretary, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, was asked in Legco, given that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had expressed his support for an archive law during the CE election campaign, had there been any progress.

In a written response Lam replied: "Despite there being no dedicated archival legislation, the essential general principles of records management have in fact been implemented in Hong Kong through administrative measures."

Despite these assurances from two chief secretaries the Ombudsman yesterday delivered yet another embarrassing report on arrangements surrounding public records and the archives. Clearly, for the past two years nothing has been done by the government. Obviously the existence of "administrative measures" is not working, and it is time this obfuscation and dishonesty by the government was brought to an end and an archive law introduced.

In his report yesterday the Ombudsman drew attention to the "constant and enormous backlogs" in the GRS and the clear and obvious shortage of staff. This again highlights a well-practiced government wheeze when it doesn't want anything done. It downgrades the professionalism of the department and doesn't give it enough staff.

Hardly surprising then that it can't do its job. The report notes 11 recent cases, including the Lamma ferry disaster, where a failure to keep proper records has led to poor decision making on the part of a government department or inability to resolve legal issues.

The report notes that despite the lack of staff the government is disposing of records at a rapid rate. In 2011 when government offices moved to Tamar, 2,326 metres of documents were destroyed. While that was a high point, the rate of destruction is continuing at a rapid clip with 1,400 metres of documents destroyed last year.

So we have to ask ourselves why is this happening? Obviously if an archive law is introduced and civil servants don't comply, they will be breaking the law and this could impact on their pension rights. That's the last thing they want to see. But the existence of records makes individuals accountable. Not being able to find the relevant documents is becoming a policy tool for evading accountability.

But our long-held contention for the government's reluctance to look after its records properly has always been that it doesn't want to show how "one country, two systems" really works.


Stranger than fiction

A novel by our old chum Charlie Charters, a former Hong Kong television presenter, is causing a stir. Charters, who is now head of sales for FIFA's hospitality company, wrote his book three years ago.

The book, entitled Bolt Action, bears an uncanny resemblance to some aspects of the missing Malaysian Airliner MH370. The jacket cover reads, "since 9/11, the door between the pilots and the passengers on an airliner must be locked and impossible to break down. But what if the pilots are dead?"

The title refers to the armatures in the cockpit door that have been designed to make the flight deck impenetrable.

In another eerie coincidence the plane at the centre of Bolt Action is the exact same make as MH370, a Boeing 777-200ER. After the pilots are killed by a member of the crew, the plane is hijacked, and the passengers try desperately to penetrate the fortified cockpit door to retake the cockpit before the hijacker can succeed.

We see Charters is even being interviewed by newspapers for his views on what he thinks happened to the missing airline.


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