Legco gives lesson on when to stay mum

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 February, 2013, 5:53am

Political lesson today: how to spot a minister who is completely out of his depth. This is a topic I can go on about forever, but let's stick to a recent example, due to space constraints.

Here's a telltale sign: The minister is talking off the top of his head without the slightest idea about the implications.

Development Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po told lawmakers this week he and his bureau are eyeing some People's Liberation Army barracks to ease the acute housing shortage. He claimed his officials are open to all available options and are "working on the idea" of approaching the PLA.

Actually, lawmaker Lam Tai-fai raised the issue, but Chan apparently wanted to look clever and said he was already on to it.

Let's stop right there. Pigs will fly and hell will freeze before this happens. It's far more likely that our kind-hearted property tycoons will give up their land banks to house our poor than the PLA will give up some barracks. This is a matter that would have to go all the way to the central government and the Central Military Commission.

In other words, from Beijing's point of view, it's a matter of defence and national security, not just land redevelopment. It's also a matter of national prestige. Deng Xiaoping made it clear before the handover that whatever the British military had in Hong Kong, the PLA would have the equivalent.

Lawmaker and former security chief Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, who knows these matters, cautioned the clueless Chan that he "better not comment if he is not familiar with the background". When even a legislator takes pity on you, you know you are on the wrong track. Alas, it was too late.

I have it on good authority that senior civil servants at Chan's bureau who do know something about the issue literally fell off their chairs when they heard what Chan was saying.

The gaffe in Legco quickly prompted "a source familiar with the situation" - humm, I wonder where this mysterious source could be from - to clarify later in the night that it would be really - really! - difficult to take back PLA sites without central government approval, but the bureau is actively reviewing development potential of sites held by the government.

Paul, send your deputies to Legco next time.