Best course is full disclosure in agricultural land row
Perception is everything in politics, the maxim goes. Development Minister Paul Chan Mo-po should have learned that lesson after the first run-in he had with critics, but several more scraps and 11 months later, he is again struggling to convince that he is truthful. He has fronted the media several times and Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has given his full backing, but questions remain about the land purchased by a company he was a shareholder of that has dramatically risen in value due to a major New Territories project he is overseeing. To quell the claims of collusion, he has to be as open and honest as possible.
It would have been better for Chan to have revealed all about the 20,000 square feet of agricultural land in Kwu Tung North when he took office last August. That is especially so given that it falls under plans for creation of a new town he is spear-heading. As a result of the redevelopment, the value of the plot has increased from HK$350,000 when purchased to an estimated HK$17 million, sparking allegations he will benefit financially from inside knowledge. He has said he told Leung of the property last September, that he is no longer a director of the company that held it and that his wife sold her shareholding in the firm to family members nine months ago. Yet some still believe he will in some way profit.
No laws or regulations have been broken. Chan followed the rules when he took office by declaring his assets. Long-standing calls that these requirements be broadened to include a spouse and other family members have understandably resurfaced and the matter is worthy of consideration. Our public officials have to have the highest integrity and every check has to be in place to ensure that they are capable of doing their job honestly.
But checks and declarations are not all that is required. Officials also have to be able to skilfully handle media scrutiny. Chan so far has done that poorly. Just days after taking office, he was embroiled in a media storm over the sub-dividing of flats he and his wife had owned. Then and now he inadequately explained his circumstances. Only by giving a full accounting of the land and the timeframe of events can he avoid the accusations of lies and greed that have come back to haunt him.
Property is a key investment. We cannot expect officials to divest holdings if there is likely to be a conflict of interest. But being open, honest and forthcoming is a requirement, especially for a development minister. Chan should come clean once and for all, rather than doling out the truth piecemeal.