What has happened to the MTR, Cathay and Hong Kong International Airport, once the city’s pride and joy?
Alice Wu says Hong Kong’s golden trinity is losing its lustre. The MTR has been derailed by a lack of humility among officials dealing with recent mistakes, Cathay has suffered earnings and job woes, while the airport no longer tops international rankings
Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong International Airport and the Mass Transit Railway were once the trinity of Hong Kong’s pride and joy. But somewhere along the way, things have changed. Our airport hasn’t made it to the Skytrax top three airports of the year since 2012, after seeming unbeatable at the beginning of the millennium. Today, however, the airport makes the news because it’s possible to name-drop your way through security with a large tube of hair gel.
As for the city’s “flagship” airline: with earnings nosediving due to bad fuel hedging bets, Cathay has been busy cutting hundreds of jobs and concentrating on cattle herding – making their businesses “leaner” by squeezing in more economy-class passengers with seat refittings for the ultimate “cattle class” experience.
The MTR, arguably the most celebrated railway in the world, has been derailed by its institutional folly and conceit. At the pinnacle of arrogance, chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang mocked public and press inquiries with open contempt, considering those who aren’t technicians to be ignorant and, therefore, not worth paying attention to.
The city’s railway system has received top honours for many years. The Sustainable Cities Mobility Index 2017 by Arcadis awarded Hong Kong’s public transport system first place because of the our metro system. The MTR is the reason we came first among 84 cities under “The Future of Urban Mobility” 2014 report by Arthur D. Little.
Consistently snapping top accolades is gratifying, of course, but that’s no reason to flaunt arrogance so openly, forgetting that success has been built on the blood, sweat and tears of many who came before and at the expense of bringing prolonged disruptions inherent to railway construction to countless neighbourhoods since the late 1960s. The MTR Corporation has been handsomely rewarded in both profits and public policies.
It’s one of the most profitable metro systems in the world. It’s the “gold standard” – its public-private partnership something that Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan couldn’t stop singing the praises of, and its rail-plus-property model has been the gospel preached to railway projects around the world.
The government is right to have made the railway the backbone of the city’s public transport system. With the Railway Development Strategy, announced in September 2014, the future of the MTR is secure, with government development and planning for our heavy rail network through to 2031. This security of indispensability is the main reason the MTR has become “too big to fail” – “too big”, in fact, to be questioned, have flaws or not increase fares.
It would seem the recent “glitches”, turned full-blown scandals, found in the construction of the most expensive line yet – and the timely need for the company to investigate whether some of its engineers had cheated on an exam testing their suitability to inspect repairs and perform maintenance – turned out to be a necessary humbling for a company that has had trouble with its runaway ego.
Some would call it “divine justice”, too, that the near-omnipotent rail company, having enjoyed darling status from the government, had to admit to not knowing who had sawed off steel bars and was having trouble documenting faulty work.
The government must be aware that, as the MTR’s largest shareholder (and as a government), it has seriously failed in its duty of proper scrutiny and oversight. Distracting the public with talk of asking the MTR to build public housing does not take away the fact that the company has, first and foremost, a moral obligation to safeguard commuter safety.
The government must wake up and realise that without oversight, the MTR, secured and protected by public policy, has the potential to become a moral hazard and a liability. Hongkongers are not only losing pride in the city because of rising regional competitors.
And, for the rest of us, remember that fares go up 3.14 per cent at the end of the month – despite the MTR turning huge profits, and in spite of all the recent construction scandals.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA