The tendency for people to turn a blind eye to safety rules concerning property is one area in which the rule of law in Hong Kong is not sufficiently respected. Owners may have the wrong impression that what they have fitted inside and out is of no concern to anyone as long as there are no complaints. The belief that people can do whatever they like with their property often results in violation of building and fire safety rules. Even when ordered to put things right, some people take no action. A case in point is the so-called subdivided flats found in some of the oldest buildings.
The recent controversy surrounding illegal structures in village houses and urban flats speaks volumes. There was a low awareness of the need for compliance. Politicians, senior officials and public figures were found to have flouted building laws to instal potentially dangerous fixtures or make alterations without authorisation. Some ignored orders to comply. Similar problems have been observed when the government decided to get tough with owners of subdivided flats.
The proliferation of these smaller units, created by dividing up a standard flat and then leasing to less well-off tenants, poses a serious threat to health and safety. But they are only considered illegal when the sub-divisions cause overloading, water seepage or jeopardise fire safety. Enforcement was virtually unheard of until June, when a Ma Tau Wai building became a fire trap and killed an 18-year-old girl, a pregnant woman and her two younger sons. Twelve orders have since been issued. Regrettably, only two had complied after a two-month deadline. Prosecutions are to follow, according to officials.
The government's position that subdivided flats should not be outlawed as long as they are structurally safe has some merit. They provide a cheaper option for people who cannot afford better accommodation. But public safety must not be compromised. Structures that pose a threat to life and limb cannot be tolerated. Effective enforcement is the only way to uphold the law.