When details of a decade-old project design competition were dug up and turned into 'dark matter' to be used against a front runner in the chief executive race, few expected the issue to become a bombshell for the government. The selective disclosure of some government documents about the West Kowloon arts hub design competition has raised more questions than it has provided answers. The narrow question may be whether Leung Chun-ying favoured a contestant his firm had done business with when he judged the contest. But the broader issue is whether the government staged a fair competition for local and overseas entrants. What is at stake is not just Leung's integrity, but Hong Kong's reputation as a place that offers a level playing field for all.
It is disturbing to learn that the winning canopy design by British architect Norman Foster in 2001 was among the 12 that were originally disqualified for technical reasons. Yet the design was reinstated by some jurors and eventually won. Although more evidence is needed before drawing a conclusion, the outcome aroused the suspicion of some fellow jurors. Among them is Professor Chang Hsin-kang, who said that over the years he remained puzzled by the 'coincidence' that a disqualified design had won the contest. As the controversy grew, he felt the need to come forward and explain the process.
The professor has correctly pointed out that the public has the right to know and he deserves credit for speaking up. But he should not have had to. The government should have taken the initiative to provide a full account of what happened from the start, rather than leaving jurors to wonder and surmise. It remains the government's responsibility to release all documents for public perusal. Regrettably, it is still reluctant to do so. Instead, it has chosen to release details bit by bit.
The disclosures so far have already aroused concerns about whether the competition was fair. Foster's first canopy design was not used after the government decided to relaunch the arts hub project, but, apparently by coincidence, his new design also won the competition for the same project last year. Hong Kong prides itself on being a place with equal opportunities for all. Whether it is government contracts or prestigious design competitions, it is necessary for the government to maintain a level playing field and, above all, to seen to be doing so. International confidence will be shaken if there is a perception that some get favourable treatment. Now that Legco has voted in favour of invoking its special power to investigate the matter, the onus is on the government. Officials have no choice but to make available all documents relating to the case.