Soccer academy farce another example of how difficult it is to get things done in Hong Kong
Jockey Club's frustration with pace of progress in approving development understandable given bureaucracy
This sounds like a bad light bulb joke concerning Irishmen. But this week we heard it will need 38 different bodies, most of them government, to give their approval before work on the long-overdue Tseung Kwan O soccer academy can go ahead on a landfill site. You heard it right first time.
Yes, 38 different bodies to be involved before the Hong Kong Jockey Club can start construction on the 9.6-hectare site in New Territories East. And I thought five Irishmen were far too many to change a light bulb - one to hold the bulb and the others to drink till the room spins.
In the first place I didn't know there were so many government departments. Hong Kong, to my mind, has always run like a slick and well-oiled machine with the minimum fuss. If this was Sri Lanka, it would be understandable. But even back home things are starting to work like clockwork. You can get a new passport in a day, or even a driver's licence. But still the island holds the record for the most number of government ministries - a grand total of 69, and this for a small country with a population of 20 million.
You even have the Ministry of Crab in Colombo. But this is a popular restaurant jointly owned by star cricketers Mahela Jayawardena and Kumar Sangakkara. When it opened to much fanfare, it caused consternation in government circles with ministers asking how come an eatery, however delectable its produce and owned by cricketing icons, could use the name "ministry".
But it is no laughing matter as far as the Hong Kong Football Association is concerned to find their chief benefactor has to go through all this rigmarole to get the green light from 38 different bodies before work can start on a project which has been delayed for more than 10 years.
Who does the Jockey Club need to get approval from? If it needs the approval from the Ministry of Crab things will never move forward, only sideways. What about permission from the Ministry of Snail? Or perhaps the best way forward would be to ask for help from Cornelius Fudge, the man who runs the Ministry of Magic in Harry Potter's magical community in Britain.
One whisk of the wand and the vacant landfill would be transformed into a state-of-the-art soccer complex with eight pitches, a hostel for players and facilities for a gym, sports science and medicine, etc.
The project was originally mooted in 2003 and the Jockey Club then set aside HK$103 million to build the football academy. There has been no progress in 11 years with the only development being the rise in cost which has gone through the roof - it is now estimated at a staggering HK$700 million. This could spiral further before we get the 38 bodies to give their blessings.
Jockey Club chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges was perhaps being sarcastic when he said "building on landfill is a much more complicated issue". Who would have thought that trying to turn a rubbish dump into a gold mine could be so difficult?
Just needing to get the approval from so many bodies spells bad news for other applicants hoping to cash in on the government's decision to allow the development of recreational or community facilities on restored landfill sites. In his policy speech this year, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said 18 hectares of landfill sites were available for sports associations to develop recreational facilities.
To expedite this, the government has laid aside HK$1 billion, with each successful applicant able to draw on a maximum of HK$100 million in funding. They had better be patient.
All this is one more example of how difficult it is to get things done in Hong Kong.
In Singapore, everything is streamlined and if the main authority says jump, everyone falls into line and asks how high.
This week, none other than Mr Lan Kwai Fong himself, Allan Zeman, warned Hong Kong was falling behind other mainland cities like Shanghai due to Legco dragging its feet over development. With our policymakers filibustering and with all this bureaucracy to go through, it is a wonder anything gets done in this city.
Soccer fans, don't hold your breath, the Tseung Kwan O academy is a long way from becoming a reality.