The View

Hong Kong officials need to stop thinking in binary when it comes to choice

It’s possible to protect public safety and get things done in an efficient manner when responding to building fire risk and water quality challenges

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2016, 1:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 July, 2016, 10:40pm

Yesterday’s tragedy has a nasty habit of turning into tomorrow’s perpetual nightmare. This is because bureaucrats and a motley collection of do-gooders turn the aftermath into a prolonged mess of ill thought out “solutions”. They claim that they need to act so that lessons are learned from mistakes. However there are dumb and intelligent ways of learning.

Uppermost in my mind, because it is stalling the opening of one of my company’s new catering outlets (but we are not alone as this is a blight affecting many others throughout Hong Kong), is how the Water Supplies Department has responded to the lead in drinking water scandal.

We should, incidentally, not forget that the department’s initial reaction was to brush this aside as being a one-off problem that was “being politicised”. One off became two-off and soon it was many-off.

This kind of complacent response suggests that there is a binary choice between getting the job done and doing it safely

Once the whole thing got out of hand the government busied itself trying to avoid blame, while attempting to deflect public concern by establishing a clutch of inquiry commissions. After the first reported Chief Secretary Carrie Lam elevated bureaucratic evasion to new levels by concluding that as everyone was to blame - no one was to blame.

Meanwhile a sense of panic made its way through the paper-filled desks of the WSD’s bureaucrats who appear less determined to fix the problem than to ensure that if it should arise again they will be absolved from blame.

In my business, over in the regulation filled world of the food and drink industry, this means that all kitchens installing new water pipes face more strenuous inspections and regulations.

That sounds okay, does it not? Unfortunately it is only okay if the WSD actually had the manpower and the will to carry out these inspections and consider plans in a timely manner. Clearly it does not have these resources or if it does they are not being deployed. Therefore countless projects are being delayed while the department even gets to the first stage of approving water and drainage plans. They are loath to sign off on anything in case there is comeback.

My company is now entering the seventh month of waiting for the WSD to do anything at all. Delays of this kind cost a great of money but according to the bureaucrats and their do-gooder friends: “it is better to be safe than sorry”.

This kind of complacent response suggests that there is a binary choice between getting the job done and doing it safely. It also assumes that those of us at the sharp end are careless about safety.

If safety is the priority that the government declares it to be, why not put in the resources that are required to ensure rapid and efficient implementation of safeguards?

The tragic Ngau Tau Kok industrial building fire looks set to produce another outbreak of bureaucratic backside covering as clipboard wielders are dispatched throughout Hong Kong to inspect possible fire risks in industrial buildings.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a good thing but the way it is being done is to get boxes ticked and to stop things happening so that none of the pen pushers will be blamed if anything goes wrong.

This kind of behaviour is hardly confined to Hong Kong; anyone who has been to an airport will have witnessed the mass stupidity of the response to a terrorist plane attack using liquid explosives inside the cabin. This resulted in the imposition of 100ml limit on the amount of liquid that can be hand carried onto a plane and horrendous inspection queues.

Lamentably there are many other ways to commit acts of airborne terrorism, yet governments throughout the world have decided that the best way to absolve themselves from accusations of negligence in the event of another airborne terrorist atrocity is to impose controls of this kind that have made air travel even more inconvenient and will do little to deter a determined terrorist.

The net result is massive inconvenience for the travelling public, an illusion of safety and a lot of box ticking by bureaucrats.

The blunt truth is that there is no sure-fire way of averting tragedy but there are sensible ways of averting fires, terrorism and all the rest, the problem is that they are costly and even more costly if they are implemented in a way that causes minimum inconvenience.

Those of us who run businesses do not need bureaucrats to tell us to take care, nor will responsible business people economise on safety to save money but, equally, governments should not blithely shovel all the blame, cost and inconvenience onto companies for ensuring that the public are kept safe. Official backside covering should not be confused with the implementation of real and effective safety measures.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong broadcaster, writer and entrepreneur