Teresa Cheng

Teresa Cheng must clear the air over illegal structures at her home

Hong Kong’s new justice minister should have known better, but now that the scandal has been exposed, it is imperative that she deal with any doubts about her ability to uphold the rule of law

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 09 January, 2018, 12:44am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 January, 2018, 12:39pm

The new secretary for justice has got off to a rough start. Just a day after pledging to uphold the rule of law upon her appointment as Hong Kong’s justice minister, Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah was found to have multiple structures at her luxurious villa that experts said might be in breach of the law.

Common as they are, illegal structures belonging to politicians can be damaging. In Cheng’s case, it could even lead to the loss of her job if the matter is not handled properly.

Unlike the previous government that was plagued by political crises of all sorts during the initial months, the team under Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had been largely free of scandal until the weekend, when local newspapers reported the suspected illegal structures at Cheng’s Tuen Mun home.

Experts also observed what they believed to be structural irregularities at the villa next door, which was later revealed to be owned by Cheng’s husband Otto Poon Lok-to, an engineer.

Hong Kong buildings inspectors to begin probe into alleged illegal structures at new justice chief’s home

There will be little sympathy for Cheng, who is expected to live up to the highest standards when it comes to the rule of law.

The justice minister sought to excuse herself as being politically insensitive and suggested the structures were inherited from the previous owner.

But questions have been raised about whether the couple, both with civil engineering credentials, were aware of the illegal structures at the time of purchase.

Cheng is not the first public figure to be caught up in a scandal involving illegal structures. Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying and his election rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen, were hit with similar accusations during the campaign for the top job in 2012.

Hong Kong justice secretary’s home controversy prompts review of integrity checks

Tang’s saga even turned into an integrity crisis and ruined his bid to be leader. One would therefore assume that officials and politicians would be highly vigilant in this respect.

The reminder hastily sent out by the chief executive to her team on building compliance shows the issue has not been handled with the care it deserves. It also raises questions about the mechanism under which officials have had their integrity checked before appointments.

The incident has caused more than just embarrassment to Beijing and the Lam government. Experience shows that it could escalate into a political crisis if not handled properly.

The responses from Cheng and the government leave much to be desired. Calls for her to step down have been heard, although many think the details disclosed so far are not serious enough to warrant resignation.

The last thing the secretary for justice needs is doubt over her commitment to the rule of law. It is imperative that she handle the controversy properly, lest public confidence in the administration of justice is damaged.