Criminal sanctions are the best deterrent

The Hong Kong government will be making a big mistake if it allows the engineers to escape any future liability for infrastructure projects

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 8:19pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 August, 2018, 11:52pm

Now we know why the professional body for engineers wants its head and former projects director of MTR Corporation to quit.

Philco Wong Nai-keung, who fell from grace over the construction scandal at the HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link, has himself offered to resign as president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers.

The ostensible reason is that Wong could taint the institution and the public image of engineers in light of the ongoing fiasco over substandard and possibly criminal works on the link by contractors and subcontractors.

The real reason is something else. Indeed, it should delight the cynics among us.

The engineers are pre-empting calls on the government to tighten rules on unapproved alternations of construction designs and exposing them to criminal liability.

The institution has warned that any such changes could make it hard to hire engineering managers and cause delays to projects.

Criminal liability fears hit Hong Kong engineers after MTR scandal

Former institution president Peter Wong warned nobody would be willing to accept potentially criminal liability to sign necessary redesigns.

He added: “With the MTR fiasco, we don’t know if we would have to seek government approval for every change we make in the design. If this is the case, then it will take two to three months for every approval … the Buildings Department doesn’t have the manpower.”

I have been around as a reporter for decades and have heard this excuse about being made criminally liable – so unfair! – from just about every powerful vested interest in town. Insider trading was not a criminal offence for a long time.

Now that the institution is launching a campaign to pre-empt any government crackdown, assuming there will be one, they need to get rid of Philco Wong, who is neck-deep in the MTR fiasco.

But the institution is being short-sighted and the government, which usually treats such vested interest groups with kid gloves, would be making a huge mistake if it does cave in to pressure.

I am not appealing to some nebulous ideas of accountability and responsibility. It’s in both their own self-interest to do so.

By discouraging corner-cutting and dodgy works, improved regulation would separate the wheat from the chaff, and enhance professionalism and profitability in the long run. By provisioning against a repeat of the Sha Tin-Central link disaster, the government would be in a better position to argue for mega infrastructure projects such as the East Lantau Metropolis. Otherwise, who would believe them?