MTR scandal brings low Hong Kong’s arrogant ‘tyranny of experts’
Alice Wu says the MTR chairman, the transport minister and the pro-Beijing bloc have all promoted a ‘cult of expertise’ to avoid accountability for the shoddy construction work on the Sha Tin-Central link, but this scandal has demonstrated that even technicians can fail
What does it take to keep an entire board in the dark, including your biggest shareholder (who happens to be the government)? Nerves of steel or, in this case, 5,000 faulty steel bars. How is the Mass Transit Railway Corporation ever going to recover from this epic fail?
And now that heads have rolled, the government and the pro-establishment camp must take stock of the colossal damage the MTR has caused and the political costs the railway operator has offloaded to them by going from world-class rail operator to being a joke that has made fools out of the government and the public.
MTR Corp chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang has been reasonably ordered to stay on to clean up the mess and contain the damage that has already been done. This may be the same reason Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is insisting that transport minister Frank Chan Fan stay put.
Lam is not unaware of how her own minister had flaunted the same elitist folly as Ma. Following Ma’s footsteps in responding to media scrutiny over reports of derailments of high-speed rail project with the now-infamous assertion, “If we tell you it’s OK, then it is”, Chan tried to turn the derailment crisis into a game of semantics – a blatant gaslighting effort – by refusing to use the Chinese term for derailment, stating that “derailment” is a colloquial term used to describe infidelity in a marriage.
It hasn’t even been three months since Ma said, with chest puffed, that “the public can rest assured that we have a high [degree] of transparency”. To have the chief executive swoop in to say now that Ma and the rail operator’s board of directors, including her transport minister, were “kept in the dark” has to be seriously ego-deflating.
Chan, in face of what seemed to be a daily flow of controversies involving the rail giant, did not abandon this elitist pride. In response to the shoddy construction work revealed by whistle-blowers and the media, Chan dismissed calls to break open parts of the corner-cutting scandal station platform to inspect the faulty steel bars, claiming that the suggestion of opening the concrete for inspection to be “without any scientific justification”.
It should not be lost on Chan and his boss that former Civil Engineering and Development Department director Lau Ching-kwong, one of Lam’s newly appointed advisers tasked with helping to step up management of the troubled projects, said just hours into his new capacity that “the best way to get to the root of the problem would be to break open the concrete for checks”.
Chan’s biggest mistake was joining the ranks of the expert tyrants, forgetting his ministerial – and very much political – responsibility of watching out for the public interests.
This city’s pro-establishment camp must learn their MTR lesson too. The camp’s reasoning for vetoing the invocation of the Legislative Council’s Powers and Privileges Ordinance for an investigation committee is frankly incoherent, with their expressed dissatisfaction over not seeing more heads roll after the government had found “huge discrepancies” in the two reports submitted by the MTR in June and July.
They rejected the establishment of the committee by echoing the MTR’s and the transport minister’s “tyranny of experts” attitude, and perpetuating the falsehood that things are too technical to be politicised. Yet, today, they insist that the MTR’s trouble extend beyond the technical realm. Their political narratives are incoherent to say the least.
It is time to blow the whistle on the cult of expertise – the scope of the damage it has caused is so vast and the consequences so far-reaching that we simply can’t allow it. Specialised knowledge cannot be used as political sleight of hand. No group, party or corporation is too big to fail.
Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA