Hong Kong’s government and the MTR Corp must strive to wipe out the public works blunders plaguing the city

Events such as the multiple MTR Corp scandals have affected public confidence in the city’s government, which in the long run could undermine its political and social stability. The government must rebuild the people’s confidence in infrastructure projects – the sooner the better.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 5:06pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 18 August, 2018, 6:50pm

It appears that history really does repeat itself. In 2014, MTR Corporation chief executive officer Jay Walder was forced to resign after mishandling communications pertaining to a delay in the Hong Kong section of the HK$67 billion high-speed railway link to Guangzhou.

Four years later, another major railway fiasco has shaken the city, this time a series of cover-ups associated with shoddy work at the HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central link.

MTR Corp CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen will resign, while other senior managers have already left after a scandal that has profound ramifications for Hong Kong’s reputation as a leading railway operator and a world-class professional service provider – both of which have been touted as strengths it can contribute to the mainland’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

While we look forward to a report from an independent investigation commissioned by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, our government and the MTR Corp must be able to learn from these harsh lessons.

A timeline of events in the Sha Tin-Central rail link scandal

This year’s MTR Corp scandal has definitely dampened public confidence in the company. Since senior government officials are sitting on its board, the public has legitimate reasons to question the government’s ability to supervise MTR Corp and monitor the progress of its projects.

As a matter of fact, there have been quite a few scandalous events related to other major infrastructure projects and public livelihood over the past few years, such as lead contamination in the drinking water supply at several public housing estates and the fabrication of test results for construction materials intended for the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

These events must have affected public confidence in the city’s government, which in the long run could undermine its political and social stability. Therefore, the government must strive to rebuild the people’s confidence in mega infrastructure projects – the sooner the better.

Creating a works bureau dedicated solely to supervising all public infrastructure works in coordination with related government departments may be a solution.

The Development Bureau is responsible for finding land for housing and infrastructure, while the Transport and Housing Bureau shoulders the burden of transport and housing matters.

Clearly a works bureau staffed with experts who have backgrounds in engineering or other relevant fields would have known better where the technical problems were with MTR Corp’s projects, and what questions should have been asked to steer them in the right direction.

MTR forced to stop work at station on beleaguered Sha Tin-Central Link

What matters most, however, is staff at these departments who can exercise professional judgment based on their experience and knowledge. It appears the MTR Corp’s senior management was at the mercy of rank-and-file engineers who could choose what and what not to report. Therefore, a shake-up of the company’s senior management, more stringent project monitoring, additional reporting channels and improved communication mechanisms are absolutely necessary.

In the case of the Sha Tin-Central link, the MTR Corp cannot duck its responsibility to monitor the progress of work to avoid faults and incidents that could pose problems to public safety. Indeed, the public needs to be reassured their safety takes precedence over deadlines, or trust in the government will wear thin.

Hong Kong used to take great pride in our infrastructure, but the series of blunders and scandals related to our public works and railway projects has definitely tarnished our international image – including in the view of the central government, which has shown a willingness to open the door for the city to take part in the belt and road plan. We must not let any more public works blunders happen.

Ken Chu is the group chairman and chief executive of Mission Hills Group and a national committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference