Another cash nightmare at the museum

Further misery for Hong Kong taxpayers after it is revealed they forked out HK$1.6 billion more to pay off subcontractors at troubled West Kowloon cultural project

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 9:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 September, 2018, 10:38pm

After waiting two decades, it’s safe to assume most people don’t give a hoot about when the art hub in West Kowloon is going to open.

But the risk of more delay is the reason or excuse that Duncan Pescod, chief executive of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, cited for paying subcontractors HK$1.609 billion for financially troubled main contractor Hsin Chong Construction, over an 18-month period.

What I really want to know is, are we, the taxpayers, going to get the money back? Funnily enough, after helping Hsin Chong pay off its subcontractors, its parent company has now filed a notice of dispute with the authority over the latter’s termination of Hsin Chong’s HK$5.9 billion contract to build the M+ museum.

So, down the road, the authority, and therefore the government, may have to compensate Hsin Chong for its unilateral contract termination, in addition to paying off the subcontractors.

What kind of world do we live in? Did we hire our top officials from Alice in Wonderland?

Authority boss defends HK$1.609 billion arts hub payment

From February 2017 to June 2018, the authority helped Hsin Chong Construction pay about HK$1.6 billion to 17 or 18 subcontractors – at the contractor’s request.

Yet, it did not breathe a word about the mega payment until the news media reported it.

Pescod and Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs Cherry Tse Ling Kit-ching, who is also a member of the authority’s board, said earlier disclosure was not feasible because they couldn’t comment on the financial conditions of a listed company.

Fair enough! But the fact that the main contractor wasn’t paying the subcontractors and the authority was picking up the bill – that surely is in the interest of the public and the legislature to know about much earlier.

When Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor was chief secretary and chairman of the authority, she made it clear there would be no more money for the art hub beyond what was already budgeted.

In fact, that was why Pescod, a man with zero experience in the arts, was hired as chief executive officer of the authority. A career civil servant, his background was in housing, lands, tourism and urban services. Considered a safe pair of hands, his mandate was to finish the job on time and within budget.

Now it looks like he couldn’t deliver both. There are always novel ways this financial black hole in West Kowloon can suck in more public money.