Public confidence handicapped by fear

The Carrie Lam administration has made sure that the inquiry into the construction scandal at the Sha Tin-Central rail link will only look into the problems at Hung Hom station. But how will public faith be restored unless the short-sighted government allows the entire project and the MTR itself to be put under the microscope?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 7:52pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 October, 2018, 10:31pm

Democrat lawmaker Tanya Chan wants a key subcontractor to be included as a witness in a high-level inquiry into the construction scandal at the MTR’s HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central link. The city’s most expensive rail project ever, it is also much delayed and way over budget.

Chan’s request is well and good. Wing & Kwong Steel Engineering Co – a subcontractor hired by Leighton Contractors (Asia) for steel works at the Hung Hom station – should testify.

But I have more faith in a parallel criminal police probe now under way. Given the litany of construction lapses, lax supervision and possible cover-ups at not one but three stations along the link, it looks like some people should go to jail.

But the mandate of the commission of inquiry, headed by former top court judge Michael Hartmann, is restricted to looking into the problems at Hung Hom. The Carrie Lam administration made sure of that. Logically, it should have allowed the commission to also cover troubles that have been identified at the stations in To Kwa Wan and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai. But who knows what such an expanded mandate might uncover?

Expand Sha Tin-Central link inquiry to include key witness, lawmaker urges

Chan says the commission should look at “the whole truth”. But that’s unlikely, with the inquiry’s target restricted to one station. In fact, the whole controversial project – and the MTR itself – should be put under the microscope.

Thanks to the fiasco, current CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen will leave as soon as a successor is appointed. His predecessor Jay Walder left under a cloud in 2014 over construction delays at another mega project, the equally controversial cross-border high speed rail.

The MTR used to run a tight ship, but it is now losing public confidence, at least when it comes to managing large-scale infrastructure projects. As its single largest shareholder, that is the government’s problem as well.

Lam and her backers have made it clear they want the so-called East Lantau Metropolis and its related nearshore reclamation to go ahead. Maybe such developments, which will be the city’s costliest ever, have their own hitherto unarticulated merits. But who would have confidence in such potential financial black holes after the troubles with the express rail and the Sha Tin-Central link?

Unless the public learns what has really gone wrong, confidence will not be restored. The Hartmann commission is a good start, but it is being handicapped by a fearful and short-sighted government.