Hong Kong MTR

Those involved in Hong Kong rail scandals need more than a slap on wrist

Limited temporary bans on a few contractors at the Sha Tin-Central link and the resignations of some MTR executives fall short of what is expected of an accountable government

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2018, 11:00pm

It sounded reassuring when Hong Kong officials pledged to punish those behind the construction scandals at the city’s most expensive railway project. Months have passed but all that has happened is a few top executives at the MTR Corporation have been forced out and a temporary ban slapped on contractors from bidding for other projects. The punishment falls short of what is expected of an accountable government.

The ban on Leighton Contractors (Asia) and three others of between four to 15 months is just a slap on the wrist. It looks grossly disproportional to the scale of the shoddy works unearthed at three stations along the HK$97.1 billion Sha Tin-Central rail link, and even more so when weighed against the compromised standards and the damage to our image as a city with world-class infrastructure.

Over the past three years, one contractor was removed from the approved list – the toughest sanction under the Development Bureau’s contractor management handbook; another 69 were suspended from bidding for government work for an unknown duration. That raises questions over the adequacy of the existing mechanism. The problems with the railway project, including platforms built with unscrewed metal couplers and unauthorised design alterations, have raised serious concerns over structural safety. If the contractors concerned only deserve a temporary ban from bidding for other projects, the public is left wondering what warrants the toughest punishment.

Firms in shoddy rail work scandal hit with bans of up to one year

What makes it look even more absurd is that the ban is not extended to public bodies such as the Airport Authority and the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. It makes a mockery of the system if the contractors in question are given the back door to other projects funded by taxpayers. Of particular concern is the bid already submitted by Leighton for the HK$31.9 billion sports park at Kai Tak. Technically, bids submitted before the ban are not covered, but it defeats the purpose if those punished can still do business with the government during the control period. Officials in charge of the Kai Tak project should take into account the performance of contractors when awarding the bid.

Accountability is the cornerstone of good governance. We hope the pledge to take further action if necessary is not just a tactic to head off criticism. The government has already come under fire for being slow in responding to the series of scandals exposed by the media. The decision in August to have a few of the MTR Corp executives removed has also given the impression that officials in charge of transport have been let off the hook. The last thing the public wants is the government paying lip service to accountability.