MTR Corp chairman Frederick Ma admits he was ‘disappointed’ by senior manager after inaccurate Sha Tin-Central rail link report sent to government
- Ma says inaccurate report, submitted to government in June, was last straw that prompted management overhaul
- Report stated number of couplers was 23,500 with retrospective checklist attached, but updated version said actual number was 2,000 fewer
The chairman of Hong Kong’s rail operator has admitted being disappointed by a senior manager whose mistake while in charge of the city’s most expensive rail project prompted the loss of government confidence.
Frederick Ma Si-hang made the rare confession on Wednesday while testifying at a commission of inquiry into a construction scandal on a station platform of the HK$97.1 billion (US$12.4 billion) Sha Tin-Central rail link.
Ma said he believed the inaccuracy of a report, submitted to the government on June 15, was the last straw that caused a management overhaul.
He recalled that before he met Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on August 6 with transport minister Frank Chan Fan, three government officers already texted him that there was a “serious crisis” for the rail operator.
During the meeting, Lam expressed her loss of confidence in the project management team and demanded senior members leave. Ma said he did not ask why Lam had lost trust.
“Having worked in the government for six years, I think it can tolerate people who are not capable, but cannot tolerate reports that are inaccurate. So I didn’t ask,” he said.
“The chief executive and her secretaries had never before expressed any views about our management capabilities. It was after this incident that they lost confidence,” he added.
Leighton Contractors (Asia), the main contractor for the project, is embroiled in allegations that steel bars were cut short to fake proper installation into couplers on a platform at Hung Hom station, and that supporting diaphragm walls were changed without authorisation.
The June report stated the number of couplers for the platform was 23,500 with a retrospective checklist attached to it. However, the MTR Corp later submitted an updated report where it said the actual number should be 2,000 fewer as they had not been aware of a design change to the diaphragm walls.
In August, three general managers – Aidan Rooney, Lee Tze-man and Jason Wong Chi-chung – were fired, projects director Philco Wong Nai-keung was forced to resign and CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen sought early retirement.
Ma, who himself offered to resign twice, stressed it was the MTR board that made these decisions. Ma was retained until the end of June 2019.
He also reflected on his reaction when told in late July about the inaccurate report.
“I was shocked,” Ma said. “Particularly after my questions to Mr Rooney and he had repeatedly told me he had documentary evidence. I would be less than honest if I told you I was not disappointed. I was disappointed.”
Ma explained that before the June report was submitted to the government, Rooney had repeatedly assured him the number of couplers was correct and supported by documents.
He said Philco Wong later told him some mistakes were made because the report “was prepared in a panic”.
However, Ma also accused Leighton of failing to give the public an account of what happened about the scandal.
“I honestly don’t think it was a responsible act … And I was frustrated that … Leighton didn’t say a word in the public arena,” he said.
However, Ma said the rail giant should draw on the lesson and move on.
“I think we need to move forward. We need to learn from our painful lesson because we are here to serve Hong Kong for the next 400 years … I truly believe the MTR is a great organisation but there is always room for improvement,” he said.