City Beat

Does it make sense to ditch MTR Corp chief Frederick Ma to save Hong Kong transport minister Frank Chan, amid construction scandal?

With railway giant – usually the pride of the city – in a crisis, politicians from across the spectrum are calling for more heads to roll. But how much accountability is enough?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 4:18pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 August, 2018, 9:22pm

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” the classic Charles Dickens line goes, and it can be applied to the experience of Frederick Ma Si-hang as chairman of Hong Kong’s trouble-plagued MTR Corporation.

And in his case, the best has been overshadowed by the worst.

Amid a slew of revelations and allegations about construction and quality control problems, there was a moment of relative relief for Ma when the long-awaited opening date for the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong express rail link was confirmed as September 23.

While this can be seen as a significant milestone under Ma’s leadership of the railway giant, the past week must be the darkest period of his decades-long career.

He is under tremendous political pressure from both the opposition pan-democrats and the pro-establishment camp to step down.

Rival factions in the legislature have temporarily set aside partisan politics to focus on a common target and demand accountability at the top of the MTR Corp, where several heads have already rolled, including that of CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen and some senior managers.

History repeats itself at scandal-plagued MTR Corp

“Accountability” has become such a fashionable term in Hong Kong over the past years, especially to critical lawmakers who closely scrutinise government departments and public bodies. So it’s being fiercely applied this time, with the MTR Corp’s woes snowballing and the government ordering it to suspend all excavation work at a major station on its Sha Tin-Central link, the city’s most expensive railway project.

Indeed, the MTR Corp – usually the pride of the city – is in a crippling crisis, with public confidence shattered.

The past few days have seen the pan-democrats launch a signature campaign urging Ma and transport minister Frank Chan Fan to resign. Some are proposing a motion of no confidence against Ma in the Legislative Council, while the pro-establishment camp is demanding “sincere” apologies from the MTR Corp’s top brass.

It has also been reported that some among the establishment’s traditional political allies are trying a tactic “to save Chan the minister by giving up Ma the chairman”.

The fall from grace of Hong Kong’s MTR: a timeline of events

Sound logical? And how much accountability is enough?

According to Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, accountability rests in different layers. While senior MTR executives monitoring daily operations had to take immediate responsibility, she twice rejected the chairman’s offer to resign, asking him to “stay for a while” and help find new talent.

How long “a while” will last may be up to Lam, but it’s fair enough to Ma, who, at the very top of the MTR hierarchy, is neither a technical expert nor directly involved in daily construction details. It also gives Lam and her administration a good reason to “save” the transport minister, who sits on the MTR board, to play an overall supervisory role without being involved in daily operations.

Some may still argue that Ma, as chairman, will ultimately have to take full responsibility. That is not without reason. But in theory, the chairman of this listed company is accountable to the board – unlike Chan the minister.

It would make sense for the politicians to urge the government, which owns 75 per cent of the MTR Corp, to restructure the company and put a senior government official in the chairman’s post to make it more effective.

Those pushing the “save Chan by giving up Ma” option may want to rethink whether it makes sense, given that there is not much of a difference between these two posts when it comes to political accountability.

At these “worst of times” for the reputation of the city’s globally respected rail operator, when public safety is in the spotlight, politics should not decide its fate.

Going back to the original literary analogy, hopefully a new “season of Light” will prevail over this “season of Darkness”.