23 October 2016
Carrie Lam (second from right) shows more concern for the dignity of officials than for the potential effects of widespread tainted water on Hong Kong residents. Photo: HKEJ
Carrie Lam (second from right) shows more concern for the dignity of officials than for the potential effects of widespread tainted water on Hong Kong residents. Photo: HKEJ

Carrie Lam defends officials, but what about the citizens?

Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said it’s “humiliating” for government officials to be pressured into drinking possibly contaminated water.

She said at a meeting of the Legislative Council’s House Committee that as the units that supervise and execute the relevant operations, the Water Supplies Department and Housing Authority have to bear a certain degree of responsibility.

The supervision system that ensures drinking water is free of lead is inadequate, she acknowledged, but that doesn’t mean civil servants have been evading regulations or showing negligence at work.

And since this imperfect system has existed for a long time, Lam said, is it fair that the current department head or some individual frontline members take the responsibility?

So, in defending her government officials, Lam tried to attribute the lead-in-water crisis to a flawed system that has existed for a long time.

But, who is responsible for making and implementing the system?

Government officials.

For example, a driver has to be held to account for an accident even if the vehicle he is driving is his employer’s old, shabby car.

If the driver argues that the car’s owner has not fulfilled the maintenance requirements, eventually resulting in the accident, is that fair?

The driver should be punished for his irresponsibility in driving a dangerous car that he knew could cause an accident.

Likewise, former officials do have responsibility for failing to review and improve the oversight system, which is the root cause of the scandal.

But existing officials have chosen to keep the flawed system.

Isn’t that neglect of their duty?

As Lam noted, the overspending on the Hong Kong leg of the high-speed railway to Guangzhou raises the same issue, as those who once pledged that the line would not exceed budget have already retired.

So, taxpayers have to pay for their mistakes.

When the lead-in-water scandal was exposed, officials assured citizens the lead-tainted water won’t have an obvious impact on their health.

But now they feel “humiliated” when asked to take a sip of water.

The gut reaction is always the most honest one.

If forcing government officials to drink the water is what Lam considers humiliation, what about those residents who are forced to drink such water without their knowledge — owing to the officials’ neglect of their duty?

Lam said the tainted water only accounts for a small proportion of the water supply and criticized those who she said are exaggerating the problem.

However, this is a critical public health issue, and it involves children.

Developmental delays have been detected in three children exposed to the lead-tainted water.

Is that fair to them?

It remains unclear how many have been affected by the lead in the water.

Most people have already moved on to other news.

If the government had given a sincere apology and promised to make up for its mistake, most people would have accepted that.

If government officials volunteered to drink the water, in a sign of their willingness to take responsibility and to stand with the people, the residents would accept such a gesture readily.

But Lam has done the opposite by taking a tough stance, claiming to defend the dignity of civil servants.

How will residents affected by tainted water in their household pipes feel about her remarks?

So, in taking her tough stance, does Lam have an eye on the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive in two years’ time?

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 23 under the pen name Bittermelon.

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version中文版]

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