24 April 2019
Thousands of commuters await the resumption of train service at Kowloon Tong MTR Station on Monday morning. Photo: HKEJ
Thousands of commuters await the resumption of train service at Kowloon Tong MTR Station on Monday morning. Photo: HKEJ

How rigid government response led to a man-made disaster

Monster typhoon Mangkhut battered Hong Kong on Sunday and left a wide swath of destruction across the territory.

Mangkhut was definitely more powerful and devastating than typhoon Hato last year.

To be fair, the government deserves credit for having taken substantial precautionary measures such as holding an interdepartmental press conference to alert the public, which was rather rare, as well as evacuating people from coastal and low-lying areas such as Lei Yue Mun and Tai O before Mangkhut arrived.

These measures have proven instrumental in achieving a zero death toll during the typhoon.

As Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has put it, Hongkongers, by and large, have been able to ride out the storm.

Unfortunately, the massive chaos on Monday morning in which thousands of citizens were left stranded in a number of MTR stations for hours while waiting for the train service in order to go to work wiped out whatever brownie points the government might have earned.

The administration’s rigid response in the aftermath of the storm has provoked such a public outrage that people are now saying that Hong Kong went through a natural disaster on Sunday but was subjected to a man-made disaster the following day.

True, the chief executive has no jurisdiction over the private sector and therefore cannot order employers to let their staffers take leave until after public transport services are back to normal.

However, given that she has already called on employers of private institutions to be more flexible on this matter, then why didn’t she make that appeal in a more earnest way?

Lam, for example, should have allowed all civil servants to take leave on Monday except for those who are serving in disciplined forces or involved in emergency services.

She also could have made an urgent appeal to employers in the private sector to tell their employees not to go to work unless it was necessary.

After all, if our government, which is the biggest employer in Hong Kong, took the lead in showing understanding for its staff, it is likely that employers in the private sector would eagerly follow suit.

As a long-term measure, the administration should consider amending the existing Employment Ordinance to protect employees from being punished for failing to come to work on time after an extreme weather situation.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept 18

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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