27 January 2020
MTR chairman Frederick Ma has disavowed all responsibility for the construction scandal while being more than ready to apportion blame elsewhere. Photo: Bloomberg
MTR chairman Frederick Ma has disavowed all responsibility for the construction scandal while being more than ready to apportion blame elsewhere. Photo: Bloomberg

At last the truth starts trickling out – albeit inadvertently

Some little-noticed but amazing revelations were inadvertently made by Frederick Ma Si-hang, the MTR chairman, as he desperately tried to cover his backside when giving evidence to the inquiry looking into the construction scandal surrounding the Sha Tin to Central rail link. 

All pretense that the MTR was actively monitoring this project was swept aside as was the long-running lie that the government, the corporation’s majority shareholder, played no direct role in its management.  

In line with his consistent stand since this saga came to light, Mr. Ma has disavowed all responsibility while being more than ready to apportion blame elsewhere. When he appeared before the inquiry this week he went further and actually said that the MTR was “barely supervising” the project. In so doing he was intent on shifting the onus onto the major contractor, Leighton Contractors (Asia). This company, in turn, has been busy blaming subcontractors for all the faults. 

The much delayed project has also run into heavy cost overruns, but its Achilles heel seems to be the revelation that essential safety measures were ignored in the construction of platforms at Hung Hom Station where steel reinforcement bars were cut short (who knows if other problems will emerge).

Mr. Ma spoke of how frustrated he was by the lack of information he was getting about the project and complained about his lack of power as “a non-executive chairman”.

This argument is particularly weak because company law makes it very clear that ultimate responsibility lies with a company’s most senior official. If, as Mr. Ma alleges, he had insufficient power to monitor what was going on in the corporation, he has only himself to blame. 

Maybe it was all too much for him or maybe he thought he could wing it, something he attempted to do when losing his temper with journalists questioning him about the debacle after it was revealed. Instead of tackling the issues at hand he simply said that if he stated that things were alright, they should accept his assurance and desist from further questioning.  

It should be emphasized that were it not for media diligence the MTR would almost certainly have covered up its many mistakes. However, as revelation after revelation trickled out in newspapers, the government appeared to have gone into panic mode. Mr. Ma stated that three government officials contacted him, describing the crisis as “serious”.

On Aug. 6, according to his evidence, he went to see the Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor who told him that the government had lost confidence in the project’s management team.  

Amazingly, he then told the inquiry that he had not asked the CE why the government’s confidence was lost. The bottom line was that Mrs. Lam wanted to see heads roll to pacify mounting public anger over the scandal.  

As a result, three of the corporation’s general managers were fired in August and the CEO Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen announced his early retirement. Meanwhile, government officials, most notably the hapless transport secretary Frank Chan Fan, had been busy telling the public that the government did not and could not get involved in the running of the MTR because it was a private company. That lie has now been laid to rest, although it is entirely possible that prior to the revelations government officials were indeed recumbent. 

Mr. Chan may well have been very hands-off despite the fact that he is an MTR board member. Two other government officials also sit on the board: Lam Sai-hung, the Permanent Secretary for Development (Works) is also a member of the board’s capital works committee and the third member is Commissioner for Transport Mable Chan Mei-bo who sits on the board’s risk and audit committees

Not only does this mean that they have a duty in law to be responsible for the activities of the MTR but somewhere along the line they should surely also have been aware of what was going on. They sit alongside a clutch of other government trustees who also give the distinct impression of being asleep at the wheel. 

The inquiry continues and it remains to be seen whether it will be able to get to the bottom of this matter. If it does so responsibility must be apportioned not least to give some hope that, in other future major projects involving billions of dollars, those who are supposed to be in charge will actually live up to their responsibilities and thus avoid this kind of farrago.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author