MTRC management: have they no shame?

June 29, 2018 17:31
MTR Corporation is caught in a growing scandal over shoddy work at the multibillion-dollar Shatin-Central Link project. Photo: HKEJ

Just when you thought that the Mass Transit Railway Corporation’s management could not get any worse comes news that they have succumbed to a way of dealing with problems that is commonly used by crooks, dodgy politicians and the usual collection of dubious entities that have something to hide.

Their chosen method is a diversionary tactic which, lamentably, has often worked but nonetheless is despicable. It involves responding to bad news by threatening to report alleged misinformation to the police or, in the case of the MTRC, threatening to bring in both the police and the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Next up will be threats of libel action, the kind of response that is reserved for abuse by companies and individuals with plenty of cash.

As the deluge of reports identifying safety and other construction concerns for MTRC major projects mounts, the people at the top of the corporation have floundered around looking for ways to defuse criticism.

Their first response to reports of problems was to issue denials, then the management used the old trick of claiming that everything was complicated and therefore not as stated. And then there was a scramble to shift blame away from the MTRC’s management.

Things went from bad to worse when Frederick Ma, the MTRC chairman, lost patience with the volume of criticism and launched a rant implying that the public were too stupid to understand the complexity of major projects and anyway had no right to be kept abreast of problems. If the mighty corporation said all was well, that, claimed Ma, should be good enough.

Predictably this outburst backfired, leaving Ma sounding like a schoolboy claiming that the dog had eaten his homework as he blamed the hot weather and his failure to make morning prayers for the tenor of his remarks.

Now the MTRC has gone so far as to take out prominent newspaper advertisements in which it claims to be the victim of misinformation and stating that the police were being called in to handle this matter.

The truth, however, is that the MTRC is petrified of the whistleblowers within its ranks who have been leaking stories to the media, all of which, so far, have turned out to be perfectly true. The threat of police and ICAC action is primarily designed to plug these leaks. It may also be designed to intimidate media coverage but things have gone too far for this to work.

But the people who run the MTRC are desperate men, they only own up to problems once they have been exposed in the public domain. They are only prepared to take responsibility after making it clear that everyone else is really to blame.

Although the MTRC is now nominally a private company, the government still controls three-quarters of its equity and its operations come under the auspices of the Transport Department – another body of men who are busy ducking and diving to avoid responsibility.

That this company, one of Hong Kong’s biggest and most important utilities, should be resorting to the diversionary tactics used by conmen and other dubious persons is nothing short of a disgrace.

It is almost certainly time for heads to roll; indeed, if what’s happened at the MTRC had happened in most other places around the world, heads would already have rolled. However, the concept of "the buck stops here" seems to be entirely absent from public life in Hong Kong.

The small clique of people who populate high office in the SAR’s government and public bodies is hardly drawn from among the brightest and the best and thus there is a kind of group solidarity of incompetents protecting even the least competent when they make a mess of things.

So even if Frederick Ma or anyone else in the MTRC does finally decide to do the decent thing and accept responsibility, the likelihood is that their replacements will be drawn from the same old battered circle of incompetents.

Meanwhile, we are reminded of a variation of the famous remark by the great British polemicist Samuel Johnson who described patriotism as "the last refuge of a scoundrel". That’s certainly the case in Hong Kong, but for our local high-level scoundrels, use of the law to silence criticism is their last refuge – this is a case not of rule of law but rule by law, quite another matter.

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Hong Kong-based journalist, broadcaster and book author