Looking a gift horse in the mouth

Tycoon Lee Shau-kee threw down the gauntlet to the government in January, saying he would like to donate agricultural land to the administration to build homes for young people at a cost of HK$1 million each.

Mary Ma

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Tycoon Lee Shau-kee threw down the gauntlet to the government in January, saying he would like to donate agricultural land to the administration to build homes for young people at a cost of HK$1 million each.

Yesterday morning, the billionaire - better known by his moniker of "Uncle Four" - said he had donated a plot in Fan Ling for the construction of 1,000 small units.

But the government kept mum for most of the day until a spokesman broke the silence late in the afternoon.

It all seems very intriguing.

There can only be three scenarios for the reticence.

First, Uncle Four and the government had reached an agreement - but knowing the sensitivity of the matter and the criticism it would bring if not handled adroitly, Lee would speak first to gauge the public's response.

Second, Uncle Four was getting impatient over the delay and took the initiative to give it an additional push.

Third, there was no agreement at all and Uncle Four acted unilaterally.

Judging from the Development Bureau's response, it seems the second and third scenarios are the most likely.

Development secretary Paul Chan Mo-po dared not take up Lee's offer and the government's stance was ambiguous with a standard response: the administration would keep an open mind to suggestions that could increase housing supply and it would consider any proposal by individual property developers.

It's only right to be careful because the idea of Lee's donation is not short of conspiracy theories.

For instance, there is speculation that Uncle Four may be using the donation as bait to trick the government into building the rest of the infrastructure to benefit his other farmlands.

Another theory is that the billionaire is trying to build a case for the government to owe him a favor - and for which he expects to be repaid later.

While these theories may be unconvincing, they could be damaging. Nevertheless, this should not deter the government from accepting Lee's offer.

On the contrary, could the concerns be mitigated through careful planning? That is possible as long as the process - from donation and construction to completion and sale - is completely transparent.

Uncle Four seems sincere in his offer, and his only responsibility is donating the land. Everything else is left to the government. It's an offer that has merit - would it not be better to have one more plot at the government's disposal than none at all?

I'm not sure whether Chan's low popularity is affecting him or not, otherwise it is rather difficult to understand him balking at the offer.

The price of HK$1 million per home is very appealing and there is bound to be a scramble for them.

Chan should be more concerned about coming up with a watertight plan to avoid a stampede for the affordable units rather than hesitating over the donation.

On the one hand, he has been saying the government is so short of land that it will not give up any possible sites - no matter how small they are - at its disposal.

On the other hand, he hesitated over Lee's land offer.

That's like lifting the blanket to search for a 10-cent coin but not knowing what to do when somebody offers HK$5, even pondering over whether it is a phoney offer.

That would be lacking in gratitude - and would not look good on the part of the government.