Hearsay can't bridge station story gaps

Editorial | Mary Ma 28 Jun 2018

The Sha Tin-Central Rail Link's steel-bar cutting scandal is spinning out control, as hearsay and unverified reports continue to bombard us on a daily basis.

MTR Corporation says between 17 and 21 steel bars used in the construction of Hung Hom Station had been cut short.

Michael Tien Puk-sun, who chairs the legislature's subcommittee on railway matters, quoted his informants as saying 5,000 - thus one in every five steel bars used in the station's construction - may have been cut short.

Whose account is closer to the truth? The lack of a reliable number is troubling indeed.

If no more than 21 steel bars had been shortened, as MTRC claims to the best of its knowledge, this would be the best-case scenario. But would that be too "ideal" to be true, in view of the mammoth size of the project? Understandably, the corporation could only say what's documented.

Tien's numbers would be really scary if it's true that up to 20 percent of the bars had been cut short to expedite work, for such a scale could have grave implications for the station's structural stability. But is that figure too extreme to be believable?

It's more than likely that neither MTRC nor Tien has access to the whole truth. Records may only show the tip of the iceberg. Tien has been trying to guess how deep the submerged part could be, but his account may be based on hearsay.

Who can tell us how deep the rot is?

These people would have to be insiders, and it's the job of the independent inquiry, led by former Court of Final Appeal judge Michael Hartmann, to get them to testify. That's going to be the toughest task Hartmann faces.

MTRC issued an open letter calling for people with information to inform the authorities instead of releasing unverified accounts anonymously. Clearly, the railway had Tien in mind as it made the appeal.

Yes, Tien should pass his information to law enforcers for follow-up action. If necessary, he and his informants should also attend the Hartmann inquiry, where they should have no fear of testifying.

Leaving the scandal to the independent inquiry and police investigation is the best way to deal with a situation that will surely be written in Hong Kong history as one of the biggest construction scandals. There's a lot to learn from this fiasco.

Leighton Asia, the main contractor, is a multinational giant. In addition to the rail link it's responsible for various large government capital projects worth a total of some HK$60 billion. Although there are only a handful of contractors qualified to handle major public works, it will be unfounded to say the contractor is too big to bring to account.

With the scandal having escalated to such crisis proportions, it's impossible for government officials to be blind to anyone's faults - regardless of their size - for that would be an extremely stupid mistake to make. Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan has even had to fend off calls this week for his resignation.

The scandal is bad, but it would be even worse if someone tries to take advantage of it politically.

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