Action stations at last but more needed

Editorial | Mary Ma 8 Aug 2018

Heads finally rolled as the investigation into shoddy construction work at the Hung Hom Station of the Sha Tin-Central Link intensifies - months after the scandal was first brought to light by whistle-blowers.

The question is whether there will be more heads on the chopping block as the probe deepens.

Yesterday's development confirmed the serious nature of the blunder, as feared from day one, when the breaking news was ironically greeted with official dismay and disbelief.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan Fan broke the news that following an emergency meeting of senior government officials on Sunday, it was decided that those at the MTR Corp in charge of construction of the Sha Tin-Central Link would be relieved of their duties with immediate effect.

Ironically, Chan was defending the MTRC only a few months ago - dismissing reports of missing couplers connecting steel bars as mere speculation.

Some top MTRC executives sent packing include project director Philco Wong Nai-keung, as well as three general managers. Meanwhile, chief executive Lincoln Leong Kwok-kuen will take early retirement.

The future of chairman Frederick Ma Si-hang also hangs in the balance. Ma said he had offered to resign twice, but his resignation was not accepted by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

It's now likely Ma will go too after a successor to Leong is found.

The reshuffle - the largest in MTRC history - is bound to deal a blow to its credibility. Whoever is stepping in faces the unenviable task of rebuilding the management team and restoring public confidence in the railway operator.

Despite the blood-letting, the scandal is far from over.

There were several key points to note at Chan's press conference.

First, it's now confirmed some 2,000 couplers were involved - not 17 as first reported. Second, the method of construction was modified, contrary to the approved building plans, while applications to make the changes hadn't been submitted for permission.

Also, confirming for the first time officially, accounts offered by the principal contractor and subcontractors contradicted each other substantially. That the information has been passed to police implied criminality is suspected.

Disappointingly, little was said about the role of the principal contractor - Leighton Asia - and its subcontractors. Maybe that's due to the police investigation being under way.

Another aspect glaringly left blank was how far government officials should be held responsible. It's a matter of responsibilities. If the MTRC is responsible for supervising the principal contractor over construction standards, the government is equally responsible for monitoring the corporation, of which its the major shareholder.

The incident had been going on for quite some time. What had the government officials concerned done during that time?

Rightly or wrongly, the public's perception is that the government had been too passive throughout, playing down the scandal in the beginning, only to play it up later to emphasize the MTRC's mishandling of the matter.

Officials yesterday stressed time and time again they had repeatedly pressed railway officials over the discrepancy in the number of missing couplers, but never received a reply.

Was it convincing? Not in the slightest.

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