Former Sec. Transport and Housing: Government-MTR relationship needs radical reform

Part I of a two-part series.

While the former Secretary for Transport and Housing acknowledges the inherent challenges of the post, he calls for a dramatic change in the government-MTR relationship – especially how projects are funded.


After leaving the government, the former head of Transport and Housing Bureau Anthony Cheung has written two new books to reflect on his experience making public policy.

Over the past few years, the housing dilemma in Hong Kong has hardly improved and infrastructure projects have been mired in controversy. The bureau has constantly been under fire.

In an exclusive interview with Harbour Times, Mr. Cheung explains how difficult it is for the authorities to implement policies, and says balancing different interests is an art not easily mastered.

Political system at fault

Mr. Cheung cites Hong Kong’s undemocratic environment part of the reason that makes governing more difficult than anywhere else.

“All the governments in the world face the same problem of balancing different interests. But in Hong Kong, the deficiency of our political system has made things more difficult,” he says.

“The way a new administration is established undermines the people’s trust for the government. The society is skeptical about every move by the government, thinking there is a hidden agenda. Speculations are flying around.”

“As such, the government is constrained. It cannot do much or achieve what it hopes for. The government needs to do a lot of lobbying,” he explains.

He explains that the means of selecting the chief executive diminishes the credibility of the administration, presumably referring to the lack of a mandate drive by popular vote. The low credibility of Carrie Lam’s administration, which was elected with 777 votes among seven million people, could be a hurdle to push policies forward.

The different parties involved in Hong Kong  also pose challenges for the academic-turned-policymaker.

“I was long aware of the complexity of public policy making, but I didn’t expect it would be this complex until I joined the government,” says Mr. Cheung. ‘It involves different stakeholders and their interests. Compromises are much needed.”

“The government cannot have wishful thinking and only cater to one side. In the institution, there’re usual practice and preset policy direction. It takes time to change,” he says.

Striking a balance and curbing the MTR giant

He says policy making is an art of striking a balance, citing the recent MTR scandals that involve shabby construction work of the Shatin-Central Link.

‘The MTR Corporation is a large, listed company. The government is the majority shareholder, but it cannot override the minority shareholders given the rules. Citizens expect the government could do more to control the MTR, but it’s not as easy as they think,” he says.

In a radio interview on Sunday, Mr. Cheung suggested how to achieve this balance – doing away with direct government funding for MTR projects. It should not pay for all the projects and the MTR Corporation should source its own funding.

“If by constructing a particular rail project the MTR Corporation will not get a reasonable level of return and there will be a funding gap, the government has to fill the funding gap. That is the conventional approach. But otherwise the MTR Corporation should build the rail link, own the project and operate the project,” Mr. Cheung said on Sunday.

Under the current arrangement, the government commissions the MTR Corporation to manage the construction project and pays a management fee, which is how much the government can only take back if the work is found unsatisfactory. Also, the longer the project is delayed, the more management fees the corporation can charge.

Mr. Cheung also urges the government not to grant property development rights to the railway corporation, saying contracts to build flats over stations should be open for tender.

Ever since Mr. Cheung has left the government, he has been more open to criticize the MTR Corporation.

Despite this, Mr. Cheung chooses not to speak much on the recent scandal, saying there is an independent team to look into the matter currently.

Earlier, he denied knowing any construction problems of the project during his time as the head of the bureau.

 

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