There have been a lot of discussions regarding the MTRC’s Shatin to Central Link incident recently: some have made subcontractor China Technology Corporation Limited a hero and kept digging into the “truth”; some proposed stricter supervisions; others requested officials to abide by the accountability system and step down. The only fact I am aware of is: the MTRC has become the first victim of the incident and Leighton the second victim. Who is going to be the third?
We are experiencing a peculiar phenomenon in Hong Kong today: in addition to being lawmakers and monitoring the government, the Legislative Council also embraces the role of the detective. At the same time, numerous netizens regard themselves as judges and would draw conclusions before any scientific argument is presented. As reported in newspapers, the plans of the related structure before and after the incident are basically the same. The only difference is the method of connection. Based on my 20 years of experience and the existing information released to the public, I will at most say something is wrong with the procedure as a professional engineer. It does not appear to be a fraud. It is my opinion that we should not judge and say the quality of the works is questionable before more solid evidence is brought forth. Moreover, the previous response of the government regarding the incident only indicated that there was a huge error in the report submitted by the MTRC; it was not about the safety issues derived from the questionable quality of the works. The most critical task at this stage is to find out whether the structure is in line with public safety standards and review the issue accordingly.
Haunted by the shadow of the Hung Hom station "corner-cutting scandal", stricter supervision and monitoring processes seem unavoidable. Nevertheless, complicated procedures are never a solution to problems; instead, it will only increase the cost of construction directly. Hence, I believe emphasis should be put on how things can be improved instead of irrational accusations. The users of these large-scale infrastructures and public housing estates are all Hong Kong people. These projects are funded by Hong Kong residents too. Therefore, while ensuring the quality and safety of the works, the government should also ensure the proper use of resources.
Practitioners should Bear More Professional Accountabilities
Let me illustrate my point with a simple example: a family hires a foreign domestic helper. In the past, she only needed to hand in the receipts to her employer after shopping for food. The employer had always trusted her and had not even tried to calculate the total amount spent. One day, however, a friend tells the employer that her helper has been handling the food money dishonestly. The employer, from then on, asks her helper to submit a report every week regarding the expenditures, and the figures are to be verified by an auditor. Later, the employer hears from the news that some other helpers have been forging receipts. Since then, her helper is required to have the signature and the company seal of the issuer on each receipt. How much time do you think the helper will still have for other chores apart from buying food? The story seems a bit ridiculous, but it is exactly what the construction industry is facing today: various approvals are required for each alteration; multiple supervision steps are required for each working procedure. There indeed is not much room left for engineering professionals to alter designs and methods of construction according to their expertise. In the event stricter supervision is implemented, the cost will also rise accordingly. And finally, we too will suffer.
When I was practicing in the United States, my predecessors told me my professional qualification has given me great authorities. It also comes with equal professional accountability. If I do not use it carefully, I could go bankrupt or be sent to prison. Today, I think the most important thing is to let practitioners of the industry bear additional professional accountabilities. Frontline workers should be accountable for their construction quality and safety. Safety management personnel should also be accountable for safety management of sites. Contractors should be accountable for the management of project quality and safety. According to my observation, the accountability system we have today is nothing more than a formality. (When something goes wrong,) accountabilities are borne mainly by companies but not individuals. The Number of cases that involve individuals being heavily punished is very limited. What I find ironic, however, is that all incidents are caused by individuals, and professional conduct can never be improved by punishing a company. Unlike domestic helpers, most stakeholders in the construction industry, including frontline workers, are professionally trained. If most of these stakeholders are given appropriate authorities (including the right to stop working when they find something is wrong with the construction), they can at the same time bear equal professional accountabilities.
I find the construction industry in many ways similar to the examples mentioned above regarding the foreign domestic helper — today, most building projects are subject to the supervision of the Buildings Department. For instance, alterations of plans must have consented. If there is a need for major plan alterations on the site, application for consent is going to take two months and then approval for commencement would take another month. It all adds up to a total of three months — that is when everything is smooth. I once tried to install underground pipes under a residential construction site. Yet, unexpected crushed stones were found, and the construction of the underground parapet walls had to be altered. In total, I waited for more than four months before the works were resumed.
Administrative and Management Costs for Projects have Skyrocketed
In fact, all the engineering companies nowadays in Hong Kong have qualified engineering personnel responsible for the management and supervision of their projects. Owners can also hire consultancy companies and ask them to assign qualified engineers for project design and supervision of works. Why do we still need the Buildings Department to be the “ultimate gatekeeper” when dual supervision is already implemented? When a government department is acting as the "ultimate gatekeeper", it has to be faultless. A 3-month waiting, therefore, is certainly not long, considering that the Buildings Department has to review and approve all the plans and alterations in Hong Kong. The question is: why can’t we count on the professionals hired by engineering as well as consultancy and design companies regarding the design alterations they make, and simply submit the final design plans as a record to the Buildings Department to simplify the procedure and save time? The Buildings Department can conduct regular spot checks, followed by heavy punishment for violators of the law. If someone worries that consultancy and engineering companies may not always perform their duties properly, appointing an independent third-party consultant by the owner is still a possible option that can replace the existing plan approval procedures of the Buildings Department. This is going to speed up the approval process.
Time is money. Lengthening a project will increase various administrative and management expenses accordingly, including those related to machinery, insurance, and basic running cost. Take my own company as an example, the difference between the administrative and management expenses involved in our latest tenders and those submitted 10 and 20 years ago is shown in the following table:
Please bear in mind that the costs of wages and materials have been increased by more than 100% in the last 20 years. Based on this fact, an increase of 80% in administrative and management expenses over the past 20 years in government’s civil engineering projects is equivalent to a total increase of 260% in project cost. If the government is going to impose harsher supervisions, the procedures will become even more complicated and the result will be a further increase in construction costs. In that case, our fellow Hong Kong people will be the third victim of the Shatin to Central Link incident.
(The original interview was published in Apple Daily on 20 September 2018)