Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Corruption at the HK Public Works Department

I have always wondered at the largesse of the Public Works of Hong Kong, particularly since their tasks are often of a repetitive nature, digging up the same piece of earth and resurfacing it in an endless cycle. Every year, the PWD pays (or rather, we pay) for an expensive new surface in Victoria Park for its sports pitches, and then twice a year would allow flower vendors and others to put stakes into the surface, thereby rendering it useless and requiring a new surface. Examples such as those abound, particularly at around this time of the year, when budgets need to be consumed, and one wonders - how much of the work they do is really necessary? And how much favoritism is involved in the spending of taxpayer money? I for one am aware of two cases where PWD officials received bribes for their cooperation in decades past. I suppose that's inevitable in a department that has command of a budget of billions of dollars and a mandate to spend, spend, spend.

Indeed, these are not new concerns, as one finds out from a Commission of Enquiry into corruption charges in March 1884 undertaken by the Colonial Secretary William Marsh. The allegations were that a) there were insufficient announcements regarding the tender for Public Works as well as partiality and favoritism of contractors; b) that there was extravagance in spending; and c) that there was corruption, with PWD officials were taking bribes.

The report, unfortunately, then as now, is mostly a whitewash, denying any bribe-taking on the part of important colonial officials in the department. It does blame the fact that gift-giving and bribery was a way of life for the Chinese, and said that the poorly-educated, poorly-paid Western overseers of the works were indeed probably accepting such 'gifts'. In fact, what is more embarrassing is the fact that the Commission appears to have been prompted by a newspaper getting hold of a confidential memo from the Colonial Secretary's office saying that there was evidence of corruption in the Department.

The problem was needless to say, not eradicated, and was alive and well in the 20th century. Scandal and outrage finally burst their dams when it was discovered that the girlfriend, Mimi Lau, of a senior official in charge of building air-raid shelters after the outbreak of WW II was involved in selecting contractors in return for bribes, and that many of the shelters turned out to be defective.

Then, as now, off the record bribe takers will say that the system of bribery in construction is the only way to get anything done, and that in the end it is a fairly efficient system. It must be said that the PWD has been intimately involved in the creation of the modern marvel that is Hong Kong. But while the existence of the ICAC has driven such practices far underground, it is still clear that favoritism and largesse exist, albeit in less obvious ways than on the mainland or elsewhere in Asia. Monopolies generally are not efficient; and governments are the largest monopolies of all.

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