The issue of illegal structures is a time bomb, not a lack of political sensitivity

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The issue of illegal structures is a time bomb, not a lack of political sensitivity

“Based on the information that I have now, I do not feel this is an integrity issue, and that’s why it will not compromise Teresa’s position as the secretary for justice.”

— Chief executive Carrie Lam Chen Yuet-ngor, SCMP Jan. 10

Take a car or a bus ride some day through the New Territories west of Shek Kong airfield and you will receive an object lesson in what “totally unrestricted free enterprise” means, when applied to town planning.

The words “godawful mess” are defined by what meets your eye there. Flashy, cheaply constructed three story, subdivided dwellings squashed together in an unregulated jumble are interspersed with ribbons of mud jammed with grime-encrusted cars, widely flung litter and the occasional slimy open nullah. Over the whole hangs a miasma of sewage or even more toxic aromas.

It just goes depressingly on and on. You find some brief escape from it when you come across West Rail’s Kam Sheung Road station, but then you are soon back into the nightmare. This is what happens when there is no development authority to interfere with greedy village chiefs who bear more resemblance to underworld bosses than to mayors.

Teresa Cheng and Hong Kong’s knack for self-destruction

There is some reason for it, of course. British authority never sat well on the New Territories and was always lightly exerted. Unfortunately, our immediate post-handover government officials kept up this tradition and now their successors find it increasingly difficult to correct.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all in favour of free enterprise; an apologist for capitalism. But government does have an essential role to play in regulating urban development for transport requirements, urban services, amenities and, of importance here, standards of construction. Over vast stretches of the New Territories, our government has abandoned this responsibility.

And now our city’s Chief Executive has declared that she has no intention of resuming it.

This is what she has effectively done, when a candidate for high office – the justice minister, of all posts – is immediately embroiled upon her appointment in a serious illegal structure scandal at her home; and is not even publicly rapped across the knuckles for it, let alone told to step down.

Top Hong Kong officials who were caught out over illegal structures

It was only six years ago that a shoo-in candidate for Chief Executive lost an election rigged in his favour because of a similar illegally constructed basement at his home.

Now, however, we are told it is not “an integrity issue,” and Teresa Cheng Yeuk-wah has only shown a lack of political sensitivity.

Although a chartered engineer and a barrister specialising in construction law, she says she did not think of finding out whether the hidden 538-square foot basement in a home she bought was illegal. Uh-huh.

Let me fetch you a stack of bibles, Teresa. Now put your right hand on it and, no, no, no, show me your left hand, too. I don’t want you crossing your fingers behind your back. Now tell me this boomer again. You just didn’t know it was illegal. Oh, what a nasty surprise.

I simply do not believe it. I have not found anyone who does. It stretches credibility too far to be accepted. It is therefore very much an integrity issue.

Yes, it may be true that she never asked. Who does in the New Territories? Every such stand-alone home there is caked in illegal structures. You don’t have to ask. It’s universal.

But this does not make it legal. It just makes a political bomb of what might otherwise be a minor legal infraction elsewhere.

If Teresa Cheng insists on pleading ignorance, then she is too ignorant of Hong Kong’s biggest regulatory enforcement issue to be a fit candidate as Hong Kong’s Secretary of Justice. Alternatively, if she knew, then she openly defied the law and is also unfit for office.

Either way, if she now remains in office, we may as well have the Lands Department cut its headcount numbers and save us some public expenditure. It will no longer need people in the New Territories. What little is left there of building law will exist for laughter alone.

You really have no alternative, Carrie. You simply have to sack her now. Difficult as it may be to find anyone for the job, this scandal could threaten your entire administration. She has to go.

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