Albert Lai’s series of Letters to Engineers ( 2/12)
28 April 2008
Dear Engineer Friends,
Last week, I attended a LegCo’s Bills Committee on the amendment of the Air Pollution Control Bill. The meeting was focused on the setting of emission caps and the distribution of emission allowances. That should have been a perfect opportunity for the engineering profession to demonstrate how we can contribute to public welfare by devising the best scheme to protect public health. Unfortunately, the official leading the government delegation, not himself a professional engineer, seemed over-stretched when trying to answer the many queries from Legislative Councillors and concern groups. Ironically, the professional engineer who had all the details at heart was kept sitting alongside with his mouth shut.
This reminds me of what happened at a prize presentation ceremony held at the end of last year. At the end of the ceremony, a senior engineer pulled me behind a column in the hotel lobby. He passionately told me how professional views could not reach the top, and how upset he was when he found himself disallowed to reveal the truth to the public when professional judgments had been sacrificed in deference to politically expedient decisions. He also explained how budgets for professional training had been trimmed repeatedly, leaving his staff in low morale, about which he felt so helpless. I can still recall the intense frustration he showed on his face - a scene deeply troubling to me up to this day.
In fact, this engineer was concerned not only about the plight of his colleagues; he was concerned about the fate of the engineering profession, which is really a matter affecting Hong Kong’s overall interest.
In the past few years, many engineers could not help but wonder how many project decisions have been made top-down in violation of professional judgements. For instance, one might ask why should the government delay HATS Stage 2B given the public desire to quickly improve the water quality of the Victoria Harbour? Why should the government delay waste recycling schemes and refuse to adopt community compensation schemes, thereby making it harder for the public to accept the early construction of the solid waste incinerator? And why should the 3,000 km of water mains under the replacement and rehabilitation scheme be required to finish with great haste, despite unbearable stress on traffic loads and manpower resource?
The adverse effects of outsiders leading insiders are not only obvious amongst government engineers; they are causing untold sufferings to engineers in the private sector too. It is well known that the current tendering system has led to cutthroat competition among engineering contractors and consultants. This distorted system, dictated largely by outsiders such as finance bureaucrats, has never taken into account the social objectives of nurturing engineering talents, improving working conditions or encouraging diverse employment opportunities. Public interest will in turn be jeopardized when the level of creativity, talent and quality begins to decline in the engineering sector.
With our professional training and international outlook, we engineers are in the best position to take up a ‘decoder’ role for the general public. We are capable of highlighting the constraints and opportunities available under different modes of development, thus enabling the community to make informed choices for the future of our city. To fulfil this very role of engineers, there is only one path to take: to enhance our professional independence, to enlarge our sphere of decision-making, and to have the courage to speak up for ourselves and for public interest.
It is only when the public starts to applaud for the courage and the merits of the engineering profession, then institutional and sectoral reforms will become a natural consequence. The prime challenge is this: how can we stand tall with our professional integrity, and how can we make our voice loud and clear.
Ir Albert K T Lai