Coming next: smiting of civil servants’ firstborn

The news on the radio this morning suggested that Iran is modifying its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. This is obviously a Good Thing, though there is a nasty and sordid voice within me wondering what I could sell oil shares for if it happened, and lamenting a lost chance to see the regime in Tehran getting a good thumping. (Chances are that they can’t do it anyway.) In a similar vein, we all politely hope that Hong Kong’s latest pesky pestilence problem will be just a brief snag, both easy to explain and to fix. Decency and good taste require us not to drool over the tantalizing possibility that it is the tip of a huge scandal.

Legionnaire’s Disease has been found not just in Education Secretary Michael Suen’s washroom at the lavish new Government Headquarters in Tamar; it’s in the East Wing, the West Wing, the Legislative Council building sitting symbolically in the shadow of the giant white elephant, and it’s in the boxy little structure opposite. The HK$5 billion complex is riddled with the deadly disease.

There are probably various humdrum explanations as to how the bug managed to move into, spread around and make itself at home in the barely opened monument to fiscal waste and official vanity. The bacterium is common and could easily gain access to any building floating through the usual water systems. So it was just bad luck that it happened to settle in the Sir Donald Tsang Stately Pleasure Dome. Could have happened anywhere. Government workers are mopping and scrubbing the place as we speak; the bug will be eradicated before long and the whole episode forgotten. That’s the probable outcome.

But what if it is not that simple? What if the microscopic beasties managed to infiltrate the Sir Bowtie Mega-Palace because of an engineering fault in the pipes or storage tanks? What if the architectural pointlessness of the Government Citadel’s form somehow exposes the inhabitants to microbial risk in a way that ordinary oblong buildings do not? What if the lavishness of the design contains elements that are in fact unhygienic and breed germs? What if officials desperately rushing to get the monstrosity open in time cut corners or swept something under the carpet, leaving the way open for an influx of plague? What if the problem can only be fixed by sending half the civil servants back to the old dump at Lower Albert Road for six months, or by spending another half billion dollars on retrofitting accidentally omitted filters or something?

Obviously, it’s all way too much to hope for we all hope it isn’t the case.

Pure bad luck, or human error. There is a third explanation for the visitation of sickness upon Zhongnanhai South: divine intervention. Even being omniscient, God probably doesn’t minutely follow the workings of the Hong Kong government. But He can’t have helped noticing by now how infuriating and irritating Michael Suen is. Personally, I’d have covered the Education Secretary in boils, but that’s just me.

Click to hear ‘Citadel’ by the Rolling Stones!

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21 Responses to Coming next: smiting of civil servants’ firstborn

  1. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Bureaucrats engaging in onanistic expenditures of tax payers’ money and doing it badly, once again.

    Probably the result of some government gamma or delta engaging in Hong Kong penny-wise/pound-foolish thinking, priding themselves on saving a few hundred dollars on the building budget (funds re-directed to the exhortating banners budget) by choosing the lower cost option for some bit of engineering.

  2. Real Tax Payer says:

    Hint : read Tom Holland’s : Monitor” Column in today’s SCMP – delicious (for once Tom has even out-done Hemmers in irony )

    Also the op-ed ” Changing Minds” in the SCMP – mind-blowing stuff

  3. Wag says:

    Getting insights about Iran from Saudi Arabia’s ‘Arab News’ is like getting news about Poland from Dr Goebbels.

  4. Real Tax Payer says:


    Tamar just a symptom of deeper illness plaguing HK
    Scholar Cyril Northcote Parkinson’s essays from decades ago offer a dose of surprising insights that the city’s ailing bureaucracy should heed

    Tom Holland
    Jan 03, 2012

    Browsing in a second-hand bookshop last week, I came across a slim volume of essays by the late Cyril Northcote Parkinson.
    A professor of history at the National University of Singapore and a prolific author, Parkinson is best remembered today for his eponymous law which states: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

    This phenomenon is familiar to everyone used to working to a deadline. It may sound paradoxical, but as any journalist can testify, it is far harder to write a 1,000-word feature if the deadline is next Tuesday than if it is at 4.30 this afternoon – even if the final article turns out exactly the same.
    In a 1955 essay, Parkinson extrapolated from this simple axiom to explain why bureaucracies and their workload tend to expand independently of their actual output.
    As an example, he cited Britain’s Royal Navy, wherein the number of civil administrators increased by 80 per cent between 1914 and 1928 even though the size of the fleet fell by 70 per cent. Eventually, Parkinson forecast, the navy’s admirals would exceed the number of its ships – a prediction realised in 2008.
    In addition to the original essay, the collection I picked up last week contains eight other pieces dating from the 1950s, some of which have much to teach us about Hong Kong in 2012. For example, in his essay Injelititis, Parkinson explained why mediocre people manage to rise to the top of so many organisations.
    The problem arises with the promotion of an executive who combines high concentrations of both incompetence and jealousy. Neither quality is rare, but together they can be lethal. The incompetent man, failing to accomplish anything himself, sets out to make sure that no one else achieves anything either, lest he ends up looking bad.
    Anyone with genuine ability is ruthlessly eliminated, and “soundness” – a willingness to conform – rather than talent, becomes the criterion for promotion. Smugness supplants drive as the most obvious characteristic of corporate culture and the organisation soon sinks into paralysis, then ultimately coma.
    Then there is the essay in which Parkinson examines governments around the world and concludes that the decision-making power of a cabinet tends to be inversely proportional to its size.
    By this standard, Hong Kong’s 34-member Executive Council ranks alongside the cabinet of the former Soviet Union for effectiveness: It exists only for show.
    But following last week’s news that the plumbing of the Hong Kong government’s newly opened HK$5.5 billion Tamar complex is infested with Legionnaires’ disease, the essay that really caught my eye was the one on organisations that build themselves grandiose new headquarters.
    Parkinson noted that active, effective institutions tend to operate from haphazard, makeshift premises. There is plenty of evidence to bear this out. The first electronic computer was built in a garden shed; the first nuclear reactor in a disused squash court.
    As Parkinson explained “During a period of exciting discovery or progress, there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters.”
    Any organisation that has the time and resources to design and build itself lavish new headquarters is clearly suffering from hubris and is no longer focused on what it ought to be doing. As Parkinson argued: “Planning is a symptom of decay.”
    There is no shortage of examples to back this assertion.
    Parkinson cites the glories of St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, whose construction coincided with the Reformation, which saw much of Northern Europe shrug off papal rule, forever diminishing the influence of the Catholic Church.
    Next there was the Palace of Versailles, built just as the French monarchy suffered a series of crushing military defeats in the War of the Spanish Succession, followed by a devastating financial crisis when the Mississippi Bubble burst. It never recovered.
    Then there was New Delhi, possibly the ultimate symbol of imperial hubris, built by the British as the eternal capital of their empire in India, and completed less than 10 years before India’s independence in 1947.
    The Tamar complex fits this pattern. Consulting engineers have long complained that officials failed woefully to meet the government’s own standards in commissioning its extravagant new headquarters. Now with the Legionnaire’s infestation in a building just three months old, we have evidence of incompetence on a monumental scale.
    Parkinson could have warned them – and in fact he did. Tellingly, the flyleaf of the second-hand book I picked up last week is stamped with: “This book is the property of the Commerce and Industry Department, Fire Brigade Building, Hong Kong.”
    Clearly, our officials now feel they are above such warnings.
    [email protected]

  5. Wag says:

    Journalists never let facts get in the way of a good hyperbole. Holland ought to be writing for the Sun.

    Comparing the Palace of Versailles to Tamar is like comparing Wakefield Town Hall to St Paul’s Cathedral.

    That’s enough comparisons. Ed.

  6. Joe Blow says:

    If I want to read the South Xinhua Morning Post I’ll just steal a copy somewhere, RTP.

  7. maugrim says:

    CNOOC is up 5% today. I wished I’d sold at $21. Who says militant Islamists are all bad?

    As to the Tamar, karma? Probably more due to the personal hygiene, or lack of it, of the llama like construction workers not averse to adding a bit of rheum here and there.

  8. Jason90 says:

    Tom Holland: “St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, whose construction coincided with the Reformation, which saw much of Northern Europe shrug off papal rule, forever diminishing the influence of the Catholic Church.”
    My understanding is that the shameless selling of indulgences to fund the construction of St Peter’s actually ‘set off’ the reformation, rather than merely ‘coincided’.
    A modern HK Government reformation? It’s all way too much to hope for! Sorry, I mean ‘we all hope it isn’t the case…’

  9. Old Timer says:

    “My understanding is that the shameless selling of indulgences to fund the construction of St Peter’s actually ‘set off’ the reformation, rather than merely ‘coincided’.”

    That’s what happens when journos have a 4.30pm deadline.

  10. sen says:

    @RTP thanks for the copy/pasty of the Holland article for the 99% BL readers who do not subscribe to
    Also if its not too much trouble how about the occasional, say weekly, cornish pasty of Van der Kemp and Chugani?

    I leave you with a Parkinson quote

    Men enter local politics solely as a result of being unhappily married.


  11. Aardvark says:

    As a building professional, I’ll tell you what it is, and it’s disgusting.

    I’ve seen it a million times before, some Mandarin DEMANDS the building opens on a certain date, ignoring all reality and explanation. And the contractors take shortcuts.

    One of those shortcuts very likely was not allowing workers to go down 10 stories to excrete. What do they then do? They choose a few spots on site. like an unfinished corner tiolet.

    This is perhaps entirely the fault of the fools who run this place demanding that the building be finished 6 months early.

    The place is a bio hazard, believe me, and a little scrubbing aint’ gonna fix it.

    The irony is so delicious.

  12. Walter De Havilland says:

    @Sen. Please no copying of Chugani! If I want to hear the rants of man with a chip on each shoulder, I can always avail myself of the mendicant who stands under the Canal Road flyover shouting at passing buses.

  13. Groot oore says:

    Perhaps the deadly bacteria will eliminate Daffy Donald and Co and allow Henry Horseman to take the reins sooner than planned. What the hell, it can’t get any worse, can it. Can it ..?

  14. davy jones says:

    And, Real Tax Payer, you forgot Parkinson’s most important law:-


    Most expensive railway link, Shatin to Central Line etc. etc. etc

  15. PropertyDeveloper says:

    What if the building culture was entirely for show, the parts you see the only ones that count? What if buildings were designed for the short term, quite sensible when you know it’s all going to be refurbished before the grout has dried? What if the workers only obeyed direct orders, meaning that the boss was only good at bossing, not actually doing any work? What if those setting unrealistic targets were podgy, pasty weaklings who kept the blinds closed all day?

    I successfully predicted that the train crash had to have a foreign element; now I’m just waiting for the penny to drop on what legionnaire means.

  16. HH says:

    @Walter De Havilland: Hear, hear.

    I always wondered how “Mick Chug” got his SCMP column and even worse, how he blagged his way into the ATV gig.

  17. Real Tax Payer says:

    WOW……….. seems I set off a landmine by quoting Tom Holland verbatim

    Well, for better or for worse, I highly regard both Tom – and Jake – for their views. Jake has always been counter-intuitive and his op-eds continue to shake me into thinking straight . Tom has progressed in leaps and bounds of late and his today’s op-ed was really top class. IMHO . ( also delicious, delightful , de-lovely )

    I assume we are all highly intelligent beings here on this comment section so I will attach the other SCMP op-ed, which also blew my mind

    See next post ( if I can retrieve the op- ed from

    If I bore you, then just shut off



  18. Real Tax Payer says:

    @ Aardvark

    You are almost certainly right . I once went to the new Wanchai Conference and Exhibition Centre to watch the harbour fireworks from a good vantage point .

    The place stank like a sewer with all the pee of the workers.

    Serves D the duck and all his cronies right for pushing through Tamar base ( Donald’s U- Turn ? )

    I just hope they are forced to shut down the whole place for a month or two to quarantine it

  19. Adrian says:


    Thank you for posting Tom’s op-ed, I look forward to reading any other articles from Tom, Jake or today/yesterday’s ”Changing Minds” you feel worthy enough to post. Where I live the isn’t readily interweb available often enough to warrant subscription, yet Hemlock is. Not that I mind.

  20. Big Al says:

    @ RTP

    Ideally shut down the whole place for a month with all the civil servants inside, thereby freeing up a bit more space in Hong Kong for the rest of us over CNY. I’m sure they’ll be happy about this once they find they can claim a “shut in” allowance (shame it’s not a “shut up” allowance – I for one would not object to that!).

  21. Real Tax Payer says:


    Sorry – forgot to mention that it was from a half-finished CAC at which I watched the fireworks from – just 6 months from ” COMPLETION”

    And it did stink like a sewer with all the workmens’ pee

    Seeing the state of that building at that time I have NO IDEA how they finished it in time

    Now…… ? I am housed in a building run by the MTR and our water supply is shut off almost every month for cleaning

    But where I lived before – run by a premier HK property management company – the water tank cleaning was roughly once per year

    Long live the MTR

    Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said the pipes had been sterilised according to standard procedure after the building’s construction Lam also reiterated a statement by architectural services director Leung Koon-kee that a test for the bacteria was not required under international standards.

    “The Water Supplies Department advises people to use water supplies actively to avoid the accumulation of bacteria. If the water taps are not used frequently, the users or owners of the building should be responsible.

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