Almost got close to one of Hong Kong’s lesser-spotted species in the wild the other day: a real-life Mega-Events Fund Official.
These elusive beasts are normally almost impossible to catch in real life and alas it proved so again at a UBS Hong Kong Golf Open press conference, an MEF-supported event.
With the fund finally set for the scrapheap, I had a couple of questions.
But the flighty official took wing midway through the press conference and it felt unseemly to give chase, especially as the sponsor was at that moment extolling its charity work, with videos of terribly ill kids and the like.
The official line thus remains, “The government is reviewing the way forward of the MEF and an announcement will be made in due course.”
But it’s no great surprise that the MEF is set finally to be put out of its misery.
Since its ill-conceived inception in 2009, it has become a byword for bungling incompetence bordering on corruption. The ICAC recommended it be shut down as early as 2010.
A report by the Audit Commission in 2014 was a litany of failure: inflated job numbers at events, questionable spending items, lack of invoice and payroll records, conflicts of interests, etc.
That was followed by a Public Accounts Committee hearing whose minutes repeatedly use the phrases “finds it unacceptable and inexcusable…” and “expresses astonishment and finds it unacceptable…”
In Bureaucratese, this is incendiary language and would normally see heads roll – not at the MEF though.
Jeffrey Lam Kin-fung has been the head of the fund’s assessment committee since its inception. His DNA 90 per cent Teflon, he was reappointed to his position almost immediately after those apparently-not-as-damning-as-you-would-think reports.
Lam is best known for one of the most farcical moments in LegCo’s recent history, when in 2015 he bungled an attempted walkout by Beijing-loyalist lawmakers intended to hold up a vote on political reform.
His other claim to fame is having his driving licence suspended for cruising down a road against oncoming traffic on his way to a music event blatantly designed to entice youngsters away from July 1 pro-democracy protests.
With those organisational and navigational skills, it’s no surprise that the MEF has not been a stunning success.
Local sporting officials have long cursed it for its lack of transparency, Byzantine assessment process and apparent determination not to actually fund any events, mega or otherwise.
It is next to impossible to get anyone to voice those criticisms on record as that would black-ball their organisation from future funding.
Perhaps after its death is confirmed some amusing horror stories might come out, but officials will likely still be wary of offending whatever replaces it.
Because that is the key question. Something must replace the MEF – and it should be a body solely focused on supporting sporting events rather than vaguely attracting tourists. We have far too many of the latter and too few of the former.
It should be managed by senior professionals from local governing bodies who actually know something about sport.
While the members of the MEF’s assessment committee are bedecked in Bauhinia Stars and surely expert and respected in their fields of business, academia, hospitality, etc, the extent of their understanding of, or interest in, sport is less clear.
There is some worry in the sports community about the MEF’s imminent demise, but also a quiet optimism that something – hopefully better – will replace it. The what, how, why and when of that remain to be answered.
Given that 2017 is the 20th anniversary of the handover, you’d think the government would want as many major events as possible in the city to commemorate it (and perhaps distract an increasingly disgruntled public, bread-and-circuses style), and desire a swift transition.
There does exist another body helping to assist and fund sports tournaments – the Major Sports Event Committee and its M Mark scheme.
It seems to have been doing a fine job (well, it’s at least avoided repeatedly being publically chastised by the government); expanding its remit and funding powers seems an obvious, simple solution.
Unfortunately, as we’ve repeatedly seen – and Mr Lam can attest from personal experience – obvious and simple is not always the Hong Kong government way.