Of bridges and people

In a delightful piece of understatement, we have just been notified that seven pillars of the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge were ‘flawed’ – and would have to be ‘reconstructed’. As is so often the case in similar situations, the information comes almost casually and devoid of any particulars. What is the nature of the ‘flaws’, their causes and actual risks? Who was responsible for them? Those are topics of minor importance, surely. If they were important, we have to assume, someone would definitely tell us something about them. The fact that nobody did just shows they are not, and sensible people certainly do not waste time on trivial matters. Argument closed. Some time ago, we were also advised that a part of the underwater structure was subsiding due to, it seemed, land movements. We don’t know what other flaws might be implicated or how many pillars, if any, were involved in that event. Hopefully, no new ‘flaws’ will be detected, in pillars or anywhere else. Meanwhile, the construction schedule keeps stretching and the budget keeps inflating. The bridge promises to be, as some have suggested from the beginning, a kind of two-white-elephants–in–one: one for the construction, another for the operation. Lest we forget, we have still to see a sensible formulation of what real problems this bridge addresses; or a reasoned argument why this particular solution is superior to other conceivable and feasible alternatives; or a plausible forecast of its operations that will not depend heavily upon the ‘pillar’ of public money. It is too late to change the decision but it is never too late to know. Furthermore, for Macau, the extent of costs, beyond underwriting part of the construction bill, and the expected benefits, financial or otherwise, has yet to be clarified. This brings us to one of the major ‘obsessions’ of Macau. The bridge is supposed to ‘help’ us to bring in more visitors. But do we, or should we, want that to happen? We live somehow transfixed with the question of how many more tourists Macau can bear. It is not an irrelevant question, but the issue of the number alone, without a proper frame or context, is close to meaningless and deserves less attention than we grant it. The first question we need to ask ourselves is ‘what type of visitors we want to attract’. Then, we must ponder what kind of services and facilities must be available to cater for those visitors, and how we develop, consolidate and market them. Then, yes, we may ask ourselves how many can we attract in conditions that are both hospitable for the visitors and sustainable for the local community. And that is the essential ‘bridge’ that is still missing.