Opinion – Rarely, rarely comest thou, spirit of delight

They say that English humour revels in irony. As an Englishman, I could not remember the last time that I had a belly laugh in Macau; it was so long ago. But then along came a recent local media report whose irony made me burst out laughing and has kept me smiling for weeks.

Opinion | Keith Morrison – Author and educationist

The report stated that the new Director of Macau’s Land, Public Works and Transport Bureau (DSSOPT) had been given only several months to solve its ‘accumulated problems’ and, along with DSSOPT staff, to complete its accumulated projects. The joke gets better: it was reported that she promised to improve communication with the public, increase the transparency of administration, enhance efficiency and install innovative thinking at the bureau. And all in a matter of months.

Who could possibly rectify the DSSOPT’s years of expertise in Herman Melville’s being ‘lost on an infinite sea’ of delays, glacial-pace progress, cost over-runs, creation of unsightly street mess all over Macau, and seemingly irremediable planning problems? Who could roll back the years in a matter of months? No wonder the new Director’s boss, in a beautiful touch of irony, understatement and pure poetry, reportedly thanked her for taking on the position in a climate of ‘difficult circumstances’. A laugh-out-loud moment; as Shelley put it: ‘rarely, rarely, comest Thou, Spirit of Delight’.

Who is this DSSOPT’s superstar who, in just a few months, can turn back the tide and solve problems that have been the DSSOPT’s hallmark for years? Who is this supreme being who has the temerity, the gall to overturn its traditions built up over years? Who can enable the DSSOPT to fulfil what its website’s proudly declaims as ‘major functions’ of ‘providing technical supports and giving suggestions for policy making related to Macao’s physical development in the areas of land management and utilization, urban planning, infrastructures, basic services. . . defining guidelines for economy and society development’?

Ah, it’s the former Deputy Director of the DSSOPT, a position she held until 2015, followed by a stint as its chief consultant. Not much hope for change, then. I had been taught that you can’t solve a problem by simply re-visiting the factors that give rise to it; solutions require looking at problems differently, from new perspectives.

Maybe the appointment is inescapable in a small territory like Macau: recycle and appoint from within. Not that the new Director is a, or the, problem. Not at all.  Rather, she has been handed a poisoned chalice and charged with lancing a monstrous, oversized, flaming boil that has been growing for years, and that has a history, a pathology, an aetiology.

For example, Macau’s Commission of Audit in 2015 reported that, concerning Taipa’s Central Park, the DSSOPT ‘did not properly consult with user departments nor consider adequately the users’ suggestions during the implementation of the project. The unilateral decision of changing the design during the construction period, [resulted] in additional works . . . . [T]here were deficiencies of DSSOPT in monitoring the execution of the contract and provisional acceptance procedure after the project was completed. These deficiencies of DSSOPT led to waste of time and resources . . . .’, the problem having reached back to 2012.

Macau’s Commission Against Corruption’s Annual Report 2012 noted that a DSSOPT member had accepted bribes; its 2013 report included a case of forgery by a DSSOPT member; its 2016 report commented that ‘in the process of the land exchange deal, the DSSOPT stated neither the criteria nor the reasons for making decisions’; its 2018 report stated that the DSSOPT had gone against ‘the planning terms laid down in the administrative instructions’ and, in another matter, ‘the DSSOPT only replied that the case had been classified as priority and did not take any actions’. In 2019, it noted that the DSSOPT had failed to adhere to laws concerning land conservation and planning.

If the history of the DSSOPT is anything to go by, it will need an earthquake to arouse it from slumber. The optimism in thinking that a new Director will solve its problems so quickly is a wonderful, but bitter, piece of irony. A rare moment of grim laughter suffuses the entire herculean task of solving the DSSOPT’s ‘accumulated problems’ in a matter of months, let alone years. What staggering naivety, hubris and want of any realism.