Architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee said Tuesday that his controversial appointment to design the Hong Kong Palace Museum was logical, effective, and nothing out of the ordinary.
Yim made the remarks at a press conference with Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and other members of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority. The architect came under the spotlight after investigative newswire FactWire revealed that Lam engaged Yim without tender months before the proposal was presented to the board of the authority, raising questions of procedural impropriety.
Lam admitted during the conference that she was the first government official to approach Yim, in May last year, to conduct a feasibility study as part of the project’s preliminary stage.
She also revealed that Yim was paid HK$4.5 million for the study. In the study, Yim’s team estimated that the project – including their own consulting fees – would cost HK$3.5 billion. The Hong Kong Jockey Club agreed to donate the amount last October.
Six months after Lam engaged Yim for the feasibility study, Yim’s appointment as lead consultant for the final design was approved at a special board meeting and formally made by the authority’s CEO Duncan Pescod.
Critics have questioned Lam’s handling of the matter. Architectural sector lawmaker Edward Yiu Chung-yim said Tuesday that it is “extremely unusual and unacceptable” for public bodies to approve contracts of large projects without tender.
In addition, he said, under the industry’s code of practice, architects engaged in the preliminary stage do not typically take part in the tendering process of the final design owing to potential conflicts of interests. Only under exceptional circumstances might architects in the private sector partake in both the preliminary and later stages. But Yiu emphasised that public bodies should always tender projects.
The lawmaker also questioned whether the authority intended to bypass the tendering requirement through a “tailor-made” contract with Yim, as the authority is entitled to approve contracts under HK$5 million without tender.
He added that the two separate appointments of Yim – first for the feasibility study and second for the actual project – should be seen as one single contract, and hence the authority should have tendered the entire project.
In response to criticism, Yim said that there was “nothing unusual” about his appointment. He said the authority’s recruitment mechanism is “quite common” and “logical.”
The architect said he did not understand why the project sparked controversy, as the design work he is responsible for is “very simple and straightforward.”
He said he was appointed because of his talents and accomplishments, rather than personal connections and affordability. Yim said he welcomed discussion as to whether he was the best choice, but did not want to see “such an effective and relatively objective appointment system” overturned.
“I hope that pointless speculation will not distract me from my work,” he said.
Yim previously made a failed bid for the master plan of the West Kowloon Cultural District. He was also in charge of a revitalisation project of the former Central Police Station Compound, where a wall collapsed last May.
John Batten, member of the Selection Committee for operators of the revitalisation project, asked Lam during Tuesday’s conference why Yim was still appointed as the lead consultant of the museum despite the wall collapse.
Lam replied: “John, the question you asked is something that really saddens me. On this very important project, I said many times that people could be unhappy with me, people could challenge me, criticise me or humiliate me, but please do not smear the important institutions that get this place going.”
She said Yim’s firm – Rocco Design Architects – is a “very renowned architectural practice” locally and has obtained lots of work in Hong Kong and China through open bidding.
“So please don’t try to smear individuals or important institutions, including some critics I heard in the Legislative Council about attacking the Hong Kong Jockey Club for giving us this wonderful donation of $3.5 billion to build this museum, saying that ‘there must be a conspiracy behind it,’” Lam said.
“This is not doing Hong Kong any good. We need to move on with confidence, with trust.”
Meanwhile, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo reported the controversy to the Independent Commission Against Corruption on Monday, accusing Lam of misconduct in public office.
Yiu also questioned whether the authority’s appointment decisions were made in accordance with the Commission’s procurement guidelines and the government’s internal guidelines on public-private partnerships.