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The Cyberport Story

Technology is suddenly even more of a buzz-word in Hong Kong than normal. It has become the panacea for all our unresolved problems. It is the answer to our low productivity. Going paperless will save our environment. It will speed up business deals and reduce transaction costs, enhancing Hong Kong's competitiveness.

Furthermore, IT boosts our stock market-just the concept of technology stock is good enough to capture investors' imaginations, and their capital. Even the Government has helped by branding the Cyberport the saviour of our ailing economy.

So, what is a cyberport? - someone asked me this at a recent dinner meeting. Such a question would have passed as being nothing of consequence had it not been for the fact that most of the guests were from well-established manufacturers which had been dealing with IT products for decades. But, that night, no one could come up with an answer.

I would still like to know the exact origins of the term 'cyberport', if anyone can tell me. However, as far as I can gather from my younger IT friends, the fashionable word 'cyber' comes from science fiction. When loosely translated, it seems to refer to an imaginary 'space' where electronic data, information or thoughts are exchanged.

Furthermore, the Collins English dictionary defines a 'port' as a 'town or place alongside navigable water with facilities for the loading and unloading of ships.' In other words, another 'space', or rather 'site', very much physical and immovable in nature.

In this age of the Internet and communication technology where physical barriers and limits have little meaning, and where innovative ideas are jealously guarded in high security, is it not ironic that the Government wants to construct a purpose-built facility so as to enable the further exchange of ideas on how to communicate even better?

While I leave it to the smarter accountants to figure this one out, it is no secret that I have many more questions to ask the Government on the way it has handled the Cyberport project. The most fundamental unanswered question is the one I raised in my Budget response on 24 March 1999: 'What open and fair criteria did the Government adopt when subjectively selecting a single business partner for this project?'

As events unfold, this business partner is not only enjoying an incredibly attractive deal in terms of real-estate development, the whole project has also appeared to have fast-tracked town-planning, giving the company a prompt green light to list its shares even though the project is far from certain. Also, one can't ignore the fact that the project has moved at a legislative pace that can only be described as unduly hasty.

As a legislator, it is my duty to consider all business corporations and their dealings when appointing business partners, without fear or favour. As such, I have publicly asked many probing questions to take the Government to task so that those involved can see that the way in which they have handled this project could result in much concern within the business community.

As a result of this saga, which probably leaves a bad taste in the mouth of many businesspeople, not only might the Government have to learn a hard lesson, the whole business community could well be left wondering whether Hong Kong's normal rule of 'fair-game' has gone forever.

Furthermore, there are many questions that need to be asked about the Cyberport's high construction costs and its low expected land values, as well as the final selling price of the developed properties. All these unanswered questions indicate that the Government has vastly underestimated the project's profitability.

The Government has also not answered questions on the technology transfer it expects from acting as landlord - at the time of writing, and despite the fact that dozens of firms have registered interest, only eight IT firms have signed letters of intent to rent space in the development.

There is no doubt that the community needs to monitor this project closely to ensure it is not just a short-term confidence booster, but a real long-term commitment to enhance our telecommunications technology.

We may also want to reflect on the fact that the brains behind greater names such as Microsoft and Yahoo began their blazing careers from a garage. Fancy bricks and mortar have yet to be proven as a good way to invest in technology. Other countries have tried, eg Malaysia's impressive Multi-media Super Corridor project - but some of my accountant friends in the IT business have told me that not many technological fruits have been borne in Malaysia, despite the appointment of an MSC International Advisory Panel of the highest order to guide the project, the heavy investment and major fiscal incentives.

However, there is no controversy in saying that investing in people is a sure way of investing in IT. As such, I urge the Government to look seriously granting more overseas scholarships and at more ways of attracting knowledgeable trainers to Hong Kong, eg to the Science Park.

All in all, I can understand why the IT community finds the Cyberport project hard to resist. It has definitely raised Hong Kong's status (and international awareness) as an IT city. Furthermore, the circumstances surrounding the project have pushed the Government to agree to consider the necessary criteria for choosing a business partner should another significant project arise.

However, despite my obvious scepticism, I sincerely hope that Hong Kong will get the best out of the project to warrant all the immediate fuss and sacrifices.

As usual, I would appreciate your views and advice on the subject as I can hardly claim to be an expert.

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