WP 'star catch' pushing for multi-party system
Chen Show Mao moving back to help opposition fight
By Kor Kian Beng & Jeremy Au Yong
SERIOUS. That was the answer corporate lawyer Chen Show Mao wrote in a Harvard University application asking him to say something about himself in one word.
Three decades later, the star catch of the Workers' Party (WP) recalls that form when asked to describe himself. 'I am a serious person,' said the corporate lawyer who is back from his Beijing office to prepare for the upcoming polls.
'It's unfortunate that I haven't grown more interesting over the years, but I think looking at myself now, it's still apt.'
That sense of purpose became clear when he explained his decision to enter politics in a two-hour interview that was nonetheless punctuated with wide smiles and hearty laughter.
Despite being away for nearly 30 years - first in the United States, Britain, then Hong Kong and China - he said he is relocating here for good and is ready to do the heavy lifting for opposition politics.
Whether or not he wins, he wants to 'do the job' of building a multi-party system that he feels would be more stable than a one-party system. Competitive politics will create better policies and a better Singapore, he believes.
'You don't have many Singaporeans doing this job, and I'd like to help do what I can,' he said.
With his floppy salt-and-pepper hair and tortoise-shell glasses, the 50-year-old exudes the air of an academic rather than a corporate chief. Few of his friends and now WP colleagues are familiar with his corporate accomplishments, including leading the legal team shepherding the world's biggest public listing, of China's Agricultural Bank, which raised US$22.1 billion (S$28 billion) last year.
All many know is that the name Chen Show Mao created a buzz in the opposition after The Straits Times broke the story last month that this mystery candidate who was abroad would return home and run on the WP ticket.
During the interview, he shed more light on his personal life. His father came from Taiwan to work for a trading company here before setting up his own. Two years later, when Mr Chen was 11, he, his younger sister and mother moved here.
He picked up English only then. By 18, it was good enough to help him become the top A-level student in Singapore in the 1979 cohort, which included current Cabinet ministers Vivian Balakrishnan and Lui Tuck Yew.
The National Junior College student was also student council president. During his national service as a platoon commander and brigade staff officer despite not being a Singapore citizen until 1986, he applied to study medicine at the National University of Singapore, but was rejected.
'They felt too many were going into medicine, perhaps like too many are going into the PAP,' he quipped.
[Might be petty of me, but is this what turned him off PAP?]
In September 1982, he went to Harvard to study economics. In 1986, Mr Chen landed the Rhodes scholarship to study languages and history at Oxford, and then a law doctorate from Stanford University in the United States.
At Harvard, he helped create a student newsletter and also a programme for freshmen to work with poor families. Mr Chen also became a student intern to consumer rights advocate Ralph Nader in taking on corporate America, though he later decided to become a corporate lawyer focusing on capital markets.
Despite his credentials, he seems determined to project himself as an 'ordinary WP member'.
'I want to get away from talking about 'my standing' or this sort of thing. At 50, I am older than most other members. Unless they are 50-year-olds, they're not going to have had the chance to have done as much in their line of work. And we know paper qualifications hide a wealth of heartaches and failures,' he said.
He also seems determined to toe the WP line. He spoke repeatedly about creating a 'rational, responsible and respectable' opposition, borrowing the line from WP chief Low Thia Khiang.
He said he dropped in at the party's headquarters at Syed Alwi Road in 2007 and joined soon after. 'I found that we're like-minded people, that we share the same goals and agree on the general approach and enjoy each other's company working together,' he said.
He admitted that his plans to become an opposition politician met with some resistance from his parents.
His decision, he said, does not lie in any fundamental disagreement over a particular PAP policy or in any deep-seated resentment against the party. Rather, he speaks about wanting to create a multi-party democracy in Singapore.
'I want to give credit where credit is due. And I think the PAP has brought us quite a ways. But this journey that they talk about, from the Third World to the First World, with all due respect, that's not done yet,' he said.
Asked what stake he has in Singapore, having been away for so long, Mr Chen listed his family and his friends as 'important parts of my life'.
He added that he used to own a house here and would need to buy one when his wife, a housewife, and children are back here.
His time abroad, he added, has not made him any less Singaporean. He quipped: 'This will be a little anti-dramatic, but I'm not from outer space.'
'Multi-party system can boost stability'
If you look at the history of how some countries move from a one-party dominant state to a multi-party system, there are always a few key players and how they choose to effect it, influences the outcome. Some people choose to work within the system, join that party and pursue internal reforms. Did you ever consider joining the PAP?
I think we agree that you can make contributions to Singapore whether as a member of the PAP or as a member of the opposition. As a member of the PAP, you would be in a better position, over the short term, to bring benefits to people's lives through the formulation and implementation of policy.
But I also feel that I can contribute by helping to build an effective opposition that takes us towards a First World Parliament and helps raise the quality of the policies that will get made and that will affect people's lives. That's also work that needs to be done and in some ways may be more worthwhile in the long run. It's just as challenging, perhaps more so, but fewer people are doing it.
You want a two-party system but some argue that the evidence that it is better for a country, in delivering better outcomes, is not necessarily there.
When people make that argument about a multi-party Parliament, they say the discussions and debate could be real inefficient (and so on). But just look at where we are, we are at 82-2. I think the greater danger at this point is in rushing policies through without adequate discussion, debate or transparency. It seems to me pretty clear what needs to be done.
What about the ability to plan and execute for the long term? Investors come here because of a stable reliable system and they see Singapore as a place that works. Won't having more politics change that and be a source of concern?
Investors pay attention to the stability of the system. It's the system we are talking about, and I believe that a functioning multi-party Parliament enhances our long-term stability.
But investors also go where they have the assurance that their investments, which will take many years to realise, can survive over a considerable period of time with a government they can work with.
I would just say look at the flow of international capital for direct investments and other kinds of investments. I think it would be hard to make a case that investors invest in only countries that are one-party states. You are assuming that only a one-party state is well-run.
While there is a certain kind of certainty when we know what this one party will likely be like, societies can be stable and even have stronger institutions without one-party dominance to the extent that we have in Singapore.
Each party needs to, among other things, present its long-term vision for the country and compete on that basis. I don't see why it's necessarily so that if we have more opposition members in Parliament, the Government will lose its ability to plan for the long term.
How do people plan for the long term in other countries? They plan on the basis that the winning party will be capable of forming a government, it will be a party that is familiar to the voters, and a rational, responsible, and respectable party that has the legitimacy of having been elected into government. That's what multi-party parliamentary democracy is about, right? And don't forget that other forms of government have their own seeds of instability, sources of risks.
Do you see this system as it is now as unstable?
No, but I believe that having a multi-party parliamentary system does not detract from that stability and in fact may enhance stability in the long run.
[You have been to US, UK, HK & China. How is multi-party democracy working out in the US? Coalition govt in the UK?]
What is it that this Government has done that would have benefited from such competition of ideas?
Take our population and immigration policy. It seems quite apparent that some time in the recent past, the Government made the decision to let in more foreign workers, presumably to boost our economic growth in absolute terms, but apparently without regard to productivity gains. We heard that 6.5 million people may have been used as a planning parameter, but exactly what was our policy? This has had a real impact on people's lives, their employment, wages, housing, property prices, schools, public transportation, living space. But how much debate did we have?
What about policies of the last 10-20 years? Are there things that would have benefited from competition?
There could well have been policies in the past that would have benefited had we had a different kind of opposition in place, that is a competitive opposition capable of forming an alternative government. Could have drawn out more things or maybe prevented some ideas from being discarded.
This is our long-term goal: With an opposition of the kind we're talking about in a Parliament of the type we've described, we hope the country can make better decisions from the offence that we will play and also the defence that they will play.
You say you want to help Singapore by joining the opposition but voters may well say, why weren't you here the last 30 years to help us?
Whoever you elect into Parliament to represent you, you have got to feel that he's going to be able to represent your interests effectively. If you feel that he's not going to be able to understand your concerns, I can understand if you have doubts and reservations. But also remember that many Singaporeans live abroad and they do not stop being Singaporeans. It's the way things are. It's the way the world has become. In fact, it doesn't hurt us to have Singaporeans back here in our midst who have been abroad and have had the benefit of that experience.
[He would be a credit to the opposition, an assessment based simply on this article and interview.]