LHZB Interview with Chen Show Mao

The following is a translation of the report on Lianhe Zaobao on 3 April 2011. The first part is a translation from Lianhe Zaobao reporter, Yew Lun Tian’s Facebook page. The report is an exclusive interview the Chinese paper had with Workers’ Party potential candidate, Mr Chen Show Mao.

In the middle of last month, when news first broke in the media about corporate lawyer Chen Show Mao’s emergence as a possible Workers’ Party candidate in the coming elections, he swiftly became the focus of intense local media attention and was widely spoken about as Workers’ Party’s “trump card”.

In an exclusive interview with Lianhe Zaobao two days ago, he shed his secretive low-profile and broke his silence for the first time. Unused to media scrutiny, he displayed a certain degree of nervousness, but given his highly effective bi-lingual skills, he was able to articulate fluently and clearly his ideas in Chinese throughout the two hour interview. Breaking his silence for the first time, he spoke about his decision to come home, the reasons for joining opposition politics and also his decision to join the Workers’ Party.

There is a Confucian saying that you know your destiny when you turn 50 years old. Chen Show Mao believes that he is quite fortunate to be in a position to make this decision. He describes this as “the second half of his life”. He said firmly, “I have to give back to the society”.

Growing up, Chen has received plenty of help from the community. A recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship, commonly known as the “world’s oldest and most prestigious international graduate scholarship”, he said he wants to “fight the world’s fight”, in the words of Cecil Rhodes in his will.

“Besides taking care of ourselves and our family, we have an obligation to this world and the society at large. This is my conviction. I am no different from everyone, in the past. I had spent my time and energy on my work. Who would not want to be recognized within the mainstream values and be perceived as a successful individual? However, I think I have reached a different stage in my life, this is the second half, I want to play the game in a different way”, said Chen Show-Mao.

As someone recognized at the top of his profession, and someone who has extensive experience in the US, China and Hong Kong markets, Chen Show-Mao deeply understands the power of capital. But he has chosen to come back to Singapore, where his home is, and he will be joining the opposition lacking in intangible political capital. From business to politics, from a position of strength to a position of weakness, it is clear that his life will never be the same again.

He said, “I had the chance to work on the biggest, the most complex and the top deals in the world, I can say that with pride to whoever questions me. I am entering the second-half of my life; I should do something that is meaningful and challenging.”

This meaningful and challenging job is to participate in the building of democracy in Singapore, to promote and build a rational, practical and well-respected opposition party, to let it play the role of a watchdog more effectively. With this in place, Singapore can then look forward to forming a “first world” parliament that corresponds to its “first world” economic status.

He said, “We do not have a viable alternative today. We have 82 versus 2 (the distribution of parliament seats between the ruling party and the opposition), asking the latter to form the government is unrealistic in the short term, but it doesn’t mean that it is not our objective. For people like me, participating in opposition politics, committing to the work of democratic development is more meaningful, precisely because we need to reverse this disadvantaged situation. ”

“I hope to work together with my predecessors and people who decide to join in later, in promoting the workings of this democracy. What is the ultimate aim? It is still about the livelihoods of our people, we hope everyone’s life would become better, we hope the government can make better policies.”

Against the backdrop of livelihood matters that have always been key to election results, the effectiveness of Chen’s appeal to higher political ideals is yet to be known at the grassroots level. However, he has been an “action figure” and a leader since his student days. In ACS, he was once the vice class representative; in NJC, he was a member of the Student Council; and during NS, he was a platoon commander and Staff Officer. During his third year in Harvard, he founded the “First-year Urban Program” with his peers, to encourage first year students to volunteer their services at less privileged communities in the neighbourhood – a program that remains active till today.

To Chen, to lead by example through concrete action is the key to practise his beliefs. One day in 2007, he walked in the HQ of WP to evaluate his decision of joining politics, which marks the start of his relationship with WP. He realises that his beliefs are in sync with those of WP’s and made the decision to join them. During his time back in Singapore, he has participated actively in WP’s activities, including selling WP newsletters and walkabouts.

While he cannot confirm whether he will be a candidate for a GRC or SMC, he admitted that he has visited Aljunied, East Coast, Moulmein, etc.

Chen is ready to move his work and life back to Singapore, and the “second half” of his life will perhaps be spent taking part in WP work for the next 15 to 20 years. Although his family is worried for him, Chen is preparing them mentally, “If I get elected, it is logical that I have my base in Singapore to serve the community. If I fail, it means that there is much more to do, and not less. Then I will also move back to Singapore to handle WP matters, in preparation for the next election.”

Since receiving his doctorate in 1992, Chen has worked in Hong Kong twice, and also a few years in the New York HQ during these stints. Since 2007, he has been a resident in Beijing. After being abroad for many years, Chen remains attached to Singapore. He visits Singapore four to five times every year for the past five years. To Chen, this comes naturally, just like how he served NS despite not being a citizen yet during those days, simply because “this is what Singaporeans do”.

He said, “My life has been smooth-sailing, but I feel that my path from here may not be this brightly lit and obstacle-free, and I may not be able to get to my destination.

“But this is my home, it’s almost been 30 years (abroad), and no matter where people are, they will have to go home eventually.”

Does having an opposition equates to having an insurance with an upgrade package?

The Singapore government administration and policy execution has an excellent track record and is well-known for its efficiency, so much so that it is almost like a famous international brand. There is a common concept that a multi-party parliament may affect this efficiency. But Chen Show Mao disagrees with that notion. He believes that a party that monopolises that parliament will create instability in the system, and the electorate “might as well use the 49% of their votes to buy an insurance and an upgrade.”

In his eyes, the PAP only needs 51% for a majority in parliament, hence voters should not “waste” that 49% of their votes, and should give them to opposition parties instead.

This will provide insurance for the country, because this will support sufficient numbers of opposition party members to enter parliament and allow them to gain experience and a chance to serve the people. When the day comes that the ruling party or system is unable to perform to expectations, a capable opposition party will be in place to take over.

For the long term, Chen believes that this can help in the advancement of democracy. Chen firmly believes that an effective democractic system with the inclusion of multiple parties will bring about a government that produces better policies, which in turn is beneficial to the livelihood of the general population.

This is an area that draws most of Chen’s attention. He says, “If there is a choice, you need to make a little sacrifice, you need to develop this opposition party. Unless you are willing to entrust everything and anything to a group of decision-makers.”

“But I feel that, for one, this is not a mainstream idea held globally. And for two, no matter which aspects of life you look at, progress is brought about by competition. There is no reason that this rule doesn’t apply to the government.”

As for why supporting opposition parties constitute an upgrade package for the PAP, Chen stresses the importance of competition. Only when there is competition, will the ruling party feel the pressure to work hard to serve the nation. When that happens, Singaporeans have received a “service upgrade”.

Citing the example of the foreign talent labour policy, Chen believes that there was insufficient discussion before the implementation of the policy, resulting in problems that include an inability to deal with the congestion and depression of wages.

While Chen admits that it is easy to provide criticisms, he does not deny the lack of resources and favourable conditions are playing a part too. It is therefore difficult to implement plans and policies according to one’s political vision, but he believes that everything has to start somewhere.

Hee says, “Griping, complaining, venting frustration is not a special privilege of opposition parties, this is a national phenomenon. But putting it in perspective, these opposition party members are willing to stand for elections, they are already taking action. When they get elected, there will be more resources, time and legality to take further actions, and to contribute to building a democracy.”

“Just like what is mentioned in the The Great Learning [part of The Four Classics], there is no way that a person learns how to have kids and bring them up before getting married. Some things have to happen before other things can follow suit.”

He hopes that he can provide impetus for more people to join opposition parties, by following the footsteps of his predecessors who have bravely come forward to push for reforms. Quoting Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew among those predecessors whom he hopes to learn from, he says, “The PAP was once an opposition party.”


Part 3

Compared with new PAP candidates in this elections, Chen Show Mao too has rock solid credentials coming in. He was the top student in the 1979 ‘A’ Levels Examinations, graduated from Harvard, Oxford and Stanford, and is the recipient of the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. He enjoys a glowing reputation in the law industry and is one of the top corporate lawyers in the world.

Some of Chen’s outstanding peers are already Ministers today. These include Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports; and Lui Tuck Yew, Minister of Information, Communications and the Arts. The three of them are of the same age and came from the same batch of ACS students. Chen was also the first batch of NJC graduates together with Dr. Vivian Balakrishnan.

Chen admits frankly that he has considered joining the PAP prior to joining politics. He has quite a number of politically active friends who are PAP members, and hence have been approached by them and gave it some consideration. However, he firmly believes that he can serve Singapore all the same no matter which party he decides to join.

He says, “Those friends of mine who have joined the PAP are definitely in a better position to contribute to the society in the short term, because they can participate in making and implementing policies. So I believe that they have a more direct influence on the livelihoods of Singaporeans in the short-term. For example, he can reduce the fees of this service, and that can indeed benefit many people.”

“This is something that we (opposition parties) can’t do. However, we have another job at hand, that is promoting the system of democracy, develop the opposition parties, this is something that we need people for, and perhaps even a taller order, that is, the difficulty of attracting people to do the job. This, perhaps, is more important for Singapore in the long term, and has the potential to have a larger impact on the livelihoods of Singaporeans. From this perspective, this is perhaps a more meaningful and worthwhile endeavour.”

Political Observer: Chen Show Mao’s candidacy can have an inspirational effect

A political observer thinks that compared with the five heavyweight candidates (Heng Swee Keat, Chan Chun Sing, Tan Chuan Jin, Ong Ye Kung and Wong Ann Chai) who have similar backgrounds from public service, Chen’s multi-disciplinary economics and law background with experience from private corporations and global business is precisely what is lacking in Singapore’s current crop of leaders.

Eugene Tan, Assistant Professor of Law at SMU, says, “Judging from the education background and professional achievements, Chen can be easily linked with the current system. If he were a PAP candidate, he wouldn’t have attracted such attention; but probably because he’s an opposition party candidate, he is really raising some eyebrows.”

Tan believes that Chen is possibly the first mainstream elite to have led the way to join an opposition party. If Chen stands for elections, it will definitely be an inspiration to others who share similar characteristics, to join his efforts in promoting the development of opposition party politics.

He says, “There are some organised opposition parties that have organised themselves to create an image of credibility and seriousness. Chen can possibly become a poster boy for such opposition politics. The key is, will he continue to go against the flow? If he doesn’t get elected, will he still stand for the next elections?”

This question has already been answered by Chen during the interview, when he said that he will continue his work in WP to prepare for the next elections, in the event that he fails to get elected.


Part 4


Personal Beliefs

My personal beliefs are pretty simple: progress can only be brought about by competition. In the end, only through the growth of the opposition party, can there be a watchdog effect on the government. Under our current system, I believe that an opposition party that has the capability to govern, will complement the operation of the Singapore democratic system. Just like when you buy something, today’s newspapers said “buy one get one free” (referring to DPM Teo’s idea that when you vote for PAP, you can also have an opposition member serving as NCMP). Then I must remind everybody that it’s better to compare and shop around. There is only one big store around today, it’s quite difficult to “compare and shop”, since there is no real choice.

Conditions for Democracy

Compared with many other countries, we do have a pretty mature environment to build a democratic government. Some countries need to change their system to become a democracy, while our system and structure are already in place, and everybody accepts its legality in general. We have a parliament, the democracy system is present, the machine is present, but the problem is that nobody is operating it. Our democracy cannot get going. So we present ourselves to offer voters a choice, to allow the system a chance to work, this is something very worth doing.

Second Half of My Life

The Singapore journey from third world to first world has yet to be finished. There is a saying that to complete a hundred miles, 90 miles is but halfway through, the most difficult portion is the final ten miles, that’s why I feel that it’s very important. We must be able to move towards this goal, to work hard towards building a first world parliament. We must not negate PAP’s achievements in nation-building, but we must move on to the next stage of development, to allow our democratic system to work, to really bring us to First World.

What perspectives do bring to the table?

My extended time spent living and working overseas allows me to realise that there is plenty for us to learn from no matter which country it is. How can being a lawyer benefit voters? I think part of my profession makes me more careful. Because I act on behalf of my clients, and am used to represent them to fight for their benefits, and hence “will stay loyal in my clients best interest”. Lawyers are used to playing this role, which is also the role of an MP. I’m a corporate lawyer, we help to close business deals. So I think I’m used to observing the situation, and is quite capable of understanding people’s needs. If I get elected, I think these characteristics will be helpful to serve the ward.

What are your views on the new system of NCMP

This is the wishful thinking of the ruling party, in an attempt to satisfy Singaporeans’ desire to see somebody criticise the government in the parliament, while having the ruling party to present all the voters. I feel that voters must make a decision. That is to say, if we believe that having opposition parties to keep the government in check to bring about progress, then how shall we achieve this goal? Should there be a multi-party parliament, or will having some NCMPs suffice? NCMPs do not represent any voters, I believe that if we simply rely on them, then we have moved further away from the goal of having an opposition party that is capable of forming the government to perform watchdog functions. Is having opposition party members as NCMPs in parliament good enough? Or to make it even easier, we don’t need a parliament. We can just set up a huge mailbox for people to send their grouses about the government directly to this mailbox. Isn’t that even better? But can this encourage the ruling party to do better?

Democracy lacks efficiency?

A dominant party is efficient in executing policies, but what effects has this brought about? What are our most important policies In recent years? Yes, it is the foreign labour policy. To let in foreign labour is to spur the economy, without concern about productivity that we’ve previously talked about. This policy has created a crude economic growth, and what is the price? It is the jobs, education, housing, living space, transportation of Singaporeans. These are all part of the price that we’ve paid.

Before the implementation of this policy, what form of discussion have we had? You have heard that Singapore plans to house a population of 6.5 million in the future, but not everybody is sure that this is indeed our policy. Such an important policy, are people consulted for a discussion? Didn’t they know that this will have a great impact on the lives on Singaporeans? To me, this discussion is insufficient. Even if having multiple parties in the Parliament affects efficiency, but to have a debate in the Parliament for huge policy decisions, is this inefficiency a fair price to pay? I think it’s worth it. The ruling party’s job can be improved, as opposition parties get better, with the opportunity to gain experience to perform the checks and balances in a democracy.


Chen Show Mao

Age: 50
Family: Married, with 3 children
Languages spoken: English, Mandarin, Hokkien
Basic education: Nanyang Primary School, Catholic High, ACS, NJC
Higher Education: Bachelor of Economics, Harvard. Bachelors and
Masters of Law, Oxford (Rhodes Scholarship), JD from Stanford Law

From the Singapore Management University website:

Mr Chen graduated in 1986 from Harvard College and in 1988 from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In 1992 he received his J.D. from Stanford Law School and in 2005 received his M.A. from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University.

Mr Chen has extensive experience in international securities offerings and M&A transactions. He advised the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) on its recent $21 billion initial public offering, which is the largest IPO ever, and the first global offering that involved a concurrent listing in China. He also advised ICBC on the $3.8 billion strategic investment in the bank by a consortium comprising Goldman Sachs, American Express and Allianz, which is the largest-ever investment in a Chinese financial institution.

He advised China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) on its proposed $19 billion acquisition of Unocal, which is the largest-ever attempted takeover by a Chinese company. He completed the global initial public offerings of Air China, China Construction Bank, Sinopec, China Unicom, Chalco, Baidu.com and others, as well as offerings of sovereign debt by the Ministry of Finance of the People’s Republic of China.

Mr Chen has worked on a broad range of securities offerings and M&A transactions by Taiwan companies, including Acer, ASE, ASUS, AU Optronics, China Steel, Chinatrust Bank, Far EasTone, HTC, Hon Hai Precision, Inotera, Nanya Technology, Quanta Computer, Taishin Bank, TSMC, UMC and others. He also advised the Ministry of Economic Affairs of the ROC, the Development Fund of the Executive Yuan of the ROC and the Taiwan Stock Exchange on securities law matters.

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