Saturday 23 June 2012

'Power of we'

What Chen Show Mao wants, more than anything, is to be a catalyst to get Singaporeans more engaged in their citizenship and to play their part in fixing what is wrong with society, he tells Susan Long.
The Straits Times, 22 Jun 2012

THE question foremost on most minds is: Is Mr Chen Show Mao for real? Ask him that and his brows knit in perplexity.

Well, it is hard not to do the cost-benefit analysis of him throwing in the almost-certain success of his pedigreed, multimillion-dollar law career for the uncertain prospects of joining Singapore's opposition.

But he challenges that calculus, saying it wrongly assumes the cost was all borne by him. It was not, he maintains.

'I didn't spring forth from my mother's womb, fully formed by my own talent and ambition. It took my parents who made sacrifices and a whole community of teachers, scholarship boards, donors, taxpayers and others to give me an education and since I can't pay them all back, I hope to pay it forward.

'Even if you just look at it in dollars and cents, I couldn't have attended university without help,' says the 51-year-old who attended Harvard, Oxford and Stanford on university scholarships and the Rhodes scholarship.

It becomes clear that he views things through a different lens. Since he was voted into Parliament in May last year - when his Aljunied GRC team, led by Workers' Party chief Low Thia Khiang, won 54.7 per cent of valid votes - most of his public speeches have been an exercise in reframing.

In his maiden Parliament speech and Stanford Club address here last year, he turned on its head concepts like 'patriotism', 'public service' and 'pragmatism' - maintaining that they apply just as much, if not more so, to the opposition as to the ruling party.

The highest office in the land, he believes, is the office of the citizen. What he wants, more than anything, is to be a 'catalyst for us to be more engaged in our citizenship, for each of us to play our part to make this democracy work', he says.

'Everyday citizenship takes time, takes effort, takes skill. If we're not willing to put in the time and effort necessary to do what we believe is right for our community, say, organise people to rescue Bukit Brown Cemetery, then we can't make it work.'

To him, the most critical need in Singapore is to make government policies more responsive to people's needs. And he sees building a multiparty parliamentary democracy as the best way to achieve this.

'Given our history, our concerns and our reluctance, I thought standing in the last general election was a good thing I could do for us,' he says.

His greatest worry remains that Singaporeans 'feel powerless to change things in a meaningful way'. 'We think what we can do is so little. Who's going to listen? What if we get knocked down, slapped around?' he says.

But through standing on the opposition ticket, he hopes to give effect to the 'Power of we'.

'Every little thing you do, whether it's speaking up, asking questions or standing for election, affect people around you. People see that and feel more emboldened.

'You could be standing for election. You could be starting legal action to bring up the by-election date. You could be saying that we should double the wages of low-wage workers. That's so good to see because all this is supposed to be a part of our public lives. As a democracy, there ought to be a flowering of this.'

New growth metric

THE man who won a prize for law and economics at Stanford feels that Singapore needs to go beyond dollars and cents, not just in tabulating the sum of his foregone opportunities in corporate law, but in measuring national growth.

Singapore could use a more comprehensive and accurate growth metric, one that takes in longer-term and broader social and cultural registers of well-being, he says.

'Are people at the centre of things, or some measure of gross development or growth, that has over time been taken as a proxy for what's good for Singapore?' he asks.

In the past 10 years, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 83.3 per cent, whereas median household income grew only 21.9 per cent in real terms. The bulk of growth went to corporate profits and the income of high earners. About 42 per cent of Singapore's GDP goes to wages here, which is one of the lowest such shares in the world. The rest goes to corporate profits, interest and dividends.

Furthermore, Singapore's growth, he argues, was achieved mainly by adding more input in the form of foreign workers, with the costs borne very much by the bottom half of Singaporeans in terms of competition for jobs, wages and a squeeze on public transportation and housing.

Asked for the evidence of that, he cites that over the past 10 years, the average monthly household income for the top 20 per cent rose 31.3 per cent here, compared with only 8.4 per cent for the bottom 20 per cent.

Recently, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam produced figures to show that incomes have risen more for Singaporeans in the middle, than at the top and bottom, in the last five years. Income per household member grew in real terms - after taking inflation into account - by 3.2 per cent each year for median households, or those in the middle of a range.

In other words, despite inflation, middle-income Singaporeans are doing better than their counterparts in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other developed economies. Some economists have also noted that however you measure it, slower growth would have hit the less well-off groups hardest.

But Mr Chen asks: 'Who is all this growth for and does it make sense for most Singaporeans? How can we have better measures of growth and a better growth policy for Singaporeans?'

He swivels around in his chair and reaches for the bookshelf in his Aljunied Town Council office in Hougang Central for a copy of the Report By The Commission On The Measurement Of Economic Performance And Social Progress. It was commissioned in 2008 by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy who tasked economists, including Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, to look beyond GDP and create a new measure of growth that factors in societal well-being.

Another example, he suggests, is the Human Development Index, a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and living standards.

'Let's apply our great knowledge and expertise and do serious analysis of our social policies in health care, housing, education, infrastructure and the environment.

'Just as we have outfits like Spring, A*Star and the Economic Development Board to calculate the cost and benefit of various investment projects for our economy, let's do likewise for other areas of policy to maximise social returns,' he exhorts.

This means not just looking at social outlay as expenses to be minimised over the short term, he suggests, but as investments with economic and other benefits that can be optimised well into the future.

'For example, when we calculate the costs and benefits of outlay that would enable the elderly to live close to their community, we should factor in benefits such as stronger community bonds, grandchildren having more access to this wealth of knowledge that's locked inside the person of our elders, and the economic benefit of their children being able to work longer hours outside without worrying about them,' he says.

Unlikely politician

THE first morning the 11-year-old Chen Show Mao arrived here from Taipei, he tucked into ice kacang. He remembers the scorching sun, the bright hues and the depth of flavour.

Sitting at the hawker centre near his Singapore Improvement Trust flat home in Prince Philip Avenue and watching a profusion of women in saris and sarongs go to the market, he was bowled over by Singapore's vibrancy.

Up till then, home had been Taiwan's southernmost county, Pingtung, then Taipei, before he and his younger sister, accompanied by their schoolteacher mother, came here to join their father, a manager in a Japanese company.

His father, who was the first in his family to go to university and later set up his own machinery trading company here, had high expectations for his exceptionally bright son to live up to. 'One of the rare times my father spoke about me within my earshot, when someone praised me, was to say he hoped I would be of some use to society when I grew up,' he recalls.

The boy with the Beatles mop-top hairstyle knew no English then and remembers springing to his feet at Nanyang Primary when the English teacher casually pointed to his water bottle.

Feeling lost at his first Malay lesson at Catholic High and not knowing the required level of proficiency, he memorised the entire first chapter in Malay. When called upon, he stood up and recited it all. The teacher started chatting to him, thinking 'I was from Indonesia but had a funny accent', he relates.

Midway, he transferred to Anglo-Chinese School and remembers the kindness of the late Mr Ernest Lau, then vice-principal, who gave him extra coaching in English every afternoon for a few months to help him 'fit in'. When he did well enough to choose a book prize, he picked Lady Chatterley's Lover, to the disapproval of Mr Lau, who made him select another book.

At National Junior College, as student council president, he set up a Shades of Grey notice board hoping to draw out views on student life. It was styled after the Democracy Wall in Beijing in 1978, where political dissidents publicly documented problems in China.

He topped the 1979 national A-level cohort, and applied to study medicine here but was rejected. After his national service, he headed to Harvard to study economics, where he devised a freshman programme to help Boston's urban poor.

For a few summers, he worked with American consumer advocate Ralph Nader, doing research at his Centre for Study of Responsive Law in Washington DC.

He admires the man for his 'tirelessness and dedication to being a full-time citizen' and the real changes he made to people's lives, such as helping to introduce the seat-belt safety law, food labelling and the Freedom of Information Act.

'The Act didn't fall from the sky, not even in the land of the free. It was something that their citizens had to work hard to get for themselves,' he says.

Mr Nader was also a four-time failed US presidential candidate who stood for election because he felt the system wasn't working.

'With businesses increasingly active in lobbying and financing candidates, he felt the two political parties ended up singing the same song, which was from the corporate song book. His point was that if the political system isn't functioning well, citizens have got to help make it work,' he says.

Around 1986, Mr Chen took up Singapore citizenship. He also won the prestigious Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied history and modern languages, before earning his doctorate in law from Stanford in 1992.

He joined the Tiffany of law firms, New York-headquartered Davis Polk & Wardwell, and became one of very few Asians to be made a partner there in 2000. He was based in Beijing from 2007 until last year.

He never regretted going into corporate law, as it allowed him to witness 'the centre of gravity in capital markets shifting from America to Asia'. 'It was tremendously exciting for me to practise at the cutting edge, dealing with problems that had not existed before. It was like being present at the creation,' he says rather grandly.

Last year, American Lawyer magazine named him one of its 'Dealmakers of the Year' for his leadership in one of 2010's biggest deals, the US$22 billion initial public offering of Agricultural Bank of China.

He flatly denies charges that he was a burnt-out corporate escapee seeking new meaning, as some have speculated, as he says he left 'on a series of career highs', or that he was returning opportunistically to seek fame and power after decades of being away from the country he claimed to want to serve. Rather, it was more a matter of him running out of time to 'discharge my obligations', he insists.

'The general election comes once every five years in Singapore. If I don't do it at 50, that means I will do it only when I'm 55 or 60. Time and chance happen to us all. And I had to make a choice,' says Mr Chen, who retired from the partnership last July.

That was how he came to knock on the doors of the Workers' Party during one of its open-house receptions in 2007, then to stand as a candidate 'however unlikely a politician I may have felt I was', he says.

Since trading in his suits and the corporate high life, he's quickly adapted to his 'different mode of being' today. He walks to most places or takes the bus, MRT or taxis in short-sleeve polos and jeans, and has most of his meals in hawker centres, which he 'enjoys very much'. For exercise, he runs a fuss-free 5km three times weekly.

When his homemaker wife, a Taiwan-born American citizen, arrives here with their two children, aged eight and 12, next month, home will be a terrace house in his ward, Paya Lebar. Six years ago, they lost their second child, a three-year-old girl, to an illness, which he will say no more about, except that it turned his hair ash-white.

Asked how he feels about the Yaw Shin Leong episode, where the former Hougang MP was expelled by the WP after he refused to clarify personal indiscretions, he said that he deals with it 'by looking forward'.

'This thing happened, so what next? I couldn't go to medical school, so what next?

'So life just handed me a lemon, what to do with that? We continue on the path that we've been trying to go,' he says.

No comments:

Post a Comment