Top International Corporate Lawyer Joins Opposition Party in Singapore

There are many reasons why I called Singapore's political scene boring in my previous article. One key reason is that the ruling party, the People's Action Party (PAP), has, since independence in 1965, constantly attracted the brightest minds and best talents to its ranks. One way in which it does so is by offering scholarships to top graduating high school students, paying for their tuition at top international universities and giving them generous allowances to support their studies, in return for these scholarship recipients promising to work for the government for six years after they have completed their university education.


This scholarship scheme has been around for so long that most of the current leadership were once scholarship recipients themselves. These include Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, both recipients of the President's Scholarship in the 1970s, and Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, who received the same scholarship in 1980. A classic example of how the PAP manages to attract the best talent, these scholars, after serving their six-year mandatory bond, went on to top civil servant positions and then stood for election, eventually becoming ministers.


With a population of five million, of which only 64% are citizens, one of the lowest proportions of citizen-residents in the world, Singapore does not have much human talent to begin with. Politically apathetic Singaporeans are usually unwilling to join politics, and those who join politics prefer to join the PAP. Why would they join the opposition, when it only has 2 seats in parliament? And with no credible talent, the opposition has in turn found it hard to convince voters. It is a vicious cycle that has left the opposition parties small, weakened and unable to attract quality talent. Unlike the American political system, in which top talent from the public and private sector routinely join both the governing and opposing party, in Singapore it is very much a flow only into the ruling party, from the public sector. Private sector talent by and large stays in the private sector, and the opposition is left with a very limited pool of talent from which to pick its candidates from.


Instead, in the recent past, we have seen politicians of questionable quality standing for the opposition. This includes the 'slippers man', a man who wore flip-flops to nominate himself for election in the 1997 polls, and was roundly ridiculed by the media for his dress sense. Think about it: What do American politicians wear when they go out in front of the cameras? How are politicians expected to dress? With these examples in hand, the PAP has, time and again, used the opportunity to highlight the disparity of talent and illustrate why people should continue to vote for them.


This year, Singapore goes to the polls on May 7, and the unthinkable has happened: for the first time in recent memory, a top talent has finally joined the opposition. In fact, this person's credentials were so impressive that many people were shocked when rumors about his candidacy first emerged. The man in question in Mr Chen Show-Mao, the head of Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP's Beijing office. He has joined The Workers' Party, a liberal party which has vowed to focus its attention on lower and middle-income Singaporeans.


Mr Chen is a partner at the corporate department of Wall Street law firm Davis Polk and Wardwell, and managing partner of its Chinese office. He is fluent in both English and Chinese, and advised both the Agricultural Bank of China on its recent US$22 billion Initial Public Offering (IPO) and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) on its US$21 billion IPO. These were the largest and second-largest ever IPOs in global history until they were recently eclipsed by the recent IPO of General Motors (GM) last year. For his achievements, he was named Dealmaker of the Year by The American Lawyer in 2010. Mr Chen graduated from Oxford, Harvard and Stanford, and he was also a Rhodes Scholar.


It is difficult to explain why someone like Mr Chen would turn away from his high-flying and, undoubtedly, high-paying, career in international corporate law to join a small opposition party in Singapore. A party that currently only has 1 seat in parliament, and which does not look like it will be gaining power anytime soon. Previously, people with less to lose than he has have not even dared to take the plunge. But no matter what, Mr Chen's bold action has sent a signal to Singaporeans, especially those in the private sector: that yes, it is time for people to step up, get involved in politics and maybe even consider joining the opposition.