MACAU - The contest for Macau's next chief executive was over before it began.
Nomination endorsements were due to be submitted on Tuesday, but the Chief
Executive Election Coordination Office could have locked the door and taken the
Last Tuesday, former secretary of social affairs and culture Fernando Chui
Sai-on submitted endorsements from 286 of the 300 election committee members
that will choose Macau's next top local official. A candidate must have
endorsements from 50 of the electors to get on the ballot, and electors can
only give one endorsement, so Chui's overwhelming support means he'll be the
only candidate in the running when the official vote takes place
next month. Chu will succeed chief executive Edmund Ho, whose term expires in
A member of Macau's Legislative Assembly during the final years of Portuguese
rule, Chui served as a secretary in Ho's cabinet from the December 1999
handover until resigning last month as required by election rules to run for
chief executive. As the government's top officer overseeing areas including
healthcare and tourism, Chui's notable accomplishments include getting central
Macau's historic areas designated a United Nations World Heritage site in 2005
and preventing the SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic from
overwhelming Macau in 2003.
With American diplomas, including a doctorate in public health from Oklahoma
State University, Chui was recognized as one of the best-educated members of
the Macau government.
That apparent consensus behind Chui could be good news for Macau, which faces a
host of problems in spite of, and because of, breakneck growth that's seen the
gambling haven's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) nearly triple since
the 1999 handover from Portugal to China.
Chui also has the endorsement of gaming mogul Stanley Ho, who has reasserted
himself as the top dog in the casino business that provides the overwhelming
majority of Macau's tax revenue and economic activity. Additional good news is
that Beijing was apparently neutral in the process, going out of its way not to
express a preference. One election committee member even complained that he
didn't know who to vote for because the central government hadn't told him.
Announcing his candidacy last month, Chui promised to fight corruption and run
a clean, transparent administration. Submitting the forms to seal his selection
on Tuesday, Chui promised to hold a series of town meetings. "We will listen to
different residents' opinions through various channels and hope that a
consensus based on social values and beliefs can be attained, so that Macau
will maintain a prosperous and stable society in the future," he said.
That sounds great, but if Chui had been listening to a vocal portion of Macau's
population, he wouldn't have run at all. An online poll of potential candidates
in April placed Chui near the bottom, with just 13% of respondents favoring his
candidacy. The poll's frontrunner, chief prosecutor Ho Chio-meng, had 60%
Rather than a sign of consensus across society, Chui's near-unanimous
endorsement by the small circle of voters signals the local elite's instinct to
close ranks when it fears a possible challenge. That could spell trouble for
Macau's 550,000 people, who have no say in choosing their leader, and also
perhaps for the foreign companies and their investors and stockholders, who
have pumped billions of dollars into Macau, now that hard times are hitting
what's become the biggest gambling destination on Earth.
Fight the power
Chui's announcement that he would run for chief executive was greeted by an
advertisement in a Hong Kong newspaper, paid for by a Macau online fundraising,
claiming that Macau's people didn't want a leader chosen from one of its
leading families. The ad voiced a widely held belief that a few families hold
the reins of power in Macau and was a thin-veiled protest against Chui, a
member of one of those alleged ruling clans.
Chui's older brother Chui Sai-cheong is a standing committee member of the
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and a Macau Legislative
Assembly member, but the family's prominence spreads across generations.
His uncle Chui Tak-kei, who died in 2007, was a leading supporter of the
Chinese Communist Party during Portuguese rule, a decorated legislator and
civic leader, and founder of Yao Vo Development and Construction, a major
player in Macau's building industry. At Chui's announcement, a woman posing as
a journalist asked questions about his family business connections and a
building site a family affiliated company acquired from the government at a
bargain price in 2006. Chui didn't answer them, and didn't take questions on
Macau's breathtaking economic development, thanks to its liberalization of
gaming from a monopoly to six operators, has delivered uneven benefits. The
lion's share of profits has gone to casino owners and related businesses, while
little has trickled down to Macau's majority. Nevertheless, that majority has
suffered the consequences of development, including increased congestion,
inflation and a quick-buck mentality that led many youngsters to forgo
education for the lure of casino jobs.
The government has faced criticism for failing to anticipate the consequences
of gaming liberalization or failing to spread the benefits more evenly,
particularly in the area of social services. May Day protests in 2007 drew
thousands of demonstrators, an unprecedented show of discontent among a usually
placid populace, and turned violent when police attacked marchers with batons
and fired warning shots, wounding a passerby. The continuing investigation into
former public works secretary Ao Man Long's US$100 million corruption scandal
has shown in graphic detail the level of collusion between big business and
government in Macau.
Part of the problem
Chui's nine-and-a-half-year government tenure suggests he's been part of the
problem, so it seems unlikely he'll be part of the solution. "I think that
there will be almost no change in policy," one Macau resident who asked not to
be identified told Asia Times Online. But he does anticipate a change in style.
"At least Edmund Ho had a bit of style, was bright and could take questions.
Chui Sai-on has none of this. A sitting, silent Buddha in public, and he will
have even less legitimacy than Edmund Ho because of questions about corruption
and shady land deals, that, of course, will never be made public," the resident
There are details in Chui's record as secretary that invite scrutiny. Macau's
healthcare system, Chui's area of professional expertise, is a particular
source of criticism for failing to expand benefits and facilities to treat the
growing population and expend government resources to benefit the public.
The East Asia Games in 2005 were run under Chui's portfolio and put him in the
midst of the Ao Man Long scandal. The games ran over budget by 70%. Ao
allegedly received a MOP50 million (US$6.2 million) bribe in connection with
the construction contract fort the games' centerpiece, the Macau Dome indoor
arena. Overall, that project wound up costing MOP640 million, MOP285 million
Chui's cabinet tenure leaves him with a lot to answer for. But under Macau's
election system and its clubby atmosphere of cronyism and collusion, he'll
never have to, not even as he climbs to the top of the city's political ladder.
Macau Business special correspondent and former broadcast news producer Muhammad
Cohen told America's story to the world as a US diplomat and is author
of Hong Kong On Air (www.hongkongonair.com),
a novel set during the 1997 handover about television news, love, betrayal,
financial crisis, and cheap lingerie.