Interview with Joe Lam: Philosopher, barrister, celebrity, and moderate democrat in search of the ‘third path’

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Joseph Lam Chok (林作) will take on pro-democracy heavyweight Mandy Tam (譚香文) in a bid to win a seat in the Wong Tai Sin DC. Speaking to Harbour Times, he defends his position as a moderate democrat who despises an increasingly polarised political atmosphere.

As much as the new Miss Hong Kong was THE dinner-table topic for a while, her boyfriend, Joseph Lam Chok, or Joe Lam, has become just as much of a target for attacks and rumours ever since his abrupt introduction in the district council elections and for his proclaimed stance ‘in the middle ground’.

Granted, Lam’s relationship with Louisa Mak (麥明詩) might have brought him under the spotlight at the beginning. Netizens however were quick enough to realise this 26-year-old amateur candidate, who is running in Lung Sing constituency in Wong Tai Sin district, was not a nobody.

Lam’s profile is in fact a perfect example of what a Hongkonger would regard as ‘a winner at life’:

He is a graduate of the prestigious Harrow School, where he lived in the same dorm Winston Churchill had lived 116 years before him. He then graduated from the even more prestigious University of Oxford, during which he became the president of a Hong Kong-centred university society. This year, he received a call to the bar by the age of 26. He owns a flat, a car, and of course, his girlfriend is the winner of the 2015 Miss Hong Kong pageant.

Speculations claim Lam could very well emerge as a formidable contender for the incumbent candidate, former legislator Mandy Tam of People Power. This was followed by rumours of Lam being one of the infamous ‘shadow pro-establishment’ candidates who have affiliations with pro-Beijing groups.

Speaking to Harbour Times, Lam rubbishes such claims and explains his vision on what politics in this town should be with certain qualities and substantial arguments yet to be seen from other independent candidates that also reflect his deep British connections.

“If you are an independent candidate and you are running against a pan-democrat [Mandy Tam], it is very normal that you will be tagged by the other side as a pro-est,” Lam says. “I’d say I’m pretty much a moderate democrat, but [strategically] they won’t accept that as it would allow me to take votes away from Mandy [Tam]. I’m always ready for a public debate with her and the two other candidates, but so far she has turned down all the media invitations.”

The ‘Independent’?

Lam says his political stance is very similar to that of former Civic Party lawmaker Ronny Tong (湯家驊), and to promote this idea of a ‘third way’ is not easy given current political circumstances.

“The isolation of Mr Tong by both sides of the political spectrum is implicative. You must either be black or white, otherwise you are neither of the camps. But this is not what politics should be,” Lam argues. “If you look at the Tories and the Labour in British politics, you will find their positions are in fact very similar to each other, although not immune from criticisms. To target the middle ground is not easy and it requires rational elaborations and in-depth debates, but that is exactly where the maturity of British politics is rooted.”

“The dichotomy applied by politicians from both sides in Hong Kong show their laziness to get out of the simple mindset,” Lam says. “I don’t know if I will join a political party at some point in my life, but that will definitely not be People Power or the DAB.” He believes the moderates will triumph at the end of the day even though there is a long way for the city to go. This seems to resemble Ronny Tong’s remarks that the city lacks politicians with political wisdom. Indeed, Lam’s campaign slogan – “The world should not be black or white only” – is a rather vague yet succinct expression of his ideology.

When asked why he would want to engage in local politics, Lam cites a quote from the great philosopher Bertrand Russell: “Happiness that is genuinely satisfying is accompanied by the fullest exercise of our faculties and the fullest realisation of the world in which we live.”

The divided constituency

Lam then moves on from the ‘high politics’ to his ‘masterplan’ as a district council contender. The Lung Sing constituency consists of some 19,000 residents from the HOS housing Lung Poon Court and the private estate Galaxia. Mandy Tam is currently the chairperson of the latter’s owners’ corporation.

“I take the constituency as an epitome of the city’s political polarisation. Residents of Lung Poon Court are divided into pro-owners’ corporation and anti-owners’ corporation camps. Instead of attempting to resolve the conflict, our incumbent councillor simply exacerbated it by siding with the opposition,” Lam says. “To be fair, Mandy [Tam] has been a rather capable chairperson for the Galaxia counterparts. It seems, however, that the traffic jam problem right outside the estate remains after the two terms (2004-2007; 2012-2015) of her councillorship.”

“On top of that, my plan is to secure a funding from the district council for a much-needed local library for the residents,” Lam adds.

The gossips

It was perhaps his independent mind alongside an elitist British background that brought him to partner with Chip Tsao (陶傑) on a radio show that the latter initiated. The prominent political commentator and columnist is also backing Lam in his election campaign, creating even more speculations and ungrounded rumours about the challenger.

“Some said I am close to the Liberal Party, of which I know none of its members; Some said I was ousted by my law mentor Cheng Huan (清洪), SC, and I rebutted the claim by posting on social media a photo of him supporting my campaign; Some even cited that my mother’s Mid-Levels home is 3000-square-feet big when it is about half the size,” Lam says, and the list goes on.

Another common piece of misinformation about Lam is that he was a law student at Oxford. In fact, he took Mathematics and Philosophy for his bachelor degree, did a law conversion in London and completed it at the University of Hong Kong.

Lam recalls his successful cheeky attempt to appeal to his current chambers when applying for pupillage by attaching an article where Lord Sumption, a British judge, being interviewed, said the best lawyers are not those who studied law as an undergraduate degree and suggested students to take a Maths or History degree instead.

And there comes his relationship with Louisa Mak and, interestingly, his friendship with the sometimes disreputable CY Leung junior (梁齊昕). Lam says he knew Leung from his time in the UK and there was nothing particularly noteworthy, but paparazzi will be there when there’s gossip to be told.

“As for Louisa, we often make fun of the illogical comments public figures and netizens make,” Lam jokes. A bit mean, but that could be the critical mind Hong Kong needs to find the illusive ‘third way’, whatever that even means.