Expect tough contest, rough fight in Bukit Batok by-election, say experts
Experts expect a keenly contested by-election with 'plenty of fireworks and verbal exchanges'
A keen contest. A fight filled with plenty of fireworks. A by-election that will see the opposition attempt to wrest a ward which the ruling party had won with a comfortable margin.
That is how political experts predict the impending two-way fight in the Bukit Batok by-election will pan out.
Yesterday, the People's Action Party (PAP) introduced Mr K. Muralidharan Pillai, 48, as the candidate for the single-member constituency (SMC). (See report on facing page.)
This comes a day after Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) declared its intention to field its secretary-general Chee Soon Juan.
The Workers' Party, the Democratic Progressive Party and the People's Power Party have said they will bow out of the contest.
The seat was vacated after MP David Ong's alleged affair with a grassroots activist.
Deputy Prime Minister and Jurong GRC's anchor minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at a press conference yesterday: "People liked David Ong as an MP... They had a high regard for him. They thought he was very hardworking and they felt sorry that he had to go. (But) they understood why we acted, they understood why he resigned.
"I think people will support what happened because we had to uphold high standards in politics, which is very important in the long run.
"But it was not a situation where there was a low regard for Mr David Ong as an MP..."
Will PAP lose another SMC to the opposition following the Punggol East by-election?
In 2013, former PAP MP Michael Palmer resigned after admitting to an affair. The seat was later won by the Workers' Party after a four-cornered fight.
Maybe not, said Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore.
He expects "plenty of fireworks and verbal exchanges" as Dr Chee tries to fight his way into Parliament.
"I doubt the PAP would lose this SMC given its huge majority in 2015, (the SMC's) proximity to Jurong, being a PAP stronghold, the higher proportion of HDB dwellers, having the well-liked DPM Tharman 'helming' the election, and (there is) probably no serious local issue.
"On the minus side, there could be the by-election effect and the SDP does have a presence in that constituency, plus the fact that Dr Chee is well known in Singapore politics, not to mention that he has already activated his campaign," he said.
The by-election effect refers to what observers see as voters being more willing to elect an opposition candidate because the ruling party is in no danger of losing power.
Agreeing, Singapore Management University law don, Associate Professor Eugene Tan, said: "I think (the SMC) will still be keenly contested. It is a by-election... Dr Chee is certainly very desirous of getting into Parliament.
"The circumstances in which the seat was vacated is something that Dr Chee, we can be sure, will want to capitalise on."
As an SMC, the issue of the town council becomes important - something Dr Chee recognises and has pushed for, said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a research fellow at the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.
Earlier, the SDP secretary-general had said that improving the town council in Bukit Batok will be his priority if he is elected - a change from the democracy and alternative policies he spoke of in last year's general election.
Over the weekend, Dr Chee said on the SDP website: "The SDP's goal is to surpass current levels of performance of PAP-run town councils."
Said Dr Mustafa: "Dr Chee is arguably now a more consummate politician who has come to the realisation that he has to...play his cards right to, first and foremost, get himself elected into parliament.
"If this much-wanted goal is reached, Dr Chee is unlikely to forego the opportunity to vocalise and debate liberal democratic issues and causes long synonymous with him and the SDP."
Dr Chee's change in tune drew a cutting remark from DPM Tharman, who said he is glad the SDP chief has now recognised the importance of running a town council well.
During the 2013 Punggol East by-election hustings, Dr Chee had said he would let the Workers' Party run the town council as part of his proposal for a joint campaign with the party.
"(Dr Chee) must have a change in mind, and realises that here in Bukit Batok, it is important to focus on those tasks. It is not the only duty of the MP, but they should focus on it and do it well..." said Mr Tharman yesterday.
I doubt the PAP would lose this SMC given its huge majority in 2015, (the SMC's) proximity to Jurong, being a PAP stronghold, the higher proportion of HDB dwellers, having the well-liked DPM Tharman 'helming' the election, and (there is) probably no serious local issue.
- Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, sociologist at the National University of Singapore
Veteran activist not new to Bukit Batok
The PAP's candidate for the Bukit Batok by-election was not the "best kept secret," joked Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
Lawyer and long-time PAP activist K Muralidharan Pillai, 48, was unveiled as the party's choice at a press conference at PAP's Bukit Batok branch yesterday.
Mr Murali is not a new face to politics - he was the Aljunied GRC candidate in GE2015 and credited for the strong swing in votes in the Paya Lebar ward, where he was the branch chairman.
He is also a familiar face in Bukit Batok, where he got his first taste of grassroots work and has been serving in the community for 16 years.
He provided free legal advice to residents and was the branch secretary of the Bukit Batok branch under the late Dr Ong Chit Chung, who died in 2008.
Described by Mr Tharman as humble and self-effacing, Mr Murali said the needs of the elderly and the needy would be his focus.
Mr Murali shared an anecdote of a woman he met while offering legal advice to Bukit Batok residents. She was a mother of five and she asked him if her debts would be transferred to her children if she died.
He later realised that the woman was suicidal after she lost her husband and was worried about their finances. He managed to help her turn things around.
"This incident taught me the lesson of listening closely to my residents."
Mr Murali, who was away over the past week and returned to Singapore only yesterday, said he received a number of phone calls from activists and party leaders.
He said: "I think my phone bills will be quite high... I had some time to think through the issues. When the party leaders approached me, I accepted."
When asked about his chances in a two-way fight with seasoned opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, Mr Murali said he is confident of serving the needs of his residents with the support of fellow activists.
He added that he made his decision to run as a candidate irrespective of who his rival is.
"As far as I'm concerned, politics is really about serving the residents. I consider myself seasoned because I have put in quite a bit of time serving the residents," he said.
On being a minority candidate in an area with a high proportion of Chinese residents, Mr Murali said he had to deal with the language barrier in Bukit Batok and Paya Lebar, but it was not a problem after he managed to prove his sincerity to the residents by solving their problems.
Mr Tharman acknowledged the by-election effect - where the opposition has an advantage because the ruling party is in no danger of losing power - and took that into account when choosing Mr Murali.
"We know what the competition will be, and we wanted to choose someone who will appeal to the residents."
As far as I'm concerned, politics is really about serving the residents. I consider myself seasoned because I have put in quite a bit of time serving the residents.
- PAP candidate Muralidharan Pillai, on why he decided to run
By the numbers
K. MURALIDHARAN PILLAI, 48
PEOPLE'S ACTION PARTY
GE 2015 (Aljunied GRC):
CHEE SOON JUAN, 53
SINGAPORE DEMOCRATIC PARTY
GE 2015 (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC):
GE 2001 (Jurong GRC):
GE 1997 (MacPherson SMC):
By-election 1992 (Marine Parade GRC):
BUKIT BATOK SMC
Number of voters:
Samir Salim Neji: