Friday 22 April 2016

Bukit Batok by-election on 7 May 2016

Nomination Day on April 27; PAP and SDP look to be in for a straight fight
By Chong Zi Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

After weeks of frenzied activity on the ground, the promised by-election in Bukit Batok was called yesterday.

On May 7, the 25,616 voters in the single-member constituency will go to the polls.

The date was confirmed in a writ of election President Tony Tan Keng Yam issued in the afternoon after being advised by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who is Acting PM. Nomination Day will be next Wednesday.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who is on an official visit to the Middle East and spoke to Mr Teo earlier, said after the writ was issued: "Now that the Budget is out of the way, we are calling this by-election to enable residents of Bukit Batok to have their own MP as we work together to improve Singaporeans' lives."

"Partnership between Government and citizens is key to our success. I hope Bukit Batok residents will elect the candidate who will be concerned for their welfare, represent them ably in Parliament, and make Bukit Batok the best home for them," he said on his Facebook page.

The People's Action Party (PAP) and Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) look set for a straight fight for the seat, left vacant after MP David Ong stepped down on March 12 over an alleged extramarital affair with a party activist.

The by-election will be the third in less than four years, all triggered by the resignation of MPs due to personal indiscretions.

Lawyer Murali Pillai of the PAP and SDP secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, who have been walking the ground since being named as party candidates last month, welcomed yesterday's announcement of the poll date.

In last year's general election, Bukit Batok was carved out as a single seat, after being part of Jurong GRC since 2001. The PAP won 73 per cent of the vote in a three-way contest against the SDP and an independent candidate.

Both Mr Murali, 48, and Dr Chee, 53, who stood in other areas during last year's polls, have identified several election issues they will champion in Bukit Batok this time round.

Chief among them is support for the seniors and the low-income in the mature estate which has many flats from the 1980s. Just over 4 per cent of residents in the constituency live in condominiums.

Mr Murali, who is head of commercial litigation at Rajah & Tann, said he would announce his plans to address residents' "concerns and aspirations" in the next few days. "We will... carry on listening to them, understanding their concerns and addressing them as well as we can."

Dr Chee made a public call on Facebook for volunteers to help in the impending campaign: "Volunteer now to change Singapore for the better and we can start by winning the by-election in Bukit Batok."

Given the PAP's big winning margin the last election, political watchers said signs suggest Dr Chee will have a tough fight.

But in earlier polls, the contests have been keener. In the 1988 and 1991 elections, the SDP twice garnered more than 40 per cent of votes in the constituency.

National University of Singapore political scientist Reuben Wong said: "There's always a by-election effect because the Government is secured and the voter can take more risks to vote for the opposition."

But he added that this may be mitigated by the PAP's more established presence on the ground.

Murali Pillai: Focused on jobs, help for needy
By Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

May 7 is an important date for Bukit Batok residents, as it will be the day they decide who is the best person to represent their interests amid the gloomy economic outlook, lawyer Murali Pillai said yesterday.

Mr Murali, 48, the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate in the by-election, said he will release his plans for the single-member constituency (SMC) "between now and Nomination Day'', which falls on April 27.

He told The Straits Times his visits to the homes of the residents in recent weeks have shown that one of their main worries is adequate help when the slowdown threatens their ricebowl. Many people in the SMC live in rental HDB flats and they are concerned about how the economy could affect their job prospects, he said.

One- to three-room HDB flats make up almost one-third of housing in the SMC, which has about 46,000 residents. About 95 per cent of them live in HDB flats.

Mr Murali's plans "are based on what we've learnt from Bukit Batok residents over the past few weeks when I was conducting house visits".

These will cover such issues as help for needy families in the SMC, support for elderly residents and sprucing up the mature estate by improving connectivity between precincts, for instance, he added.

Mr Murali had previously told reporters that he would focus on giving employment help: both through government-linked agencies like the Employment and Employability Institute (e2i), and at the community level."We have government support like the Social Service Office and e2i, but beyond that, we can galvanise community support as well," he had said.

The gloomy economic climate therefore means this by-election is a crucial one, he added.

He reiterated the point yesterday and said: "Obviously it is something very important for Bukit Batok residents, because they have to decide who should represent them in Parliament, represent their concerns and also look into issues that concern them as well."

Mr Murali also said he would push for the Home Improvement Programme for residents as several HDB blocks, built in the 1980s, have yet to benefit from it.

"Being a mature estate with a number of seniors, (many) residents have asked how seniors can stay healthy," he said.

On his preparations for the by-election, Mr Murali said he would continue to meet and listen to residents.

"This is not a box-ticking exercise in terms of covering the blocks. From my perspective, we need to have conversations with the residents and ask them what their concerns and aspirations are," he said.

Long-time activist

A lawyer and long-time People's Action Party (PAP) activist, Mr Murali Pillai is a familiar face in Bukit Batok.

The 48-year-old got his first taste of grassroots work in the ward when it was part of Bukit Timah GRC.

He was also the ward's branch secretary from 2007 to 2011.

He gave free legal advice to Bukit Batok residents and helmed committees like its Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle.

Mr Murali, married and a father of four, is no stranger to electoral politics. He was in the five-member Aljunied GRC "suicide squad" that is credited with narrowing significantly the gap with the Workers' Party in last year's General Election.

The PAP got 49.04 per cent of the vote to the WP's 50.96 per cent.

Mr Murali , who heads commercial litigation at Big Four law firm Rajah & Tann, was was an assistant superintendent of police before he entered the legal profession.

Chee Soon Juan: 'A mountain to climb and we will'
By Walter Sim, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

Dr Chee Soon Juan, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief and candidate for the upcoming Bukit Batok by-election, yesterday described the contest as a "mountain to climb", and said he was confident.

In a call for volunteers put up on Facebook barely two hours after the Writ of Election was issued, he wrote: "We've got a mountain to climb and we will climb it. I'm looking forward to it."

Dr Chee, 53, has been actively making his presence felt in Bukit Batok since People's Action Party MP David Ong resigned on March 12 over an alleged affair.

His campaigning has taken him to Housing Board flats, kopitiams and even the Bukit Batok Nature Park, where he went for a run last weekend.

His team has also knocked on every door in the single-member constituency, and is going for a second round, he told The Straits Times two weeks ago. "We are in it to win. We want to make sure that we put in maximum work," he had said.

Dr Chee has launched a campaign slogan, Now Is The Time, and his team also relies heavily on technology and social media to live-stream press conferences and post videos. He has assembled a four-man team that acts as a resource panel to advise the party on town council issues in the first 100 days if the SDP wins at the polls.

He said this showed the party has been making preparations "well in advance so we do not waste a single minute" if it wins and has to take over the town council. Bukit Batok is now managed by the Jurong-Clementi Town Council.

Among the four members of the team are lawyer Peter Low, 65, who will provide legal advice, and accountant Wong Hong Koon, 75, who will oversee financial issues.

The other two are Mr Yeo Yeu Yong, 67, who will be in charge of estate management, and Mr K. Siva Sankaran, 60, who will help with the handover of projects.

Dr Chee stressed last month that the productive management of the town council was a key priority, and the SDP's goal was "to surpass current levels of performance of PAP-run town councils".

Also, it would not engage a managing agent, and full-time staff will be hired for day-to-day operations, he had said.

Should he be elected, he said some of the most pressing issues he would raise in Parliament are retrenchment concerns amid a slowing economy, rising cost of living, and the Central Provident Fund (CPF) Minimum Sum scheme.

The SDP will also launch municipal initiatives to foster a community and "raise the quality of life of residents", he added.

"A lot depends on our own fight, our own strategy rather than it being a by-election," he said.

2nd bid in 8 months

The chief of the Singapore Democratic Party, Dr Chee Soon Juan, is making his second bid in eight months to get into Parliament.

The 53-year-old had led a four-man team to contest Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in last year's general election but got 33 per cent of the vote.

That was his first electoral contest in more than 10 years. He could not contest in 2006 and 2011 as he was a bankrupt. He was discharged as a bankrupt in 2012.

Dr Chee, who is married with two daughters and a son, was a psychology lecturer.

He entered politics in the 1992 Marine Parade by-election, which he lost in a four-cornered fight.

He writes on his Facebook page that he "has been arrested and imprisoned more than a dozen times for political activities".

He no longer appears to adopt his brand of adversarial politics. At last year's polls, he pledged to find common ground and work with the ruling People's Action Party.

Elderly residents in mature estate the focus
By Pearl Lee, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

At a time when residents across Singapore are asking for more playgrounds to be built, some in Bukit Batok feel there are too many.

They say their neighbourhood could do with more fitness parks for the elderly instead.

It is perhaps a reflection of the maturity of the public housing estates in Bukit Batok, which was developed in the 1970s.

Among the 45,900 residents living there are many elderly Singaporeans, like 67-year-old Madam Au.

The long-time Bukit Batok resident, who did not want to give her full name, said: "I don't think the children play at the playgrounds much. This area has a lot of old folk. It would be better if there are more fitness parks for us to exercise."

Elderly residents like her are the focus of the People's Action Party's (PAP) Murali Pillai and the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Chee Soon Juan at the upcoming by-election in the constituency.

Both men have pledged to champion the residents' causes.

Mr Murali, a 48-year-old lawyer, has said that he hopes to help the elderly in Bukit Batok age with dignity.

Dr Chee, 53, secretary-general of the SDP, has said he will help them deal with the rising cost of living.

For these elderly residents, the personal touch is what matters.

Many still speak fondly of their former MPs, Mr David Ong and the late Dr Ong Chit Chung, whom they said were always around to chat with them and "always smiling".

Madam Akthar, a 60-year-old support officer who goes by one name, said what she liked about Mr Ong, who stepped down over an alleged extramarital affair last month, was that "he is not a show-off".

"If you see him downstairs, he will say hello to you," she said.

At the mature estates, amenities are mostly well developed. There is a bustling market and more than 10 coffee shops around the estate, which residents say serve them well enough.

With frequent bus services in the neighbourhood, transport is also not much of an issue.

Residents who spoke to The Straits Times mostly had minor gripes about rubbish in void decks or lifts breaking down once in a while.

With many of the flats in the constituency built about 30 years ago, they also hope for their living areas to be upgraded.

Madam Margaret Cheah, 66, who works in a clinic, is largely happy with her estate, as it has all the amenities she needs, and transport connectivity is good too.

She said she hopes there will be more sheltered walkways in her neighbourhood, adding: "There should be one leading to the bus stop. It will make things more convenient for residents."

Bukit Batok was carved out as a single-seat constituency in the last general election, after 18 years of being part of Bukit Timah GRC and later Jurong GRC.

It was created in 1972 as a single-seat constituency in the west of Singapore.

Three-quarters of its constituents are Chinese, near the national average.

Reflecting the opinion of some residents, housewife Geraldine Koh, 31, a resident of 10 years, said: "Of course it would be better if our MP could speak Mandarin to us."

Because of this, both Dr Chee and Mr Murali have made efforts to speak Chinese to residents.

Dr Chee has also made a point of writing in Chinese when posting updates on Facebook.

Mr Murali said that the Chinese-speaking seniors in the estate find it easier to call him "Ah Mu".

"I'm really glad that they address me as Ah Mu," he said.

Bukit Batok by-election

National concerns 'likely to outweigh municipal issues'
PAP's track record also a deciding factor for voters, say analysts
By Walter Sim and Lim Yan Liang, The Straits Times, 21 Apr 2016

National concerns will likely outweigh municipal issues when Bukit Batok voters go to the polls on May 7, political watchers said yesterday.

The track record of the People's Action Party (PAP) will also be a deciding factor for residents with such concerns as a slowing economy, and defence and national security issues, they added.

The polls come just eight months after the PAP won 69.9 per cent of the votes at last year's general election, and weeks after the passing of a Budget that set the tone for Singapore in the years to come.

Former Nominated MP Eugene Tan, a law don at Singapore Management University (SMU), said: "Although there was no big hongbao, I think people responded quite positively to the Budget. So in terms of the voter mood, it's actually quite different from the last by-election" in January 2013.

The by-election will likely be a straight fight between the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) secretary-general Chee Soon Juan and lawyer Murali Pillai of the PAP.

And while the alleged affair by former MP David Ong may be a "dent in the PAP's armour", analysts doubt it would be a main issue.

Dr Norshahril Saat of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute said some Singaporeans may be disappointed such a scandal hit the PAP for a second time. But it is noteworthy that the party took "a strong stand" in the way it handled the matter, he said.

There are also several differences between this and the 2013 Punggol East by-election, which was called under similar circumstances and ended with the PAP ceding the seat to the Workers' Party (WP).

First, the national mood then was still harsh against the PAP, which was "on the defensive in its politics and engagement", said Associate Professor Tan.

That is no longer the case. The buoyant Golden Jubilee celebrations last year also remain "quite fresh in people's minds", added National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser.

Second, the May 7 by-election comes on the back of Mr Ong's 73.02 per cent victory in a three- way fight in GE2015, at which SDP candidate Sadasivam Veriyah garnered 26.38 per cent of the vote.

Dr Norshahril said it is highly unlikely the SDP will be able to engineer a swing of more than 20 percentage points, even with the purported "by-election effect" in which voters turn to the opposition knowing that the ruling PAP will remain in government.

This by-election also comes after the WP made headlines over audit lapses at its former Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council.

Institute of Policy Studies deputy director for research Gillian Koh believes Dr Chee anticipated this could be a concern among voters. That is why he has formed a team to assist in the handover of town council matters should he win.

In all, the by-election is shaping up to be a fight between two veterans: Dr Chee, whose first election was 24 years ago, and Mr Murali, who began volunteering in Bukit Batok 16 years ago.

The PAP has been emphasising Mr Murali's grassroots experience, and NUS political scientist Reuben Wong said this could work in his favour as he was also not "parachuted in". The PAP was criticised in the past for fielding candidates with little experience and feel for the constituencies they were contesting in.

Still, Dr Chee will hope to capitalise on the by-election effect, said Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, adding that the SDP chief will likely use the argument that "voting him into Parliament would mean having an opposition voice that would pressure the Government to give more".

Prof Eugene Tan said Dr Chee will also likely tell voters "they can benefit from having two different opposition parties in Parliament".

* PAP's Murali Pillai and SDP's Chee Soon Juan confirmed in straight fight

Local issues the focus in straight fight for Bukit Batok
On Day One of nine-day campaign, Murali and Chee vow to make constituency better if elected
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 28 Apr 2016

The two men who will go head-to-head in the Bukit Batok by-election on May 7 kicked off the race yesterday with promises to make the constituency shine.

The People's Action Party's (PAP) Mr Murali Pillai called on voters to work with him to "make Bukit Batok a beautiful place for all of us", while Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan said he would make the constituency "the envy of Singapore".

But a disagreement arose on how they would do so, with Dr Chee taking aim at his opponent's upgrading plans. At a press conference he held at the Keming Primary School nomination centre, the SDP chief said the plans were a "knee-jerk reaction" to the by-election.

Mr Murali told reporters outside the school that he would focus on explaining his plans to residents.

A total of five people had applied for the political donation certificate required by candidates this time round, but it came as no surprise when Mr Murali, 48, and Dr Chee, 53, were the only candidates announced at the end of nomination proceedings yesterday.

Both men have been pounding the ground in the single-member constituency since PAP MP David Ong resigned on March 12 over an alleged affair.

Yesterday, two others who received the certificates also turned up at the school. But former SDP member Kwan Yue Keng, 68, and Uber driver Shirwin Eu, 32, did not file their papers, eliminating the prospect of a multi-cornered fight.

At last year's general election, a three-way contest for Bukit Batok ended with Mr Ong winning 73 per cent of the votes, SDP candidate Sadasivam Veriyah 26.4 per cent, and independent candidate Samir Salim Neji, 0.6 per cent.

But political observers are not expecting such margins for the PAP come polling day, with by-elections typically being more favourable for the opposition.

Mr Murali himself has said on several occasions that he is preparing for a tough fight.

PAP heavyweights, including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu and former Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng were at the school to give their support. Mr Lim said: "We have to work hard for it. We cannot take the vote for granted."

Both sides have identified local issues, such as the constituency's elderly and needy residents, as top of their agenda.

They have also pledged to improve the physical environment.

Dr Chee said he will be a full-time MP and assemble a transition team to take over the town council.

Mr Murali unveiled $1.9 million worth of infrastructure plans for a precinct in the ageing town, and a manifesto that includes a healthcare cooperative and help for children from poor families.

The SDP said it was "unethical" for Mr Murali to say that he would not be able to promise the improvements if he was not elected.

But Mr Murali pointed out that he would be able to push through the plans only if he became MP and Bukit Batok remains part of a larger town council.

Although the by-election is likely to be fought on local issues, national issues are also in the background.

Mr Murali has highlighted the gloomy economic outlook, while Dr Chee has said he will be an alternative voice in Parliament.

After leaving the nomination centre, both candidates headed to nearby flats to continue their house visits.

Meanwhile, party supporters and contractors put up election posters and banners on lamp posts across the constituency.

There will be no rallies today, but campaigning continues.

Confusion over Neighbourhood Renewal Programme due to ‘basic misunderstanding’

Town councils, not Government agencies, responsible for proposing and implementing plans “from start to finish”, says the People’s Action Party.
By Yvonne Lim, Channel NewsAsia, 28 Apr 2016

Confusion has emerged in the early days of the Bukit Batok by-election over who exactly is responsible for initiating a Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP) - and it seems to come down to what the People’s Action Party (PAP) calls a “basic misunderstanding” by the opposition.

On Thursday (April 28), the ruling party stated in plain terms that it was not the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) nor any other government agency that initiated and implemented an NRP.

This is contrary to what the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) has been claiming.

“The town councils are responsible for implementing the NRPs, from start to finish,” said the PAP in this latest statement.

In recent days, the SDP has criticised the PAP for linking major improvements for the single-member ward to the election of its candidate. Verbal jousting over the matter began even before official campaigning kicked off on Wednesday.

At its heart is a proposal for building covered walkways and a multi-generational park at Bukit Batok West Avenue 4.

This proposal by the PAP-run town council, which is part of a S$1.9-million NRP, was announced on Sunday by the party’s by-election candidate, veteran grassroots activist Murali Pillai.

Then, Mr Pillai, 48, had said in response to a query from the media: "This plan that we are presenting is part of the PAP Jurong-Clementi Town Council ... If we don't have the mandate then we don't have the ability to carry on, because we wouldn't form the town council. That's the rules."


This drew a response from SDP chief Chee Soon Juan, his rival in the by-election fight, who said that “building infrastructure for Bukit Batok should be based on the needs and wishes of the residents of Bukit Batok, and should not be an election issue”.

Stronger words came from SDP Central Executive Committee member Paul Tambyah on Tuesday. He wrote in a statement: "To say that major improvements will come only if the PAP candidate is elected is unethical and could even be a contravention of the Parliamentary Elections Act (Section 59) which prohibits parties or persons from bringing undue influence on voters."

Dr Tambyah noted that improvement plans for Bukit Batok were already in the URA’s 2013 draft master plan, and reminded voters that all Government agencies were non-partisan. If elected on May 7, he said, Dr Chee and a new Bukit Batok Town Council would work closely with the URA to ensure other plans in the pipeline were rolled out.


The PAP countered with a statement on Wednesday morning, calling the SDP’s remarks “misconceived” and the speculation that Mr Murali may have made a statement in breach of the law "absurd".

The PAP said: "If a candidate for election as Member of Parliament is not elected, his party's town council naturally cannot be responsible for the constituency, and cannot carry out its NRP plans for that constituency.

"This simple fact was what Mr Murali had stated in response to a query from the media on April 24. It will then be for the new town council that is formed to decide on its plans and what it should proceed with.”

It added: "The Government funds NRP projects for all town councils. The number of NRP projects approved for each town council takes into account characteristics such as the age profile of the HDB units governed by each town council.

“It is the town council that nominates the neighbourhoods which should be prioritised for NRP, when it applies for government funding."


That same day, however, shortly after being confirmed as a candidate at the close of nominations, Dr Chee called the PAP’s upgrading promises “a knee-jerk reaction every time an election comes.”

He also called on the PAP to give a “progress report” on the S$24-million worth of projects for Bukit Batok pledged by party candidate David Ong in the 2015 General Election.

The SDP chief added: “They trot out these projects, okay? But our come-back is that, look, URA has got their masterplan in place. They are going to be constructing all these projects regardless of who is the MP and … as an MP, I will continue to push for these projects for Bukit Batok residents.”

The PAP, however, countered that Dr Chee had “repeated the SDP’s basic misunderstanding over the role of town councils”.

“URA puts together a national Masterplan to guide the overall development of land in Singapore. But it is not the URA or any other Government agency that initiates an NRP or is responsible for its implementation,” the party explained, in a statement issued early Thursday morning.

“The Government funds approved NRPs after they are proposed by Town Councils. And the Town Councils are responsible for implementing the NRPs, from start to finish.

“This means the town councils are responsible for prioritising needs within all the estates under their charge, developing detailed plans in consultation with residents, awarding tenders responsibly, overseeing the contractors and finally ensuring maintenance of estate enhancements.

“The PAP Jurong-Clementi Town Council takes its responsibilities very seriously. As the SDP says it will run an exemplary town council, voters will have to judge if it understands its responsibilities and can carry them out efficiently,” the statement concluded.

Mr Murali on Thursday evening clarified that the S$1.9-million NRP proposed by the PAP-run Town Council was part of the S$23.6-million five-year masterplan that former MP Mr Ong had described.

On Dr Chee's call for a progress update on that masterplan, Mr Murali said: "There are a number of projects that have been fully executed, a number of projects which are still on-going, and a number of projects in the pipeline."


Dr Chee continued to weigh in on the matter of upgrading on Thursday – this time highlighting another allegation the SDP had levied earlier, about the “top down” nature of the PAP’s initiatives.

“This is where we want to emphasise that difference. When the PAP comes up with something of this nature, it does so from top down. What we want to be able to do is consult the people and then say, 'Is this seriously what you want?'” he said during a media doorstop on Thursday.

“Because you see, even in the place where I live - the PAP, the town council will build things that are under-utilised, nobody wants,” said Dr Chee. “Areas where leaves are strewn all over and the benches are made of hard concrete, who is going to sit in such hot weather? And there's maintenance - who's going to maintain all this?”

He added that he had already gathered feedback from Bukit Batok residents on items such as linkways, zebra crossings, and feeder bus services.

PAP’s Mr Murali, however, has pointed out that the NRP for the estate came about after “very extensive consultation”.

On Thursday evening, he also noted that while the NRP was funding-neutral - meaning that the Government would disburse funds whether the PAP wins or loses - it was "another thing" for the town council responsible to conceptualise a plan "that resonates with our Bukit Batok residents".

"Shouldn't be white elephants, it shouldn't be things that we build which will not be used because it's the wrong place," Mr Murali said.

"So this is why I emphasised that Jurong-Clementi Town Council is in a very very good position to do this, because it has an exceptional track record. There's a competence. There's no need to experiment."

Earlier on Tuesday, PAP second assistant secretary-general Tharman Shanmugaratnam had noted that in contrast to the PAP-run town council, under the SDP Bukit Batok would be served by a single-constituency town council developing its own plans. “Residents will have to judge who will be able to do this most effectively,” he said.

Mr Tharman added that he found the SDP’s comments puzzling, as the party should have had enough time to listen to constituents and come up with its own plans, given that it had been nine months since the General Election.

“If you need more time, then say so. Be quite plain about it,” he said. “There’s no need to begrudge the PAP for having done its consultations already, having developed plans, and having now announced them for further consultations.”


Bukit Batok by-election: PAP's Murali Pillai beats SDP's Chee Soon Juan
Bukit Batok By-Election Highlights

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