Monday, 9 May 2016

Bukit Batok by-election 2016: PAP's Murali Pillai beats SDP's Chee Soon Juan

PAP holds on to Bukit Batok, with 61.2% of the vote
By-election effect among factors that led to 12-point swing against ruling party
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

The People's Action Party (PAP) held on to the Bukit Batok seat, with its candidate Murali Pillai securing 61.2 per cent of the vote, against the 38.8 per cent share of his rival, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan.

The result for the PAP was 11.8 points lower than the 73 per cent achieved by the constituency's former MP David Ong at the General Election just eight months ago, where the PAP scored a landslide victory with a vote share of 69.9 per cent.

Still, it is a significant win, which saw the PAP retaining a single seat in a by-election for the first time in 37 years, and with a minority-race candidate.

The victory last night also broke its streak of having lost the last two by-elections - Hougang and Punggol East - held in recent times.

After the final result was announced at 11.30pm last night, Mr Murali thanked Dr Chee and the SDP for running a well-organised campaign, which gave him the opportunity to pitch his plans to voters in the ward, he said.

Dr Chee, in turn, congratulated his opponent while addressing his supporters at Bukit Gombak Stadium.

At a press conference in the PAP branch office, Mr Murali, 48, said he was humbled and encouraged by the results and pledged to start on his agenda for the constituency "tomorrow".

He dedicated his victory to Bukit Batok residents, saying: "This forms my statement of whom I'm serving and why I'm serving.''

Asked about his margin of victory, he said: "Coming from Aljunied, I'm used to razor-thin margins''.

He was in the PAP team that got 49 per cent of the vote in Aljunied GRC at last year's General Election.

For Dr Chee, 53, the defeat was his fifth, but supporters took consolation in the fact that it was also his best electoral showing since 1992.

He told his supporters: "I am so touched. I am so honoured. This doesn't quite feel like a defeat."

Although he did not win, he did better than SDP candidate Sadasivam Veriyah, who got 26.4 per cent of the votes in last year's General Election in a three-way fight.

Dr Chee told reporters he was "very disappointed" he did not "meet the 50 per cent threshold", but pledged to stay on in Bukit Batok to fight for their votes.

The contest had been billed as a tough one by the PAP from the start, given the damaging circumstances that triggered it. In March, Mr Ong had resigned over an alleged extramarital affair, the second PAP MP to do so in four years.

There was also the by-election effect, which Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu alluded to last night. She said: "During a by-election, it's always difficult to gauge how voters will vote and we like to think that this is a strong mandate."

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a Facebook note last night, thanked Bukit Batok voters for their "strong support".

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam told reporters: "To my mind, he came out stronger than I expected. He did exceptionally well."

Analysts said it was a clear win for the ruling party, despite the vote swing being larger than the 10.8 percentage point in the 2013 Punggol East by-election.

They said the PAP's results in last year's polls had been boosted by the country's 50th birthday celebrations and the emotions brought on by the death of founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

Some observers also pointed to race as a possible factor contributing to the swing, although it was unclear to what extent this shaped the outcome.

UniSIM College senior lecturer Walter Theseira said: "I think most Singaporeans don't vote on race but we would be hopelessly idealistic to think it played no part at all."

Political watchers said Dr Chee's performance was also a sign that questions about his character, raised by some PAP leaders during the campaign, might have caused some voters to think twice about him, although others felt that it could have turned some voters off.

Looking ahead, Mr Murali said his focus will now be on residents and rolling out his "ambitious agenda" for the constituency.

"There is a lot of work to be done and I will start tomorrow. Let me say again that I will serve everybody, irrespective of their political affiliation," he said.

Murali thanks voters, says he is humbled by win, not triumphant
He says he will get started on schemes proposed in campaign
By Charissa Yong, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

In the end, there was no jubilant acceptance speech, no grand celebration by the winner of the Bukit Batok by-election.

Instead, People's Action Party (PAP) candidate Murali Pillai, in the face of his 61.2 per cent victory, said: "I am humbled by the results. I'm encouraged by the results but certainly not feeling triumphant."

Mr Murali, who was speaking at PAP's traditional press conference held after the result was announced at 11.30pm, was also quick to thank his rival, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan, who got 38.8 per cent of the vote.

Said Mr Murali of Dr Chee and the SDP: "They ran a well-organised campaign. I want to thank them for the contest because it helped me articulate my plans for our Bukit Batok residents much better."

Residents, whom he thanked for giving him the mandate to serve, were front and centre of his speech.

"I will serve everybody, irrespective of their political affiliation," he stressed.

His press conference was a low-key one, held not at PAP headquarters or a stadium but at the party branch in Bukit Batok.

Also, Mr Murali was flanked, not by ministers but by four members of his campaign team, whom he said he was "eternally grateful to" for their time and hard work.

The quartet were: Madam Angelina Lim, branch assistant treasurer, Mr Lim Boon Lye, branch activist, Ms Noor Fatimah and Mr Tan Han Sen, branch activist.

Much of his brief speech focused on his immediate plans, which are to roll out the programmes he had proposed in his nine-day campaign.

These include a job placement programme, healthcare plans, and a mentorship scheme for children from low-income homes.

Mr Murali said the schemes would be ready in the next few months. "I'll start work tomorrow," he added, even as he said that his agenda was "ambitious".

"So I'll be out there looking for people to join me. And I would like to work with a number of civic organisations as well," he said.

"We really need lots of help and I welcome anyone to join me, and we'll take it from there."

Mr Murali, when asked, did not dwell on his margin of victory.

It was 11.8 percentage points lower than what the PAP's David Ong, who stepped down over an alleged affair, scored at the general election last year.

Instead, he quipped that he was "used to razor-thin margins", coming from Aljunied GRC where he contested in a team against the Workers' Party and lost with 49 per cent of the vote.

"I said from the start that this will be a tough by-election. And I'm really grateful for the results that have been announced," he said.

"It gives me encouragement, but certainly there's lots of work to be done."

Tomorrow will likely be a busy day for Mr Murali, as Parliament will sit in the afternoon.

Asked if he would be sworn in then, Mr Murali said: "If the Speaker permits, then I will attend."

He will hold his first Meet-the-People Session tomorrow evening.

Speaking to reporters after the press conference ended, several PAP leaders said they had expected a tough fight and were very happy with the result.

Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing said: "It's never easy to win a by-election."

These local elections are always a tough fight for the incumbent party, he added. "We never, never take for granted a by-election. It's not something that you can compare with a general election result."

Mr Chan added: "So of course we're very pleased that the residents of Bukit Batok have renewed their faith in the party."

His colleagues were also full of praise for Mr Murali.

Said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam: "He came out stronger than I expected. I think he did exceptionally well."

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said: "It was a good fight. It is a good win."

PAP activists held back from celebrating till last moment
By Rachel Au-Yong and Samuel Mak, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

After the polls closed last night in Bukit Batok, a crowd began to form outside the People's Action Party (PAP) branch office at Block 148 to await the results.

Yet, most of those gathered were not party members clad in white but ordinary voters.

Unlike the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), whose supporters gathered at Bukit Gombak Stadium last night, the PAP did not have an official assembly centre.

It used a classroom in a PAP Community Foundation kindergarten located next to its branch office.

While PAP activists waited there, about 50 residents - overwhelmingly PAP voters - milled outside the branch, curious to know how their candidate fared.

Many huddled over their smartphones to keep abreast of the news. A number even asked reporters if they had, by any chance, heard of the results already.

At 9.24pm, the early sample count came in showing PAP candidate Murali Pillai leading with 61 per cent to SDP chief Chee Soon Juan's 39 per cent.

Someone in the crowd was overheard asking another: "The sample poll - accurate or not?"

The crowd included housewife Lee Mei Chee, 56, and retiree Chia Lai Kuen, 68. The long-time PAP supporters were among those who looked relieved. They explained that what they heard on the ground in the initial days of the election worried them.

Said Madam Chia in Mandarin: "When we did our grocery shopping, some of the aunties said, 'Why should we vote for someone with darker skin?' I thought this was very dangerous thinking. So every day, I went to the market to tell people why they should choose Murali and vote PAP."

Madam Lee added: "Mr Murali has been working very hard. But we thought it would be a close fight because Dr Chee has been very energetic."

In the end, Dr Chee secured 38.8 per cent of the vote, against Mr Murali's 61.2 per cent.

For the PAP, this was a drop of almost 12 percentage points from the 2015 General Election result for the seat, in which former MP David Ong obtained 73 per cent. But for PAP branch vice-chairman William Chung, last night's result was more than good enough.The 63-year-old businessman said he was glad his six weeks of leave to help Mr Murali with his campaign had paid off, adding: "Considering that this is a by-election, this is a very good result - it shows that residents are supportive of Murali's plans."

Most party activists, meanwhile, held back from celebrating even after the sample poll counts were released. Their conservatism seemed to echo Mr Murali's. He came out more than once to thank the growing crowd of residents for their support, but would not be drawn to give comments and told reporters to wait for the official results.

It was only after the official results were announced at around 11.30pm that shouts and cheers could finally be heard from the room which they were in.

Those cheering in the room included his family. About a dozen family members were there to show their support, including his wife, his two younger daughters and in-laws.

Said Mr Murali's brother-in-law N. Prem, 42, a field engineer: "We are extremely proud of him. I'm especially happy for the family. I hope to get the chance to talk to him later if he's not too busy."

Mr Murali, for his part, presented his mother, Madam Vasanthi Ramadass, 75, with a bouquet of flowers and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The beaming mother said: "I am very proud of him."

SDP's Chee Soon Juan to stay on in Bukit Batok and run in next election
He is encouraged by the result and is determined to press on
By Walter Sim, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan yesterday vowed to stay on in Bukit Batok and win over its residents, even as his contest in the by-election ended in defeat.

In a five-minute speech to thank supporters at Bukit Gombak Stadium shortly after the result was announced at 11.30pm, he said: "Bukit Batok, you've invited me here... I've come to know you, and hopefully you'll come to know me better in the years to come.

"We'll see better times, better results, for the SDP the next round."

Dr Chee, 53, was presented with garlands and was joined by his wife Huang Chih Mei on the podium as he addressed the crowd.

"I want to bow - not in defeat, but with grace and to thank again everyone who worked so hard to make this situation a possibility," he said.

"We go out with our head held high."

He later told reporters, when asked if he will stand in Bukit Batok at the next election if it remains a single seat: "Definitely, definitely."

The opposition veteran, who entered politics in 1992, won 38.8 per cent of the vote against his People's Action Party (PAP) rival Murali Pillai, who scored 61.2 per cent.

This was his best electoral performance over five attempts to enter Parliament since 1992, and marked a swing of 12.4 percentage points over the 26.4 per cent won by SDP candidate Sadasivam Veriyah in last year's general election.

Dr Chee's four-man team got 33.4 per cent of votes in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in GE2015, which marked his political comeback after having to sit out two previous general elections as he was an undischarged bankrupt.

The SDP chief said while he was disappointed at not having won, he felt encouraged by the result.

"Given that we've so few resources, what we're up against is never easy," he said.

"We were never under the illusion that this was going to be anything other than an uphill battle."

He stressed that the SDP had continued to emphasise both local and national issues, "despite our opponents engaging in the kind of politics we wish we wouldn't see in Singapore".

He also repeated his view - made several times during the hustings - that the contest was not just a direct one between him and his rival.

Asked for his response to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's comments on Facebook last night that Mr Murali's win shows "the Government and people are united in building a better nation together", Dr Chee said the media had not been fair to him.

SDP member Damanhuri Abas said the party will serve Bukit Batok residents in whatever way it can. He told The Sunday Times: "We surely will want to continue whatever we can do in Bukit Batok, if we are given the space by Mr Murali."

Mr Sadasivam said the party will spend the next few days taking stock of the result. But he said he was encouraged that SDP managed to win some voters from the PAP.

Analysts were divided over what the result meant for Dr Chee, who has moved away from his adversarial politics of the past to adopt a more conciliatory tone.

Dr Norshahril Saat of the Iseas- Yusof Ishak Institute said his improved result shows "people are willing to forgive and forget Dr Chee for what he has done in the past".

But former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin said the outcome also showed that "despite Chee's best effort, his past will still haunt him for a while".

Dr Chee told reporters he was determined to press on in future elections. He said: "This is a journey, a process. The destination is still far away, and we'll have to keep at it. One day, we'll get there."

SDP supporters upbeat despite disappointment over defeat
By Lim Yan Liang and Ng Keng Gene, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan's fifth attempt to enter Parliament ended like the previous four - in defeat - but his supporters who gathered at Bukit Gombak Stadium remained upbeat about the result.

The 38.8 per cent vote that Dr Chee won was his best election showing since he entered politics in 1992. It also marked a swing of 12.4 percentage points over the 26.4 per cent won by SDP candidate Sadasivam Veriyah in last year's general election.

"There is definitely some potential in the SDP based on this by-election and they should work on it," said civil servant Kit Tan, 42. Mr Tan, who lives in Marine Parade, added that Dr Chee had shown he could be "eloquent, effective and combative".

At Bukit Gombak Stadium, the assembly site for SDP supporters, the mood swung from exuberant to sober and eventually to one of quiet satisfaction as the evening wore on.

As they waited for the results, the crowd occasionally chanted "SDP" and "Dr Chee".

Many snapped up books authored by Dr Chee and SDP merchandise like umbrellas.

In a show of support, other opposition figures like the Reform Party's Mr M. Ravi and Mr Osman Sulaiman, and Singapore People's Party's Mrs Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss showed up at the stadium.

The festive mood turned sober when news filtered in around 9.25pm that the sample count showed Mr Murali Pillai of the People's Action Party (PAP) comfortably leading the race against Dr Chee. Derived from a random count of 100 ballot papers at each of the nine polling stations in Bukit Batok, it showed that Mr Murali was on course to bag around 61 per cent of the vote, compared with Dr Chee's 39 per cent.

This was to be remarkably close to the final tally.

The stadium turned silent for a while as SDP supporters turned to their phones to confirm the news.

Some, like Mr Muhammad Salihin Murah, 27, who was at the stadium with his two-year-old daughter Sarah Edora, were disappointed.

The Ang Mo Kio resident had thought that Dr Chee had a good chance of winning.

"I expected more people to swing to the SDP because of the David Ong scandal," said the security supervisor, referring to the former PAP Bukit Batok MP who resigned over an alleged extramarital affair.

"Dr Chee would have been quite tough in Parliament, you can tell from the way he spoke against the Prime Minister," he added.

This was Dr Chee's second bid in eight months to enter Parliament, after he made his political comeback in last year's election.

He had to sit out two general elections because he was an undischarged bankrupt, having been sued for defamation after the 2001 election by former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong.

Once they had accepted defeat, several of Dr Chee's supporters said the result was a sign of progress for him. Bukit Batok resident Sami Rasu, 54, said: "I think they should feel encouraged and work on improving the result in the next GE."

Fellow resident Hamidi Saidi, 38, felt "disappointed but encouraged" by the result. Said the facilities manager: "He managed to pull some PAP voters over, and I think it's a good sign going forward."

Additional reporting by Walter Sim

Verdict at kopitiam: 'Confirm already'
By Janice Heng, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Around 9.25pm yesterday, the early results of the by-election the whole country's eyes had been on for the last nine days flashed across television.

You might have expected the Block 150 coffee shop in the very seat of contention - Bukit Batok - to be full of the chatter of excited voters eagerly awaiting the results.

But in the run-up, the patrons of the coffee shop just opposite the People's Action Party (PAP) branch were quietly focused on their food.

Then, the Chinese drama that had been playing gave way to a news bulletin. A sample count showed that the PAP's Mr Murali Pillai was in the lead against Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Chee Soon Juan.

And how was this greeted by Bukit Batok's kopitiam brigade? "As expected," one muttered in Mandarin, before returning to his drink. One woman, clad in white, pumped her fist in the air in triumph. Everyone else, having glanced up for the results, turned back to their food.

And that was that. At the huge central coffee shop at nearby Block 155, the TV channel hadn't even changed. It appeared to be another ordinary Saturday in the single-seat constituency. Away from the nine polling stations, you would not have realised that a by-election was being held.

Hours earlier, Block 155 had hummed gently with afternoon chatter - about everything except politics. Even a group of middle-aged men - usually a reliable demographic for political views - was talking about health issues instead.

"It's not exciting," said a semi-retired 67-year-old who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan. "Because we know it's very hard for Dr Chee to win."

Across the constituency, residents reacted with bemusement or amusement when I asked if they were excited about the by-election. A PAP presence in Bukit Batok seemed a given, a fact of life in the slow-paced estate.

"When we were young, in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's time, people would stay up late to wait for the news, very anxious," recalled a 73-year-old resident who wanted to be known only as Madam Low. "But now, the PAP has been here so long."

The seat has never been under any other party.

Even those who voted for Dr Chee had not expected to be on the winning side. Three older residents, relaxing on benches in the early evening, affirmed their support for him, but did not quite dare to hope.

"It'd be nice if the opposition wins but it's very hard to say," said a 77-year-old factory worker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ang, in Mandarin.

The trio said they would wait for the results at home, and not stick around for the sample count.

The same equanimity was found on the PAP side, even though it was confident of victory.

Said lorry driver Lim Swee An, 63: "Whoever wins, we just carry on working as normal." But he was sure that "Ah Mu", the Mandarin name by which Mr Murali is known, would win.

For Mr Lim, the old altercation between Dr Chee and Mr Chiam See Tong - the former having ousted the latter from the SDP in the 1990s - proved impossible to forget.

"Young people don't understand, but my generation knows. Mr Chiam invited him into the party but was forced out. Would you vote for such a person?"

The PAP has also announced plans for the area, he noted. "It's good if they're helping people."

Technician Yusaini Kamaludin, 46, did not plan on staying up for the result: "All the way, we know we will win. For us, we are not scared. Confirm already."

Lawyer K.W. Tan was another who said he was unlikely to stay up - even though he had backed Dr Chee. "The results are quite foregone," said the 50-year-old, who was on the way to dinner with his wife.

As the results showed, he was right. There were no last-minute surprises, no changes to the status quo. The only drama was the TV serial.

Murali Pillai to be sworn in as Bukit Batok MP on 9 May 2016
Bukit Batok's new MP will also hold his first Meet-the-People Session in the evening
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 9 May 2016

The new MP for Bukit Batok, Mr Murali Pillai of the People's Action Party (PAP), will take his oath of allegiance when Parliament sits this afternoon.

"I hope to learn quickly from fellow PAP MPs and I want to start contributing actively," he told reporters yesterday, after going around the single-member constituency to thank residents for their support in Saturday's by-election.

Mr Murali won 61.2 per cent of the vote in the straight contest against Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan.

Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob said Mr Murali will be sworn in today, as an MP is deemed to be elected once the Returning Officer declares he has won the election.

She told The Straits Times: "I am sure that Murali will stay true to his promise and will lend his voice strongly in Parliament to the issues that matter to his Bukit Batok residents and all Singaporeans."

Mr Murali said yesterday he has a full schedule of plans to implement, and is "raring to go".

He will also hold his first Meet-the-People Session as MP at PAP's Bukit Batok branch tonight.

Yesterday, activists joined him on the back of a lorry to thank residents, many of whom cheered him on."I am really very grateful for the great turnout of my supporters and volunteers. I draw great encouragement from that," he said.

Residents can also expect details of the projects he promised - like a health co-operative and job placement and youth mentorship programmes - "in a matter of months".

On Saturday, Mr Murali became the first PAP candidate to win a by-election in a single seat in over three decades. But his vote share was 12 percentage points lower than that won by former MP David Ong at the 2015 General Election.

The by-election was triggered by the resignation of Mr Ong in March over an alleged extra-marital affair, a factor analysts said cost the PAP some votes, as did the higher profile that Mr Murali's rival, Dr Chee, had.

Yesterday, Dr Chee also went around Bukit Batok to thank voters. He said he would continue working for residents and hoped to contest there again at the next election.

"We'll be back again," he said.

Mr Murali said he welcomed this: "It's good because we're talking about serving our residents."

As it was Mother's Day, Mr Murali gave out carnations to mums he met. Asked by reporters about the issue of race that arose in the campaign, he said: "I don't think of myself as a minority, I think of myself as a fellow Singaporean first. I'm here to help all communities, that's always been my orientation."

Administrative assistant P.C. Chua, 46, said she was relieved that he won: "When he spoke, he was very quiet and assured. I'm sure he can help us get things done."

Printing company owner Jack Ng, 47, said: "As long as he helps the lower-income and makes sure the estate is maintained, he would have done a good job."

Overseas votes counted; total number of votes cast now 24,224
By Lee Min Kok, The Straits Times, 11 May 2016

Of the 52 registered overseas electors in Bukit Batok single-member constituency, 32 turned up at designated polling stations to cast their votes.

In a statement, the Elections Department (ELD) said that the 32 votes were counted at the ELD Training Centre's counting centre on Wednesday (May 11).

The People's Action Party's Murali Pillai, who beat Singapore Democratic Party secretary-general Chee Soon Juan at the May 7 by-election with 61.2 per cent of the votes, received 24 overseas votes.

Dr Chee pulled in eight votes.

The total number of votes cast at the by-election on May 7 now stands at 24,224, which includes 622 rejected votes.

This is 94.16 per cent of the 25,727 registered electors in the ward, ELD added.

The final vote count for Mr Murali stands at 14,452 votes (61.23 per cent), while Dr Chee's is 9,150 (38.77).

'By-election effect' led to drop in PAP vote share
But 12 percentage point swing away in just eight months shows support can't be taken for granted
By Pearl Lee, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Political watchers had expected the People's Action Party (PAP) to see a drop in vote share at the Bukit Batok by-election.

But the swing of almost 12 percentage points against the ruling party - in just eight months since the last general election - caught some by surprise yesterday.

"It tells you that the residents are quite affected by the David Ong scandal," said Dr Norshahril Saat of the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

He added that "the PAP can't take its good results in the last general election for granted".

PAP's Mr Murali Pillai won 61.2 per cent of votes against his opponent, Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan, who got 38.8 per cent of votes, his best showing since entering politics in 1992.

By comparison, former PAP MP David Ong polled 73 per cent in last year's general election, when he was up against the SDP's Mr Sadasivam Veriyah and independent candidate Samir Salim Neji. Mr Ong resigned from Parliament in March after allegations of an extramarital affair, triggering the by-election.

Dr Norshahril noted that the by-election result "is similar to the 2011 General Election, where the PAP had a 60-40 kind of margin".

Observers noted that people tend to vote more freely in a by-election, as there is no worry that they may end up toppling the Government.

Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) deputy director for research Gillian Koh, who felt the PAP's win was remarkable, said: "The opposition has a natural advantage."

It is made worse for the PAP, as its MP had to resign over an extramarital affair, she said.

Mr Murali was also up against Dr Chee, one of the most well-known opposition politicians. Yet, the PAP won. "The PAP should have lost the seat, but it didn't," she said.

In 2013, the Workers' Party won the Punggol East by-election, which was brought on by the resignation of PAP MP Michael Palmer, who had bagged 54.5 per cent of the vote in 2011.

"It (Punggol East) was a marginal seat and there was unhappiness towards the Government", said economist Walter Theseira, who comments on political issues. "These two factors were not present for this by-election."

There was also some focus on the race of the two candidates, but Dr Theseira did not think fielding an Indian candidate in a constituency where seven in 10 residents are Chinese cost the PAP many votes, although race did matter to some residents.

Mr Murali's victory signals that race may be a smaller factor than thought, said Dr Norshahril.

Dr Koh of the IPS believes that Bukit Batok voters - mainly heartlanders - would have given careful thought to whether their estate was going to be managed well.

This, said Dr Koh, was why Dr Chee had sought to assure voters "that it would not cost them if they voted for him". But PAP had an established track record in this regard, she added.

It may be Dr Chee's fifth defeat, but he still has reasons to cheer, as this is his best showing yet since entering politics in 1992, said former Nominated MP Eugene Tan.

Said Dr Norshahril: "The results tell us that the opposition still has a future in Singapore politics."

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin said the debate on a candidate's character may have cost the PAP some votes, too.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong probably alluded to Dr Chee when he said a person's heart and character are crucial if he wants to enter politics. "Of course, focusing on a person's character is important. But there's a danger when you go overboard," said Mr Zulkifli.

After halo effect of SG50, a return to the norm?
By Chua Mui Hoong, Opinion Editor, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Two weeks ago, I wrote about "Five things to watch out for in the Bukit Batok by-election". So what do the results show of those issues?

First, that Singaporeans do not vote simply along racial lines. The People's Action Party (PAP) candidate, lawyer Murali Pillai, 48, an Indian, got 61.2 per cent of the vote. He beat Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan, 53, who is Chinese and has a higher national profile, and who got 38.8 per cent. The winning margin was a high 5,286 votes.

To be sure, a candidate's race - and age, gender, occupation or lack thereof, even mien and likeability - can all swing individual voters. But at the aggregate level, it is highly significant that a heartland constituency with 74 per cent Chinese, 13 per cent Malay, 11 per cent Indian and 2 per cent of other races, can hand such a decisive victory to a minority candidate. It suggests that Singaporeans are, if not totally race-blind, then at least race-neutral in their vote. Race may matter to some, but not all voters, and not decisively in most cases.

Second thing to note: How much might voters "punish" the incumbent PAP for having an adulterous MP? In the 2013 Punggol East by-election sparked by incumbent PAP MP Michael Palmer's resignation over an extramarital affair, the vote swing against the PAP was 10.8 percentage points.

This time, Bukit Batok voters deserted the PAP with a swing of 11.8 percentage points, just eight months after the PAP's Mr David Ong got 73 per cent of the vote last September. He quit in March over an extramarital affair.

If one can parse such things, one is tempted to say PAP voters hand out a 10 percentage point penalty for such misconduct.

This is in contrast to Workers' Party (WP) voters. In Hougang, WP's Mr Yaw Shin Leong got 64.8 per cent in the 2011 General Election. Then, he was sacked over an extramarital affair. WP's Mr Png Eng Huat defended the party's stronghold in the 2012 by-election, getting 62.1 per cent. The drop: 2.7 percentage points.

Is the large difference in penalty due to innate differences between voters of different constituencies, or to the different expectations of their MPs held by WP and PAP voters? One wonders.

Third, this by-election's result is consistent with the belief that voters respond better to candidates with grassroots appeal.

Again, a comparison with Punggol East is apt. There, WP candidate Lee Li Lian garnered 41 per cent of the vote in GE2011. In the 2013 by-election, she won the seat with 54.5 per cent against PAP candidate Koh Poh Koon, a surgeon who the PAP said was of ministerial calibre. But he was new to the area and lost to Ms Lee, a by-then familiar face to residents.

In Bukit Batok this time, the PAP chose Mr Murali, with 16 years of grassroots experience in the estate. Both candidates campaigned on municipal issues, coming up with social and community plans. The result suggests the grassroots strategy works.

The fourth issue was what the result says about voters' acceptance of the controversial Dr Chee, who has fought not only with the PAP but also his former mentor, but who has worked hard to build up the SDP and change his image in recent years.

His reception by Bukit Batok voters suggests Dr Chee is making inroads into the hearts and minds of heartland voters. The 38.8 per cent he managed is his personal best, nearly double the 20 per cent his team got in Jurong GRC in 2001. No wonder he said, minutes after the official count was released : "This doesn't feel like a defeat."

His vote share is 5.4 percentage points higher than the 33.4 per cent his team got in GE2015 in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, where about 45 per cent of residents live in private housing. That Dr Chee, standing alone in a seat with 95.7 per cent who live in public housing, can better his GRC team's result, flies in the face of conventional belief that he appeals more to the middle class. Perhaps that Hokkien music video Dr Chee starred in had some marginal impact. A 5.4 percentage point increase is hardly the huge swing Dr Chee would have needed for a win. Still, the result will embolden Dr Chee and trouble some in the PAP, which considers Dr Chee the kind of opposition politician Singapore does not need.

The fifth issue: This by-election shows that yes, the opposition is capable of unity. Leaders from the other major parties did not enter the fray, to allow this straight fight between the PAP and SDP.

One final point about that 11.8 percentage point swing against the PAP. That might be due in part to the "adultery penalty" theory alluded to earlier. But I think a large part is due to the loss of the halo effect from SG50 and the Lee Kuan Yew factor, that had buoyed the PAP to its 69.9 per cent win in GE2015.

Stripped of those factors, the vote share this time is probably a better gauge of heartlanders' sentiments towards the PAP on the ground.

Assured of a PAP government in power (this is just a by-election after all), and freed from a sense of showing loyalty to Singapore's founding Prime Minister and his party, voter sentiment seems to have reverted back to past norms.

In other words, 70 per cent in 2015 was likely a blip. The PAP will have to contend with the vote share dipping back to the low to mid-60s - and work very hard to keep it up.

SDP falls short with best shot in two decades
Chee's vote share will disappoint party given the factors in his favour - but there are silver linings
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2016

Chee's vote share will disappoint party given the factors in his favour - but there are silver linings

The circumstances were as good as they could have been for Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan to finally win at an election. But in the end, he still fell short in his fifth bid to enter Parliament.

The Bukit Batok by-election began, after all, with the People's Action Party's reputation dented by the resignation of its MP David Ong over an alleged affair.

Since his stepping down on March 12, the SDP has had close to two months to strategise, focus and deploy its considerably experienced political machinery into a geographically compact constituency that would not overly stretch the resources of any sizeable party.

Opposition parties have also previously complained that they are sometimes stopped from undertaking house visits in condominiums. But with over 95 per cent of Bukit Batok residents living in public housing, the SDP had no bar on reaching out to the overwhelming majority of eligible voters.

What Dr Chee also had going for him this time was the so-called by-election effect - where voters have tended to be more willing to back the opposition candidate because the ruling party is in no danger of losing power.

Finally, the PAP, which has long argued that Group Representation Constituencies are needed in order to ensure minority representation in Parliament, took the chance of losing some votes when it opted to field a minority candidate.

Given all these factors, Dr Chee's 38.8 per cent of the vote last night will come as a disappointment. Despite it being his best showing at the polls, it was a comfortable victory for the PAP - and its first in the three most recent by-elections.

But there are some silver linings for Dr Chee.

He managed to engineer a 12.4 percentage point improvement on the SDP's performance in Bukit Batok from last year's general election. Dr Chee's vote share was also just shy of the SDP's hopes for a strong performance - of at least 40 per cent - so it could have a solid foundation of support to build on for the next general election.

Anything less would have called the electability of the party's long-time standard bearer into question despite Dr Chee shedding his combative image and adopting a more moderate tone.

But doubts about whether voters would buy into that change began to show in last year's polls. Even though he drew large crowds to rallies during GE2015 and there were long queues for his book signings, his Holland-Bukit Timah GRC team garnered just 33.4 per cent of votes.

Now just eight months later, he has managed a better showing - in a different constituency and in the absence of last year's 9.8 percentage point national swing to the PAP - although not quite enough to secure a seat for himself and his party.

But it is clear that Dr Chee's political past and the character issue will not fade, and is something that he will have to contend with in future elections that he contests.

The PAP has shown that it will continue to question his suitability for elected office based on his past actions and brushes with the law.

Even though the SDP labelled these as personal attacks and "character assassinations", last night's result suggests that the character issue continues to have some traction with voters.

And he certainly did not help his own cause by misinterpreting government data - such as on jobs for locals - and presenting a skewed picture of employment at his rallies. The episode may have given discerning voters cause to pause and consider that, perhaps, there is some truth in the PAP's position that voters should not trust him.

The SDP may also rue, on the character issue, that it took the moral high ground, rather than go on the attack to ask why this by-election was triggered in the first place.

Although Dr Chee has fallen short at the ballot box once again, the result is unlikely to affect his position as the SDP's undisputed leader.

There is no one else in the party who has the same degree of visibility and profile with the public. Infectious diseases expert Paul Tambyah, regarded as the next leading figure, has stood by Dr Chee and has not shown any indication that he will mount a leadership challenge.

So, in the end, the status quo of Singapore's political landscape has been preserved. A win for Dr Chee would have been the first step of a comeback for the SDP, which was once the top opposition party with three elected MPs in the 1990s.

Dr Chee's presence in Parliament could have made things difficult for the PAP, and for the Workers' Party (WP), which made a breakthrough in 2011 by winning a GRC.

He repeatedly argued that he should be elected as the House needs an effective opposition voice, implicitly suggesting that the WP's MPs are anything but.

But with his loss, the WP's status as the only opposition party with a parliamentary presence stays intact. For now.

Voters’ choice showed their pragmatic side
By Eugene K B Tan, Published TODAY, 9 May 2016

The electoral victory by the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) Murali Pillai in Saturday’s by-election in Bukit Batok did not come as a surprise. Mr Murali won 61.2 per cent of the votes, defeating Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Chee Soon Juan in a straight fight.

Yet, after a nine-day campaign, the electoral outcome had not been a foregone conclusion, notwithstanding the ruling party’s resounding General Election victory margin in the constituency just eight months ago. Then, in a three-way fight, the PAP’s David Ong won with 73.02 per cent of the vote, before he resigned in March over an alleged extramarital affair.

The 11.8 per cent drop in vote share for the PAP may seem large, but this can be attributed to several factors.

First, the so-called by-election effect, where voters tend to be more inclined to vote for the opposition knowing that it would not change the government of the day. For instance, in the last by-election held in Punggol East in 2013, the Workers’ Party candidate Lee Li Lian won 54.5 per cent of the vote, a 13.49 per cent improvement over her performance in the same constituency in the 2011 General Election. That by-election was called following the resignation of PAP Member of Parliament Michael Palmer, also over an extramarital affair.

Second, there was no SG50 and the Lee Kuan Yew dividend at play this time round. These were factors that had helped propel the PAP to an unexpected landslide win in last September’s General Election. The SDP also fielded a much stronger candidate in Dr Chee, compared to an unknown at the 2015 General Election.

Putting these aside, Mr Murali turned in a strong performance, maintaining what I regard as the true level of support for the PAP in Bukit Batok. Mr Murali also made history by making it the first PAP by-election win in a single-member seat since 1979. His party had lost in all single-seat by-elections since 1979: 1981 (Anson), 2012 (Hougang), and 2013 (Punggol East).

What featured more on voters’ minds this time round were clearly municipal and, to a certain extent, bread and butter issues.

Third, race could also have been a factor. During the by-election campaign, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had called for voters to base their choice on the candidate’s “ability to contribute, his sincerity, his commitment and the colour of his heart — which is red — regardless of what race or religion he may belong to”. But Mr Lee noted that it was not unknown for racial sentiments to emerge and be exploited during election campaigns.

Yet, it also says something that a heartland constituency with almost three quarters Chinese and 13 per cent Malay residents voted for Mr Murali as their representative in Parliament. Mr Murali is also the first minority race PAP MP elected in a single seat by-election since 1979.

Clearly, while race may be a factor for some residents, it is unlikely to have been a significant cause for the PAP’s weaker performance this time.


For Dr Chee, the Bukit Batok by-election was his best opportunity to be elected, after four previous unsuccessful attempts stretching back to 1992. Indeed, the 38.8 per cent of votes he secured in Bukit Batok was the best electoral performance of his political career.

Both Mr Murali and Dr Chee campaigned with zeal in the lead-up to the by-election.

Campaign strategy was, of course, crucial. The party that read and responded to the sentiments of the electorate reaped better dividends at the ballot boxes. Crucially, the intense electoral contest boiled down to the party’s track record, trust, and the individual qualities of the candidate.

Except at the 1988 and 1991 General Elections, the PAP has had a strong record in Bukit Batok since it was created in 1972. It was absorbed into Bukit Timah GRC for the 1997 General Election and between 2001 and 2015, it was part of Jurong GRC helmed by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.

The PAP kept the by-election to one that emphasised local issues. To that end, the PAP’s track record provided the assurance of “business as usual” should Mr Murali be given the mandate. Coupled with Mr Murali’s 16-year-long association with Bukit Batok, voters thought it imprudent to make an unforced change when there were no pressing issues or major unhappiness. Voters signified that change for change’s sake was not only naive, but foolish.

On his part, Mr Murali showed his nous in not only sensing the concerns of voters, but also in addressing them.

With an ageing and heartlander middle-class electorate, Mr Murali is fully cognisant that social programmes, especially at the municipal level, are very much what residents are concerned about. It was about developing a plan that keeps up with the evolving expectations and needs of residents. This is an area that offers candidates fertile terrain to reach out and appeal to voters, and to showcase their plans.

Mr Murali’s particular focus on social programmes, such as a proposed health cooperative, job placement scheme, and youth mentoring programme, reminded voters of the PAP’s superior track record and ability to deliver on its electoral promises. This was a stronger vote-puller than most other issues.

Backed by the PAP’s record of competent town council management and bolstered by the PAP’s decided leftward shift in public policy to help more Singaporeans, Bukit Batok voters voted for continuity and certainty. Mr Murali’s long association with Bukit Batok also helped to persuade voters that he was not a fair-weather politician. For Dr Chee, this was the fifth constituency that he had contested in as many elections.

Voting for Dr Chee required that dramatic leap of faith that proved too much for voters who were concerned about his track record and individual qualities.

Dr Chee’s long list of promises ranging from making Bukit Batok the envy of Singapore, to an SDP-run town council that surpasses the performance of PAP town councils, while bold, raised questions of whether his plans and his promises were more form than substance, especially since he has no track record in town council management and had only started to work the ground in Bukit Batok when Mr Ong resigned in March this year.

Overall, Dr Chee’s “now is the time” campaign was not able to inspire the requisite levels of trust needed to nudge voters to vote for change. Dr Chee’s political redemption continues to be delayed.

This by-election may well still be defining for his controversial political career. His performance in Bukit Batok might indicate that his political career is far from over, after being in the political wilderness for almost a decade. Yet, despite the absence of one-off favourable conditions for the PAP as mentioned above, Dr Chee’s failure to poll the confidence-boosting 40 per cent against a much inexperienced opponent suggests that he still has much work to do in earning the trust and confidence of the electorate.

Will he now stay in and be committed to Bukit Batok as he has promised and serve residents there between now and the next election, or will he opportunistically look for a sixth constituency come the next election?

Overall, the Bukit Batok by-election showed the Singaporean voter at its best: Open-minded, discerning and pragmatic. It was also a timely reminder that at the end of the day, politics is about serving the needs and meeting the aspirations of Singaporeans.

Mr Murali focused his campaign on how he would serve residents, and went about the hustings with no grandstanding. Taken together, these helped him win against an opponent who campaigned with a much higher profile, rhetorical flourish, and dare.

Ultimately, Mr Murali won because he fought the by-election as one that was not about him or the PAP. He won by putting the residents at the centre.

Eugene K B Tan is associate professor of law at the Singapore Management University School of Law.

5 key insights from the Bukit Batok by-election
The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

An alleged extramarital affair causes the incumbent MP to step down. His sudden departure pits a minority candidate from the ruling party with a deep grassroots background against a veteran opposition figure with a confrontational past but also a reputation for championing civil liberties.

The Bukit Batok by-election was certainly not lacking in compelling narratives. What does the result say about the issue of race in Singapore politics? Is Dr Chee Soon Juan's political comeback on track? How much does estate upgrading matter as an election issue?

And is the "by-election effect" still relevant today?

Insight takes a look at what lessons can be gleaned from the May 7 Bukit Batok by-election.

Bukit Batok polls: The aftermath

1. Bye bye, by-election effect?
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

The much-trumpeted "by-election" effect failed to work its magic for the opposition this time round.

After losing two previous by-elections, the People's Action Party (PAP) won Bukit Batok with 61.2 per cent of the vote on May 7.

Observers believe that in a by-election, voters are more willing to support the opposition as there is no danger of inadvertently voting the Government out of power.

So why did the by-election effect not propel the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) to victory?

First, for all its purported potency, it is not easy to pinpoint specific instances of the by-election effect at work.

In the first 15 years of independence, the PAP handily won all 11 by-elections that were contested in a bygone era when the ruling party held every single seat in Parliament.

Then came the seminal 1981 Anson by-election, which saw the PAP vote share plummet from 84.1 per cent to 47.1 per cent within a year - a 37 percentage point swing.

While this is a seemingly powerful example of the by-election effect, the PAP's analysis identified a unique local issue that was a key reason for the defeat.

A large chunk of the voters might have expressed their dissatisfaction at the ballot box as they were going to be resettled and were not given priority in getting new Housing Board flats.

Since Anson, there have been four by-elections, and the Workers' Party (WP) has won two of them.

But those two victories also do not conclusively prove this by-election phenomenon.

The 2012 Hougang by-election was contested in the WP stronghold, which it had been holding since 1991. It came as no surprise that it easily retained the seat. In the 2013 Punggol East by-election, the WP won a much closer fight.

But there were also unresolved local issues such as uncompleted upgrading works at Rivervale Plaza and a lack of coffee shops in the new estate.

The PAP's candidate was a new face that was unfamiliar, while the WP candidate had a degree of recognition, having contested there in the previous general election.

To find the most convincing instance of the by-election effect, one has to ironically look at the 1991 General Election.

Opposition MP Chiam See Tong devised a strategy to contest fewer than half the parliamentary seats so that the PAP was returned to power immediately on Nomination Day. With the guarantee of a PAP Government, voters were thus free to vote for the opposition, he argued.

Fighting a general election as a by-election would achieve what he termed a "by-election effect", a turn of phrase that endures in Singapore politics till today.

The strategy is widely credited with delivering four elected parliamentary seats to the opposition, a record that stood until 2011.

But is the by-election effect still relevant in today's political climate, where voters have shown an increasing desire for diversity in Parliament and more alternative voices?

After all, the biggest opposition breakthrough to date - the WP's win in Aljunied GRC, the first time the opposition won a GRC - was achieved in the 2011 General Election when all but one constituency were contested.

The opposition has also not pursued the by-election strategy in the last three general elections, contesting more than half the seats in 2006, 2011 and 2015.

Last year's elections even saw all constituencies challenged for the first time since independence.

The result of the Bukit Batok by-election seems to confirm the receding influence of the by-election effect. Undoubtedly, some voters felt unencumbered to vote for SDP's Dr Chee Soon Juan because they were merely choosing an MP and not determining the government of the day.

But perhaps Bukit Batok merely confirms what past results have suggested: The by-election effect does not exist in isolation, as other factors such as local issues and the quality and familiarity of the candidate play a crucial role too.

2. A boost or a blow for SDP?
By Chong Zi Liang, The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

What lessons the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) draws from the Bukit Batok by-election will depend on how it views the result.

The party feels it gave the polls its best shot, having walked the ground daily for almost two months from the time it was clear a by-election would be called.

Those efforts translated into 38.8 per cent of the vote for its candidate and party chief Chee Soon Juan.

In the polls' aftermath, two schools of thought have emerged, each with opposing views about whether this is a good result and what it says about the political future of Dr Chee.

The first camp believes that his performance bodes well for his next electoral contest. After all, this is his best score in five bids for a parliamentary seat since he entered politics more than two decades ago.

The result was an 11.8 percentage point erosion of the People's Action Party's (PAP) 73 per cent vote share in Bukit Batok in last year's general election. In the 2013 Punggol East by-election, which was won by the opposition, the PAP's support fell by a slightly lower 10.8 percentage points.

It was also an improvement on Dr Chee's 33.4 per cent when he contested Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in GE2015, his first since he began putting his formerly more confrontational style of politics behind him.

As such, his more moderate image now is seen as winning increasing support and would give the party good reason to stay the course.

Others, however, are not so sanguine about Dr Chee's electoral prospects.

In this group are several opposition politicians who believe that the circumstances of this by-election were as good as they could get for the SDP leader to be elected.

The PAP's image had been bruised by the scandal surrounding the previous MP, Mr David Ong, who stepped down over an alleged extramarital affair.

Also in Dr Chee's favour were the proverbial "by-election effect" and the small size of the single-member constituency. So a candidate did not have to cover a great area to reach out to voters.

Given the various factors in his favour, they think Dr Chee underperformed, and blew his best chance yet at entering the House.

Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam contradicted Dr Chee's view that the media was biased against him and said coverage of the by-election was "fairly balanced and much more equal time has been given to reporting the SDP's rallies and press conferences".

In a series of online posts, veteran opposition politician Goh Meng Seng dissected Dr Chee's result.

In his view, while Dr Chee managed a seemingly impressive vote swing of more than 10 percentage points, that showing is not as good as it looks.

To go from 26.4 per cent, which is the SDP's Bukit Batok result last year, to 38.8 per cent now is relatively easy because voters in that range are more easily persuaded to back the opposition, argued Mr Goh, who heads the People's Power Party.

Anything above 40 per cent requires winning over a bloc of increasingly politically neutral voters.

Get closer to 50 per cent, and one encounters greater resistance from voters who naturally lean towards the PAP, he added.

But the SDP has never crossed the 40 per cent mark in five general elections with Dr Chee at the helm, Mr Goh pointed out.

"He is just unelectable. This is the cruel but honest view I have with regard to Chee," he concluded.

Is Dr Chee the man who can guide the SDP in winning over that crucial 10 per cent of voters to put them over the top?

Those who do not think so point to a factor weighing on Dr Chee: his falling out with his one-time mentor, former opposition MP Chiam See Tong. Mr Chiam left the SDP after infighting within the party shortly after Dr Chee joined its ranks.

During the Bukit Batok campaign, his wife, Mrs Lina Chiam, spoke up twice against Dr Chee and pointedly stated that Mr Chiam did not endorse any candidate in the by-election. In a political landscape where the opposition usually makes a showing of unity, it was possibly more potent than any attack on his character the PAP could muster.

For now, party members are opting to keep the faith in the SDP leader. Last week, SDP chairman Wong Souk Yee issued a statement denouncing negative comments made in a news report about Dr Chee's political career.

Under Dr Chee, the party retains a niche appeal among those most concerned about civil liberties, as the Workers' Party is relatively less vocal on the intangible issues such as freedom of speech.

Still, the question of leadership succession lies ahead. Dr Chee is 53 and will be in his 60s after two more general elections.

No other SDP member has the same high public profile, and the party will have to groom a new generation of leaders within the next 10 years.

To Dr Chee's supporters, it will be a daunting task to fill the personality void when he steps aside.

To his detractors, Dr Chee's relinquishing of the reins of leadership is the first step the SDP must take on a route towards a brighter political future.

3. PAP's winning strategy
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

The People's Action Party (PAP) pulled off a winner with Bukit Batok, not just in holding the seat, but also in election strategy.

The PAP showed that it had learnt from its poor performance in 2013's Punggol East by-election, when it fielded political newcomer Koh Poh Koon. The colorectal surgeon was widely seen as having been parachuted in, and lost to the Workers' Party's Ms Lee Li Lian.

That the party had re-strategised this aspect was seen in its landslide general election victory last September, when by the time it was called, most of its candidates had been working the ground months - if not years - ahead.

Step forward its Bukit Batok by-election candidate, Mr Murali Pillai. A candidate who:

Had long worked the ground there? Tick.

Is capable of a more personal campaign? Tick.

Is comfortable with party big guns lending their clout? Tick.

But why did this strategy prove successful - Mr Murali garnered 61.2 per cent of the vote - in a by-election some thought would be a closer fight? After all, his rival, the Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Chee Soon Juan, had re-strategised, too, showing a more relaxed side to the war horse of years past.

Also, Mr Murali was a minority race candidate, with history against him.


First, by fielding someone with a long track record in Bukit Batok, the PAP was assuring residents that it would live up to its promise of uninterrupted projects and services.

Not only had Mr Murali spent the past four years in Paya Lebar ward in Aljunied GRC - where he lost narrowly - but also Bukit Batok was where he earned his grassroots wings. He started volunteering in 2000 before becoming PAP branch secretary in 2007.

Mr Leow Boon Swee, who succeeded Mr Murali as branch secretary, said the latter had the know-how and relationships to ensure services for residents would continue.

While another party could set up another town council and vow to keep services like free legal clinics running - as the SDP's Dr Chee assured residents he would - Mr Leow said it was not that straightforward.

"There could be an impact on the volunteers, not just the party activists. If the results were not good, they may be demoralised, some of them might quit and this could affect the services," he said.

Second, Mr Murali opted for a more personal approach during the campaign.

He held only two rallies - half the number held by Dr Chee - preferring to spend his nights away from the media glare, making the exhausting rounds of visits to residents' homes.

Away from the media glare, he talked to them at length about his proposals including a job placement programme and a health cooperative, promised to follow up on complaints and listened to suggestions on national policies.

Former Cabinet minister Lim Boon Heng, who mentored Mr Murali in the Aljunied GRC team, estimated the candidate might have covered only 20 per cent of the flats in a block each time, but his interactions were "unhurried, engaged, and if some of them wanted to talk to him, he would spend the time".


Another key strategic aspect of the campaign's success was in not just bringing in PAP heavyweights to lend their weight, but in giving them the role of taking aim at the opposition where necessary. Moreover, Mr Murali was a candidate who could handle this strategy, staying above the fray while the big guns fired.

By doing this, he sent a clear message: He would focus on how he could best serve residents.

Mr Murali would not be drawn into commenting on Dr Chee, even after PAP big names like Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong criticised the SDP chief's character and ability to be an MP.

So were there any downsides to the PAP's Bukit Batok strategy?

While some observers say it is the PAP's prerogative to tap its natural advantage, others say its extensive resources - especially in human capital - steamroll the opposition in terms of resident contact.

Mr Murali saved precious minutes by having at his disposal activists who could run ahead to knock on doors, to find who was home.

The move to let Mr Murali focus on resident concerns, while others in the party took the role of criticising his opponent, may also leave some wondering if he will live up to his promise to be a notable presence in Parliament.

But for the moment, buoyed by a skilful campaign, he gets the opportunity to do so.

4. The race factor now diluted?
By Lim Yan Liang, The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

News in March that the People's Action Party (PAP) would field an Indian candidate in Mr Murali Pillai momentarily set the coffee shops abuzz in normally sleepy Bukit Batok.

Coming a day after the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) announced party chief Chee Soon Juan as its candidate, many voters wondered: What is the PAP thinking?

After all, Bukit Batok has known only Chinese MPs since the seat was formed in 1972. Party activists felt that former MP David Ong had a slight edge in votes in GE2015 because he had faced the SDP's Mr Sadasivam Veriyah, an Indian candidate. Now, not only was that edge erased, but also Mr Murali faced the same issue. And yet, the by-election resulted in a convincing 61.2 per cent vote share for Mr Murali.

So is a candidate's race less significant to voters now than in the past?


To some long-time residents of Bukit Batok, the prospect that their MP could be non-Chinese was disconcerting. One resident who wanted to be known only as Mr Koh, 86, felt that fielding a minority-race candidate would inevitably lose the PAP some votes, even though it had done a good job maintaining the estate. "The majority of us in Bukit Batok are Chinese, so of course it will influence some decisions," he said.

Even as the PAP sought to downplay the race factor, the campaigns showed both parties were attuned to its importance.

Mr Murali, who contested last year's general election in Aljunied GRC as K. Muralidharan Pillai, introduced himself as Murali Pillai this time, and as "Ah Mu" to residents.

A similar campaign to show that language - and, implicitly, race too - would be no barrier between Mr Murali and Bukit Batok residents was seen on social media.

One of Mr Murali's most popular online postings was a video of him speaking Mandarin to residents and introducing himself in Mandarin to the camera. At the same time, a video clip of Dr Chee singing the Hokkien classic "Ji Pa Ban" (one million dollars) made its rounds, as did two video testimonials where Chinese intellectuals expressed support for him.

In essence, race was very much a "silent presence" during the race, said National University of Singapore (NUS) sociologist Tan Ern Ser. "It's silent because it cannot be openly used to garner support, and present, because it cannot be ignored."

Former NMP Zulkifli Baharudin noted that Dr Chee made the effort to speak in Hokkien and Mandarin at his rallies. "It's not just about race but also about language, and Dr Chee wanted to show that he can make a connection with the heartland Chinese resident," he said.

Singapore Management University law don Eugene Tan agreed: "Both candidates recognised that ethnic Chinese voters are the dominant group. You could see that they tried to reach out, tried to persuade voters that they could be counted on to understand their concerns."


As it turned out, voters handed Mr Murali one-and-and-half-times the number of votes they gave Dr Chee, a victory wide enough to nullify the comparatively small effect of race.

NUS' Dr Tan said while race may matter, it was very much eclipsed by other factors such as each party's brand and track record.

Analysts also said Mr Murali had prevailed because of other factors such as his likeability, his professional reputation as a high-flying lawyer, and his record of having served Bukit Batok for 16 years.

"The fact that the minority candidate won convincingly in a constituency where the racial profile mirrors Singapore society is actually a tremendous testimony to Singaporean voters' discernment and ability to assess a candidate more on merit than on his skin colour," said SMU's Associate Professor Tan.

This is not to say that race, as a factor, no longer matters. Some of Mr Murali's critics online charged that he had "sinicised" himself to win. Pointing to the Mandarin clips and how he simplified his name, they said "Ah Mu" made himself seem more Chinese to boost his appeal to Chinese voters.

But analysts disagreed, noting the distinction between broadening a candidate's appeal and playing the race card.

An SMC contest also differs from a GRC one, where multiracialism is self-evident in a diverse slate.

"The key message both candidates wanted to get across was that they would be the best person to represent residents' interest in Parliament," said Mr Zulkifli.


Some quarters, like former Singapore People's Party (SPP) candidate Ravi Philemon, argue that Mr Murali's decisive victory refutes the idea that GRCs are needed to ensure adequate minority representation.

Former presidential candidate Tan Cheng Bock noted GRCs were put in place to address concerns that minorities may not be represented, and said: "This victory by Murali has put paid to this fear and should pave the way for the removal of any race-based politics in future."

However, others argue that the way Mr Murali's campaign was run in fact showed the continued necessity of GRCs. Said NUS' Dr Tan: "The GRC system, in principle, is consistent with our multiracial society. It prevents race from becoming a factor."

Most analysts are, however, confident that Mr Murali's win does represent a broader trend.

"You can't conclude that we are completely colour-blind, but this election was clearly not a test of a Chinese candidate versus an Indian candidate," said Mr Zulkifli.

"It shows that multiracialism is a value that has become a deep part of our lives, something that we have accepted and ingrained."

5. 'Ground game' evolving
By Pearl Lee, The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

During the Bukit Batok by-election campaign, when the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate Murali Pillai said he would implement a $1.9 million infrastructure plan should he win, some were quick to point out that his upgrading promise seemed conditional.

Mr Murali's rival, Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, said it was similar to the PAP's strategy in the past of using lift upgrading to win votes.

Opposition MPs weighed in, too. Non-Constituency MP Leon Perera of the Workers' Party said in a Facebook post that Mr Murali's announcement "recalls the painful memory of the votes for HDB upgrading message in the 1997 General Election", and questioned if such a campaign message was necessary.

But Mr Murali was quick to distance himself from the carrot-and-stick approach, explaining to the media that the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme he had talked about was "funding-neutral". This meant the funds would be disbursed to whichever MP was running the town council, and were not dependent on the PAP winning the by-election.

It indicated that the tactic the PAP had unabashedly used up till the mid-2000s to woo voters - by dangling upgrading goodies and delivering them only if the PAP MP was elected - would no longer work now, some analysts say.

Former Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, who managed two town councils in the 1990s, says: "It is a matter of fact that when you have a PAP Government, the PAP town councils are better placed to acquire grants from the Government, although of course there are other criteria. But that is the advantage of being the incumbent."

But the PAP Government knows it has to be fair to all constituencies, including opposition-held ones, as the electorate matures.

"Increasingly, voters want to see more fair play in our political contests and will scrutinise more closely the PAP's value of fairness," he adds.

Singapore Management University (SMU) law academic Eugene Tan says the ruling party's upgrading message would likely hurt its campaign if done in an opposition-held constituency.

But the message had no significant impact in Bukit Batok as the seat had been under the PAP since it came into existence in 1972. "Residents have come to expect value and continuity from the PAP, and upgrading is an integral part of its track record and value creation," he says.

Indeed, pavilions, parks, fitness corners and covered walkways linking several blocks are a common sight in the constituency. All eligible blocks have had their lifts upgraded to stop on every level.

Residents' gripes about the estate were mainly minor, or unwarranted in some cases. Take housewife Kylie Wu, 51, who had said: "I hope they will build enough covered linkways such that, on a rainy day, I don't need to use an umbrella when I go out."

But as it is, there is a sheltered walkway near her block leading to a coffee shop and stores two blocks away. If Madam Wu wants to get to the market and the bus stop, she need only open her brolly once to cross a road.

Dr Gillian Koh, deputy director of research at the Institute of Policy Studies, says upgrading, estate renewal plans and town council management come under the issue of liveability, though some residents may also view estate issues as having an impact on the value of their housing assets.

She explains: "In the HDB heartland, especially a place like Bukit Batok, the 'liveability' issue is very much affected by the quality of the town council and what the state can offer to improve the estate.

"This is different from constituencies with more condominiums and private housing estates."

She adds that both by-election candidates had identified estate management as a key issue as they sought to convince voters of their value to the estate. Dr Chee had tried to assure residents the SDP was prepared to take over the town council from the PAP, and was confident of running it well. Even before the Writ of Election was issued, the party had put together a four-man team ready to help with transition issues should he win.

But Mr Murali, with the incumbency advantage of having grassroots leaders who were strong on the ground and knew what enhancements were wanted, had announced fresh neighbourhood renewal plans, says Dr Koh.

When the upgrading tussle erupted, "the PAP team clarified that... these were plans it had come up with and any other party can come up with its own plans and go through the same process (of implementing them)", says Dr Koh.

Still, SMU's Associate Professor Tan points out that highlighting town council management is strategic. "It (the PAP) has been emphasising to residents that it is a party that can be trusted: It promises and delivers," he says. "It is indirectly reminding voters that the opposition party can promise the sky, but can it deliver?"

For now, the SDP needs to gain trust on the ground, says Dr Koh, adding:"The ground game matters. Politics is local and if you can grab enough trust and credibility, voters give you the mandate to speak at the national level in Parliament."

As 42-year-old Bukit Batok resident Christopher Tong puts it: "Everything in this estate has been going well so far. The area is clean and any issues are resolved quickly. So I don't see a need to change anything at all."

PAP’s takeaways from the Bukit Batok by-election victory
In this commentary, Chan Chun Sing, an organising secretary of the PAP, provides the ruling party's assessment of why it managed to win the Bukit Batok by-election.
By Chan Chun Sing, Published The Sunday Times, 15 May 2016

Every by-election is difficult for the ruling party. A look back at our history will prove this: The People's Action Party (PAP) has never won a single-seat by-election since 1979.

For example, the PAP lost the 1981 Anson by-election after a 35 percentage point vote swing from just the year before. So we knew Bukit Batok was going to be a hard fight.

Furthermore, the PAP entered this race with some critical disadvantages.

First, there is the so-called "by-election effect", with voters being more willing to vote for the opposition because there is no risk of a change of government.

The by-election effect can cost the ruling party anywhere from 12 per cent to 35 per cent of the vote.

In this case, the by-election effect was compounded by the fact that the by-election itself was the direct result of a PAP MP's personal mistake.

Also, the candidate the PAP fielded, Mr Murali Pillai, a minority, was up against a "full-time politician" with a high national profile and slickly packaged as the persecuted underdog.

Hence, many expected a "reversion to the norm" after the PAP's stronger-than-expected GE 2015 result.

With all these odds stacked against the PAP, we are naturally happy that Mr Murali won the election. Yet, despite the fact that this was the PAP's first victory in a single-seat by-election in 37 years, the party should not be exuberant.

It should study the result to understand what matters to our citizens and how we can serve them better.


The fact that the PAP managed to win back Bukit Batok despite Mr David Ong's personal mistake reflects that track record and hard work matter. Residents remembered the years of hard work put in by Mr Ong and the Jurong team. As a result, they were prepared to give their trust to Mr Murali, a PAP activist who has served quietly and diligently in the constituency for 16 years.

And as a result of the Jurong team, the party was able to demonstrate continuity of leadership despite the change in MP.

Conversely, the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP's) relative inexperience in managing a town council - and possibly, their weak record when they did manage neighbouring Bukit Gombak Town Council - would not have gone unnoticed. Our citizens are discerning, and will not vote for just anyone who comes along and makes promises.

Second, policies matter. A key thrust of the SDP's campaign was their policies, which they presented as original and better than the Government's. In actuality, they are recycled policies that had not worked elsewhere.

Furthermore, it became clear to Bukit Batok voters that SDP was not transparent in its policy presentation: It advertised the benefits of the policies but neglected to explain their costs and possible side effects. Selling a policy without being honest about its trade-offs is not respectful of the electorate's discernment. SDP must better appreciate that the Singaporean voter is rational and pragmatic.

Finally, motives matter: Singaporeans want leaders who will put them and their well-being first.

The outcome of the Bukit Batok race confirmed that Singaporean voters do not take kindly to being treated as stepping stones in someone's political journey.

On national issues, residents were able to see through the SDP's politics of alarm, division and populism. To divide rather than unite is not the brand of leadership that Singaporeans want.

But even as the PAP learns from the SDP's shortcomings, it is worth examining how the SDP conducted its campaign. Though it lost, I personally think it would be unwise of the PAP to underestimate the progress the SDP has made.

The SDP was able to gain national attention during the campaign. It showed its ability to profile itself in ways that might appeal to a new generation of voters who may be less familiar and more forgiving of Dr Chee's past.

The SDP's use of emotional appeals, its social media presence and Western-style rhetoric bear watching. These tactics did not work this time, but they may in the future.


But at the end of the day, Singaporeans should be heartened that no one gets into Parliament without his character, track record and policy positions being scrutinised.

The by-election made it clear that Singaporeans examine closely both the parties and candidates that offer themselves to the electorate.

Those who serve by putting Singapore and Singaporeans ahead of their personal interests will win the vote of Singaporeans.

The author, an Organising Secretary of the PAP, is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and NTUC Secretary-General.

SDP's Dr Chee Soon Juan spent more than PAP's Murali in Bukit Batok by-election
SDP outspent PAP by $5k on campaign
Expenses by poll winner Murali and Dr Chee within legal limit, Elections Dept data shows
By Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 16 Jun 2016

The two candidates who contested the Bukit Batok by-election spent a total of $169,291 on election expenses, with Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan spending more than Mr Murali Pillai of the People's Action Party.

Dr Chee spent $3.39 per voter, while Mr Murali, who won the polls, spent $3.19 per voter.

In all, Dr Chee's expenses reached $87,200.

His biggest expenditure - at least $38,280, or almost 45 per cent - went to printing and distributing traditional campaign materials such as posters and newsletters, according to receipts submitted to the Elections Department, which made them available for public inspection for six months, starting yesterday.

Another big-ticket item was the holding of four rallies: They cost at least $33,673.

These two items made up about 85 per cent of his total expenditure.

Mr Murali's bills came up to $82,091.

Like Dr Chee, his rally logistics and campaign materials formed a huge part of his total cost.

The two rallies he held cost $28,590, while his expenses on traditional campaign materials added up to $27,331.

The May 7 by-election, triggered by the resignation of MP David Ong in March, was won by Mr Murali with 61.23 per cent of the votes against Dr Chee's 38.77 per cent.

During the campaign, Mr Murali hired local production company Freeflow Productions to film and edit three videos, including one that had him speaking in Mandarin and asking residents to call him "Ah Mu". This cost him $9,630.

The SDP spent $3,852 on postage for 10,793 letters. It also paid engineering company Multi Wall Engineering $14,659 to distribute 28,000 fliers and deliver equipment to rally sites.

In contrast, social media expenses were much lower.

Dr Chee, who had said at last year's general election that social media helped change people's perception of him, spent $646 on Facebook advertising against Mr Murali's $317.

Dr Chee also dished out more than half of what Mr Murali spent on food for his activists and volunteers: $5,369 versus $2,356.

Dr Chee's bill, however, included a $2,354 thank-you dinner for 100 volunteers after the by-election.

A PAP spokesman said Mr Murali had a volunteer who cooked many of the meals.

A three-page-long grocery bill amounting to $454 showed such items as 50kg of rice and six cans of luncheon meat. In between, receipts showed that his volunteers enjoyed McDonald's nuggets and Old Chang Kee curry puffs.

Both candidates' bills for the by- election were within the $102,908 legal limit, or $4 for each of the 25,727 registered Bukit Batok voters.

The law requires candidates to submit their election expenses to the Elections Department after the polls.

Besides election expenses, the candidates also had to declare the donations they received.

Mr Murali said he received $82,091 from the PAP headquarters, a sum that covered all his election expenses. Dr Chee said he did not receive any donation.

Bukit Batok By-Election Highlights

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