Governance of a City-State
[The Angle] Bukit Batok by-Election: What could Shape the Campaign?

Dr Chee Soon Juan, the Secretary-General of the Singapore Democratic Party and a leading opposition politician, has declared that he will contest the Bukit Batok by-election on 7 May. Based on what he has said, his campaign will likely revolve around a few themes.

First, the need for more opposition voices in Parliament. Second, convincing voters that putting him in Parliament as an opposition voice will not be at the expense of the quality of town council management. Third, his proposed policies to support low-and middle-income Singaporeans in this period of economic uncertainty and what more the government must do to serve the people better.

Dr Chee’s tagline is “Now is the Time”. He will certainly be judged by whether he can finally lead the SDP back into Parliament. The last time the SDP had MPs in the House was after the 1991 General Election (GE). Chiam See Tong left the party after Parliament was dissolved, before the 1997 General Election (GE), and Ling How Doong and Cheo Chai Chen were unable to hold their seats in Bukit Gombak and Nee Soon Central in that election.

What about the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) campaign? Bukit Batok is a PAP stronghold and its candidate Murali Pillai served there at the grassroots level for 16 years. He is likely to highlight, first, his close understanding of the community there and his track record of service; second, the policies of the PAP government that have supported the type of voters who live in Bukit Batok, demonstrating a continuation of its priorities; and third, the development plans in terms of infrastructure and jobs that the governing party has in store for the whole region. I think the PAP will appeal to the idea of building on a strong foundation for a brighter future.

The ground game is what the PAP will be focused on. The SDP’s strength is in its alternative policies and being an opposition voice at the national platform. This is why Dr Chee has taken so much time to improve his ground game in order to cover all the bases so to speak, for the showdown on 7 May. Dr Chee has also announced the members of his team for running the town council, anticipating that this might be of concern to voters.

I would be interested to see the extent to which Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who leads neighbouring Jurong GRC, will be there to stump for Mr Murali for the high-level endorsement, and perhaps our first female Minister with a portfolio, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, from Yuhua SMC and Rahayu Mahzam to add the multiracial facet to the contest from the PAP bench. Low Yen Ling from Chua Chu Kang GRC has already been seen walking the ground with her compatriot.

In any by-election, the opposition has a natural advantage. In this case, the PAP has a strong candidate because he is someone who should be familiar to the ground. He is however up against someone who people identify as a leader in the opposition movement; someone voters recognise clearly as the political “underdog”.

It makes it a slightly more even match than say the by-election in Punggol East in January 2013. Then, the opposition member, Lee Li Lian, had done fairly well for the Workers’ Party in the preceding general election (41% in the 2011 GE against the PAP’s Michael Palmer who took the seat with 55%), and was up against a PAP candidate who was a fresh face. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the Secretary-General of the PAP, said after the election that voters did not have enough time to warm up to Dr Koh Poh Koon in that by-election.

While we should leave room for fresh developments and new campaign themes to emerge between now and the closing of the poll on 7 May, what sort of political significance will the possible outcome have?

If the PAP retains Bukit Batok, it will suggest that it is not always the case that the ruling party will lose a seat in a by-election; and also that a minority candidate can do the job if he has a proven track record.

If the SDP wins the seat, then it would suggest that a combination of the by-election effect, the party fielding its leader and the fact that the opposition parties stepped back to allow for a straight fight against the PAP, worked well. We return to the pre-GE2015 situation of having two opposition parties represented in Parliament. It would make up for the fact that Chiam’s splinter from SDP, the Singapore People’s Party, was not able to prevail in Potong Pasir SMC last September.

The David Ong resignation that precipitated the by-election will have been an unexpected gift to the opposition movement in Singapore.

Dr Gillian Koh is Deputy Director (Research) at the IPS, where she leads the work of the Politics and Governance research cluster.

Top photo from People’s Action Party Facebook and Singapore Democratic Party Facebook.

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