Not many were surprised when People’s Action Party (PAP)’s Murali Pillai won the Bukit Batok by-election with 61.2 per cent of the vote over Singapore Democratic Party (SDP)’s Chee Soon Juan’s 38.8 per cent.
During the 9-day long campaign (felt more like 9 years, really), Chee put on a valiant fight and won many hearts with his “I am a changed man with an unchanged resolve to serve” narrative.
But just like the SDP Sec-Gen’s resolve, many things remain unchanged since the last election — PAP’s previous resounding victory of over 70 per cent in Bukit Batok, the town’s demographics, and the party’s hardline strategy to continually question his character when up against him — that will always tip the balance against Chee.
As for Murali, unlike his failed bid in Aljunied, he was pretty much guaranteed a win in Bukit Batok — with everything he said or done in the past two weeks being more or less the cherries on top. After all, Murali began with several important advantages over Chee.
Below are three of the most important reasons why we think Murali was just too OP (over-powered) for Chee even from the very beginning:
1) Murali’s 16 years in Bukit Batok, which he used to his advantage
Before Murali was transferred to Paya Lebar as an Aljunied GRC candidate, he was the Branch Secretary in Bukit Batok from 1988 to 2008; and that, was exactly his main selling point for this by-election.
This helped to dispel the idea that the PAP was fielding an inexperienced outsider — learning from the last by-election in Punggol East, where Koh Poh Koon was still an unknown there despite the “Son of Punggol East” image he tried to present.
The PAP obviously compared this to Chee’s arguably short time in Bukit Batok. It did not help that SDP was visibly absent when Bukit Batok was part of a group representative constituency (GRC).
Bukit Batok SMC — which existed from 1972 to 1997, was merged into Bukit Timah GRC, which saw a walkover; Bukit Timah GRC was then renamed to Jurong GRC in 2001, and it saw SDP’s Chee lead a team against Minister Lim Boon Heng and DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam. But afterwards, due to Chee’s exile into the political wilderness, the area saw a walkover in 2006, then a contest by the National Solidarity Party (NSP) in 2011.
Moreover, as Chee befitting of his status as the Sec-Gen of a party, probably felt that he had to focus not just on municipal issues but also national ones sometimes causing him to seem all over the place during this election like the confusion regarding the Neighbourhood Renewal Programmes (NRPs).
This was an opportunity the PAP seized to attack the SDP for “begrudging” that it had already done its consultations with the residents, forcing the SDP to change tactic by promising that it will continue the infrastructural plans the URA and HDB already has for the ward.
This was part of the PAP’s strategy to make Murali the option for certainty, as he would be able to start work immediately, without a need for a transition team, and also that residents will be able to enjoy the better resources of the larger Jurong-Clementi Town Council.
2) The humble, endearing narrative versus the brave, unrelenting attitude
Murali’s activists fronted the press conference alongside him yesterday — a tactic first used by Tin Pei Ling when she announced her candidacy for MacPherson SMC last year.
He was, through and through, the epitome of the humble and endearing that he portrays himself to be, till the very end. Murali’s election posters, too, showed that image:
Compare that with Chee’s brave and unrelenting attitude — something which has been consistently portrayed through his social media:
This is expected because Chee must show the fire in him so that Singaporeans will believe him to have the gusto and courage to the alternative voice in Parliament.
His romantic narrative — Chee, despite everything, in spite of himself, beaten down and exiled, bankrupted and humiliated, but now rehabilitated and back a new man with his commitment to serve ever undying — would definitely have cemented his return into political prominence if not for one major flaw.
He chose to communicate mainly through social media — something that might not be accessible to many of the residents as Bukit Batok is a town where more than 30 per cent of people who live there are above 50 years old.
And even though SDP began unofficial campaigning nearly immediately after David Ong resigned, the PAP’s early hustings (it began unofficial campaigning approximately nine days after SDP began theirs) stripped them of their advantage in Bukit Batok as it did not give SDP enough time to plan against the PAP’s unrelenting repetition to the media that Chee remains “unrepentant”.
According to him, the Chinese tabloids spun his interview; hence, he pleaded with his supporters to not trust what the mainstream media says. Ironically, by continually to emphasize the point to boycott the mainstream media, he drew a lot of attention to what the tabloids had to say.
Unfortunately, for Chee, the different narrative that the PAP highlighted — meant to take his rise down a notch — inevitably stuck with some Bukit Batok residents, considering the fact that 30 per cent of voters were over 50 years of age.
3) Murali’s overwhelming support from almost every established political figure in Singapore
At the PAP side’s post-election press conference on Saturday night, we had a few familiar faces cheering him on from among the media scrum:
Now, Murali is probably one of the mildest candidates the ruling party has ever fielded in a by-election. Compared to “I-have-two-cars” Koh Poh Koon — PAP’s choice for the last by-election in Punggol East — Murali seems much more even-tempered and reserved.
And compared to “now-is-the-time” Chee, you could almost call him meek.
Murali would’ve probably been overshadowed if not for his (excessively) numerous supporters from his party who were every bit just as forceful as his opponent.
Many voiced their support at his rallies, endorsing him and while not forgetting to help lay the smackdown on Chee:
1. Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Deputy Prime Minister and 2nd Assistant Secretary-General of the PAP
2. Chan Chun Sing, Minister in Prime Minister’s Office (Secretary-General of NTUC) and Party Whip of the PAP
3. Grace Fu, Minister of Culture, Community and Youth and member of PAP’s CEC
4. Halimah Yacob, Speaker of Parliament and member of PAP’s CEC
5. Low Yen Ling, Parliamentary Secretary for Ministry of Social and Family Development and Mayor of Southwest District
6. Rahayu Mahzam, MP for Jurong GRC
Others gave their high opinion of him — and of course, lack thereof for Chee — during walkabouts:
7. Lee Hsien Loong, Prime Minister and Secretary-General of the PAP
8. Desmond Lee, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development, and MP for Jurong GRC
9. Ang Wei Ning, MP for Jurong GRC
10. Tan Wu Meng, MP for Jurong GRC
11. Alex Yam, MP for Choa Chu Kang GRC
12. Lim Boon Heng, former Minister and former PAP Chairman
This already long list is not including those who spoke against Chee on the record:
13. Goh Chok Tong, Emeritus Senior Minister
14. K. Shanmugam, Minister for Home Affairs and Law and Assistant Treasurer of the PAP
15. Tan Chuan-Jin, Minister for Social and Family Development
In total, a resounding 15 members from the ruling party supported Murali, with many criticising Chee, which meant Murali did not have to.
This made his squeaky-clean persona even more convincing because he can be seen as not being involved in the “gutter politics” (quotation marks because we are talking about the Singaporeans’ definition and not Longman’s).
In comparison, except for Paul Tambyah, who rose to prominence in the last election, Chee was backed mostly by unknowns. That is why no matter how compelling their speeches were during the rallies, they unfortunately were not interesting enough for Singaporeans to take notice.
It would’ve definitely helped his bid if Chee could secure an endorsement (and forgiveness) from his one-time mentor Chiam See Tong or the Workers’ Party — the opposition party with the most influence — but alas, it was not to be, which made this pretty much a one vs 14 fight.
What’s next for Ah Mu?
1) Political office?
During the last by-election, one reason Koh was fielded is because PM Lee had plans to appoint him to a suitable political office when he was ready. In the end, Koh lost, but when he
sailed through on PM Lee’s coattails passed the polls with Ang Mo Kio GRC during last year’s GE, he was appointed as Minister of State for the Ministry of National Development and Ministry of Trade and Industry shortly after.
Could this also be a reason why Murali was fielded?
Of course, it helped that Murali won with a rather large margin despite the “by-election effect”, making his bid for political office — should one so exist — more convincing.
2) He’s certainly going to face Chee again — but he will have to do it alone
When addressing the media after the results were released, Chee promised to contest for Bukit Batok again in the next election.
And if that happens, Murali will most likely have to go up against him alone with only the backing of the Jurong family as the other candidates will be too busy campaigning for their own constituencies to travel all the way (some from as far as Tanjong Pagar) down to Bukit Batok.
That said, the Jurong family does include this guy:
Given that Chee managed to achieve an impressive swing of 13 per cent in his favour, the road ahead for Murali isn’t going to be the smoothest sailing. If the conditions are right for another “new normal” come the next GE, Chee might just heighten his chances of winning Bukit Batok.
What’s more, like we mentioned, Chee’s rehabilitation arc is mostly communicated online — the world of the young.
This means that many of his would-be supporters might not be of age on May 7. Come the next election, Chee might successfully gain the support of new voters during the next round — if, of course, he diligently builds and communicates Chee 2.0.
Top photo by Lim Weixiang for Mothership.sg