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COMMENT: The real winners and losers of Bukit Batok

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SDP chief Chee Soon Juan and his wife Huang Chih-Mei standing before party supporters at Bukit Gombak Stadium following the release of the Bukit Batok by-election results. (Photo: Joseph Nair)

How I misunderstood the Bukit Batok voter. With 95.7 per cent of the residents there living in HDB flats, I calculated that their single priority was to make sure their families have a good life.

How wrong I was. Nearly 39 per cent of the voters chose principle over politics and gave their support to the Singapore Democratic Party’s (SDP) Chee Soon Juan, a margin of victory this young, brash and firebrand politician had not experienced since he broke onto the national horizon in 1992.

Only in Singapore would such a result be seen as a big deal. With a ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) buoyant over a General Election swing in its favour just eight months ago, and one that wields power in nearly every aspect of our lives, its Bukit Batok performance is not something to crow about.

The post-poll press conferences by the two candidates spoke volumes. The PAP’s point man, Murali Pillai, appeared nervous. By contrast, Chee was happy – maybe even relieved.

Fiery campaigns

The campaigning started on a blistering note with none other than the PM showing off his vocabulary power and attacking Chee’s character.

“Completely hypocritical”, “duplicitous” and “almost beatific” were among the terms used.

It was the last phrase – “almost beatific” – that was packed with political poison. Lee Hsien Loong used it to describe the almost saint-like behaviour of Chee when he allowed his rally speakers to attack the scandal-tarred former PAP MP David Ong but then made it a point to say his style was not to kick a man when he was down.

The PM had a point, but the withering attack – coupled with the fact that the PAP candidate became a sideshow as other PAP leaders joined their leader on his warpath – could have been the defining moment that made the difference between a decisive victory and a shaky one.

For a couple of days, the PM’s attack seemed to work. Dr Chee was put on the defensive. He tried to respond and lost sight of his plot to tell voters that Murali’s ploy of dangling the upgrading carrot was hogwash.

He got down to doing that later in the campaign when he turned the tables on his opponents by saying that it is not the political party but the government – meaning the National Development Ministry – that will dish out the money.

That should have been the central theme of his election strategy. But, a bit of the old Chee was exposed as he strayed to talk about government accountability in Parliament and those jobless statistics that did not stand up to scrutiny.

Other than that, Chee fought a focused campaign, trying to stay as much as possible away from the character missiles thrown at him, getting his message across in social media and pounding the ground, some days being at his hunting ground even at daybreak.

It is Murali who will have to do a lot of work in the next five years. His presence and voice were nearly non-existent as PAP man after PAP man, woman after woman, took the centre stage to demonise Chee. Murali will now have to show Bukit Batok residents in particular and Singaporeans in general that he is his own man.

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The PAP’s Murali Pillai, who won the by-election, will have to work hard to prove that he is his own man over the next five years. (Photo: Safhras Khan)

A step back for the PAP

The PM’s intention to demolish and destroy Chee failed as it reopened the wounds of the LKY era when J.B. Jeyaretnam, Tan Liang Hong and Francis Seow were hounded out of the political scene.

Lee Hsien Loong took a leaf out of his father’s book and wanted to dictate the rules on who should enter Parliament. It worked somewhat, but the killer blow never came and Chee lives on to fight another day.

This by-election has pushed the halo effect that LKY left behind after his death and the chest-thumping 50th anniversary joy into the background.

The PAP has stepped back to when it was given a shock in 2011: A dip in vote share to just above 60 per cent and voters who do not tolerate vicious political attacks. They seemed to be saying: “Show some class in your attacks. Lay out the facts and I am old enough to make up my mind on a politician’s character.”

Yesterday’s vote was for this group of Singaporeans. They were the real winners of Bukit Batok by-election 2016.

P N Balji is a veteran Singaporean journalist who is the former chief editor of TODAY newspaper, and a media consultant. The views expressed are his own.

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