Bukit Batok polls: The aftermath

3. PAP's winning strategy

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.

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.

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 (see separate story).

THE PERSONAL TOUCH

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".

BIG GUNS TAKE AIM

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.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline '3. PAP's winning strategy '. Print Edition | Subscribe