Bukit Batok polls: The aftermath

4. The race factor now diluted?

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?

A FACTOR IN THE CAMPAIGN

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."

BUT AT THE BALLOT BOX...

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.

GRCs STILL RELEVANT?

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."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline '4. The race factor now diluted? '. Print Edition | Subscribe