Bukit Batok by-election: 7 issues that stood out

Bukit Batok by-election candidates Murali Pillai (left) and Chee Soon Juan speaking at rallies.
Bukit Batok by-election candidates Murali Pillai (left) and Chee Soon Juan speaking at rallies.ST PHOTOS: KEVIN LIM
We analyse the results of the Bukit Batok by-election as the PAP's Murali Pillai beat the SDP's Chee Soon Juan by 61.2 per cent to 38.8 per cent.

SINGAPORE - Character, race and whether an MP should serve full-time were some of the hot button issues at the Bukit Batok by-election. 

Here are seven issues that stood out in the contest between the People's Action Party's Murali Pillai and the Singapore Democratic Party's Chee Soon Juan.  

1. Character (or lack of)


Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised questions about Dr Chee Soon Juan's character during a walkabout in Bukit Batok on April 30, 2016. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Dr Chee's character - and whether or not he has "changed" - became arguably the hottest topic of the by-election, after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's criticism of the SDP chief on April 30. 

During his walkabout in the ward, Mr Lee branded Dr Chee as "hypocritical" for allowing earlier speakers at an SDP rally to criticise former PAP MP David Ong - he quit because of a "personal indiscretion" - before appearing on stage to say it was not right to beat a man while he was down. "But unfortunately, it's in character," Mr Lee added.  

 
 

In response, the SDP issued a statement through central executive committee member Paul Tambyah saying that the SDP believed in the "need to debate the issues, not engage in character assassination". He also said "a person is not defined by his or her own actions or words". 

Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat then responded to say that SDP's argument that a person is not defined by his actions or words was "one of the most astounding statements ever made in the history of Singapore politics". 

Following this, Dr Chee said at a rally that the character of an election candidate is important and something voters should be concerned with, but voters can see this for themselves. "Character is what people see in you, not what you tell people you have or you don't have," he said.

The character question also popped up during a guest appearance by veteran actress Neo Swee Lin at an SDP rally later, where she read a petition calling for an end to "gutter politics" and for the personal attacks on Dr Chee to stop.  

But then came an almost bizarre twist - an online report emerged saying that "a Dr Lee Wei Ling" had signed the petition Ms Neo mentioned. Dr Lee, the sister of PM Lee, then came out to say that she did not sign the petition and in fact has "a very poor opinion of Dr Chee" and did not think he was fit to be in Parliament. "The man has not changed at all, though he is now posing as a changed man, using his family," she said in her post. "I will never support such a person."

2. Full-time MP - to be or not to be?


Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu highlighted how Dr Chee had not held a steady job for many years on April 29, 2016.  ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Dr Chee had made it abundantly clear that Bukit Batok residents would get a full-time MP if he were elected, and had promised to hold more than one Meet-the-People session per week. 

 

In a dig at Mr Murali's remarks that he could put his residents first while continuing to practise law, Dr Chee pledged to be at the service of residents at any time of the day - and not manage the town council "by remote control from Shenton Way". 

"Mr Murali's choice of not committing himself full-time to Bukit Batok... does reflect what is closest to his heart. Me? There is no question, my heart is here full-time in Bukit Batok," he added. 

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu also waded into the debate at the PAP's first rally on April 29, when she highlighted how Dr Chee had not held a steady job for many years. "...That is his personal choice. But the work experience, or the lack of it, is a relevant fact when we consider the credentials of the candidate," she said.

3. Call me Ah Mu 


Mr Murali had admitted the problem of a language barrier and adopted the nickname "Ah Mu". ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

As only the second minority candidate that the PAP has fielded in a single seat in recent years, Mr Murali had admitted the problem of a language barrier and adopted the nickname "Ah Mu" early on in an effort to connect better with Chinese residents. 

 

PM Lee eventually addressed the issue of race during his walkabout, noting there were some openly racially tinged comments online, and of remarks circulating within the constituency where people said: "Just vote for the Chinese; that's good."

He also pointed out that comments on race on Dr Chee's Facebook page had not been refuted or taken down, and suggested the SDP could be using race to its advantage. 

Dr Chee's reply? That the PAP "should stop playing politics". He said: "If the PAP wants to talk about racism, I refer you back to some of the comments the PAP leaders have made about the Malays - that's absolutely appalling."

4. Upgrading - who's in charge of what?


Mr Murali unveiled an upgrading plan to build covered walkways and a park for a neighbourhood in Bukit Batok. ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Mr Murali, who began his campaign by unveiling $1.9 million worth of infrastructure plans - under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP) - to build covered walkways and a park for a neighbourhood in Bukit Batok, had pledged to see the plans through if he was elected. 

"We will have the mandate to carry on only if we are returned at the by-election. If we don't have the mandate, then we won't have the ability to carry on because we will not form the Town Council. That's the rule," he had said in response to questions from the media. 

His words sparked a flurry of statements, first from the SDP which suggested that what he said had been unethical and could be in breach of the law. In response, the PAP said the SDP's statement had been misconceived and its speculation absurd. 

The sparring spilled over on Nomination Day, which saw Dr Chee criticising his rival's upgrading promises as a "knee-jerk reaction every time an election comes". This prompted the PAP to again issue a rebuttal and correct Dr Chee's understanding of the role a Town Council plays in estate upgrading. 

5. Bukit Batok's voice in Parliament


Dr Chee said at the SDP's final rally on May 5, 2016: "Why would you want to elect someone to represent you in Parliament when you already have 82 PAP MPs to say the same thing and vote the same way in Parliament?" ST PHOTO: MARK CHEONG

The PAP already has 82 MPs in Parliament - would another one make any difference? This rationale has been one of Dr Chee's main weapons in stating his case for entry into Parliament. 

Punctuating his campaign with constant promises to be an effective voice and to ask the hard questions of the Government, he memorably said at the SDP's final rally on Thursday: "Why would you want to elect someone to represent you in Parliament when you already have 82 PAP MPs to say the same thing and vote the same way in Parliament?"

Mr Murali, however, had vowed not to be muzzled in response to Dr Chee's criticism. He added that he would push to tighten the criteria for employment passes and get higher ElderShield payouts for the disabled, among others, in Parliament. 

6. Retrenchment insurance


Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Dr Chee only highlighted the benefits of retrenchment insurance while glossing over the costs. ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Helping retrenched residents get back on their feet was a key focus of both candidates. While Mr Murali's plan was for a job placement programme to match retrenched workers to potential jobs, Dr Chee has been vocal in his call for retrenchment insurance

 

How Dr Chee's proposed system works: workers pay a fee to be included in the system, and if retrenched, they get 75 per cent of their last drawn salary for the first six months. The amount is lowered to 50 per cent for the next six months, and 25 per cent the six months after. 

His proposal drew a response from PM Lee in his May Day rally speech, who said Singapore had something better than retrenchment insurance - it has schemes to help workers find jobs that are paid for not by workers or employers, but by the Government.

Noting that the worker has to pay out of his salary for the insurance, he added: "And then when he gets unemployed, you are subsidising him, helping him to stay unemployed while he looks for a job."

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, speaking at the PAP's final rally on Thursday, acknowledged it was not a crazy idea and may have to be considered if there was high long-term unemployment, but said Dr Chee had only highlighted its benefits while glossing over the costs it would incur, adding: "Lay out the benefits, lay out the costs, be honest about it. Don't bluff people."

7. Contrasting track records 


Posters of the candidates being put up along a street in Bukit Batok on Nomination Day. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Despite Mr Murali contesting in Aljunied GRC at last year's general election, much has been made of his 16 years worth of grassroots experience in Bukit Batok, where he also served as the PAP's branch secretary in the ward from 2007 to 2011. 

The PAP sought to present Mr Murali as a familiar face returning to his roots to dispel any criticism that he been "parachuted" into the contest. 

Dr Chee, on his fifth attempt to enter Parliament, was also contesting his fifth constituency, a point noted by DPM Tharman during Thursday's rally. 

After his maiden election contest at the 1992 Marine Parade by-election, Dr Chee stood in  MacPherson SMC (1997), Jurong GRC (2001) and, most recently, Holland-Bukit Timah GRC (2015).