Bukit Batok by-election

Bukit Batok by-election: Murali Pillai back where he started work in grassroots

Mr Murali (centre) being introduced as the PAP candidate for the upcoming by-election in Bukit Batok constituency. Also at the press conference were (from left) Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee, DPM Tharm
Mr Murali (centre) being introduced as the PAP candidate for the upcoming by-election in Bukit Batok constituency. Also at the press conference were (from left) Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs and National Development Desmond Lee, DPM Tharman, Ms Fu and Jurong GRC MP Ang Wei Neng. Mr Lee has been looking after the constituency after its former MP David Ong's resignation on March 12.ST PHOTO: JAMIE KOH

Lawyer's service in Bukit Batok dates back to 2000, giving free legal aid to residents

Six months after coming within a whisker of winning a seat in Parliament, lawyer Murali Pillai is getting a second shot.

Mr Murali, 48, returned to his old stomping ground of Bukit Batok yesterday, where he was unveiled as the People's Action Party candidate for the by-election.

The head of commercial litigation at law firm Rajah & Tann, who is known also as K. Muralidharan Pillai, has been PAP branch chairman for Paya Lebar since May 2012, and was part of the PAP team that won 49 per cent of the votes in Aljunied GRC at the 2015 General Election.

But it was in Bukit Batok where he first got involved in grassroots work, in 2000. He gave free legal aid to residents, was roped in to help then MP Ong Chit Chung, and became branch secretary in 2007.

When Mr Murali took on his new post in Paya Lebar, he maintained his ties to his old ward by remaining on the Bukit Batok Citizens Consultative Committee until last year.

 
 
 

"I have a record of service in Bukit Batok for Bukit Batok residents. I pledge to serve with all my heart."

Bukit Batok single-member constituency will have a by-election after former MP David Ong resigned on March 12 over an alleged affair.

The date has yet to be called, but Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who introduced Mr Murali at a press conference, said there was no reason to hold back announcing a candidate the PAP was "very comfortable with".

He praised Mr Murali for having been a galvanising force for activists when the late MP Ong Chit Chung, who oversaw Bukit Batok when it was then in Jurong GRC, died suddenly in July 2008.

"Jurong MPs were all involved, helping out in taking care of Bukit Batok, but Murali was the one who held everyone together, all the volunteers, the activists, and in fact strengthened the team," Mr Tharman said.

Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu said Mr Murali was the party's "first choice and the best choice for residents".

Mr Murali said that if he is elected, his focus will be on helping the elderly and needy, given that Bukit Batok is a mature town.

He also noted that the constituency has a number of rental flats, and he wanted to make sure children living in them get the same basic opportunities that others get.

"We must ensure social mobility and guard against a permanent underclass from forming in our society," said Mr Murali, who has been married to educator N. Gowri for 20 years. They have four children.

Mr Murali would be the second minority candidate PAP has fielded in a single seat in recent years. Asked about this, he said he had spent years helping out in Bukit Batok and Paya Lebar, areas with a larger proportion of Chinese residents than the national average.

He acknowledged that he had to deal with a language barrier, "but so long as I showed that I was sincere in wanting to solve their issues, I could surmount it".

Weighing in, Mr Tharman said: "Race is never absent in politics anywhere and we did consider this very carefully. And I can tell you we are very comfortable with our choice of Murali."

He noted that when PAP leaders met grassroots leaders and residents in Bukit Batok last week, Mr Murali's name came up readily.

"One elderly Chinese lady I met asked: 'What about that Indian man?'" Mr Tharman recalled.

"When people look at Murali, they see Singapore in him. They see someone who is with them, not someone who is above them in any way... They see someone who represents our multiracialism."

Mr Tharman also acknowledged that PAP would have to contend with the so-called by-election effect, where voters are more willing to elect an opposition MP as the ruling party is already in power.

But he reiterated that the party was confident about its choice.

Asked about competing against Singapore Democratic Party chief Chee Soon Juan, Mr Murali said: "Politics is really about serving residents. And I consider myself seasoned because I have put in quite a bit of time serving the residents' needs. That is really the focus."

His late father P.K. Pillai was a former political detainee arrested during Operation Coldstore in 1963, who later credited the Government for Singapore's prosperity.

Mr Tharman said Mr Murali also worked extremely hard in Aljunied GRC's Paya Lebar ward in the GE: "He worked the ground very hard and swung the votes around."

Mr Murali said his time in Aljunied taught him a valuable lesson: "One thing I learnt from my experience in Aljunied GRC is to fight hard for every vote. I am not taking anything for granted. I am going to fight hard for every vote in Bukit Batok."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Murali Pillai back where he started work in grassroots'. Print Edition | Subscribe