News analysis

David Ong's resignation: A chance for SDP?

Early yesterday morning, a small contingent from the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) turned up for a walkabout in Bukit Batok.

It comes as no surprise that the opposition party has so quickly staked its claim for the constituency that is headed for a by-election after the shock resignation of People's Action Party MP David Ong over an alleged affair.

Not only is Bukit Batok the party's old stomping ground, but the upcoming by-election could also be its best chance to emerge from two decades in the political wilderness. It was once the top dog in Singapore's opposition scene, wining three seats in the 1991 General Election. But infighting saw the party lose its seats in one term, and it has not had a presence in Parliament since 1997.

 

During last September's general election, it had come back fighting, but still fell far short of winning any of the 11 seats it contested.

The upcoming by-election in Bukit Batok is thus seen by the SDP as its best chance of re-entering the House. For starters, the party has a history of contesting the area and is the opposition party with the strongest presence there. Besides last year's polls, it contested Bukit Batok in 1988 and in 1991, getting over 48 per cent of the votes before the seat was absorbed into a GRC.

Bukit Batok also has about 27,000 voters and will not require the daunting levels of logistics needed to contest a GRC.

On the party's side is also the much-touted by-election effect - what observers see as voters being more willing to elect an opposition candidate because the ruling party is in no danger of losing power.

On the party's side is also the much-touted by-election effect - what observers see as voters being more willing to elect an opposition candidate because the ruling party is in no danger of losing power.

Some say this by-election effect played a part in the Workers' Party's (WP) victory in the 2013 Punggol East by-election, triggered by the resignation of then Speaker Michael Palmer.

There are parallels in both situations. Like Mr Ong, Mr Palmer had admitted to an affair.

Both areas are also newly carved out single seats, barely warmed by the resigning MPs after a recent general election.

Punggol East had been hived out in the 2011 election, and Mr Palmer won it in a three-cornered fight. He resigned a year later. Likewise, Bukit Batok was just carved out in the last election, where Mr Ong also won in a three-cornered fight.

The SDP says it has not decided who to field, but the choice of candidate could be key to determining the party's chances.

If former teacher Sadasivam Veriyah - who stood against Mr Ong last year - is picked again, the party must be confident that its groundwork in the six months after the polls has been solid enough to improve on his 26.4 per cent performance.

Party chief Chee Soon Juan has also not ruled himself out.

He had pulled in the crowds at his rallies last year, but it did not translate into votes at the ballot box, and his GRC team polled 33.4 per cent in Holland-Bukit Timah.

If he runs, it would mean the SDP is keeping faith that his more moderate image in recent years will win over voters.

But fielding another candidate will help dispel criticism from certain quarters that the SDP revolves around Dr Chee.

One possibility is National University of Singapore medical professor Paul Tambyah, a recognised infectious diseases expert who does not have the historical baggage of Dr Chee's numerous run-ins with the law that makes some older voters wary of electing him.

For now, the most immediate task for the SDP would be to dive into the retail politics of house visits. Bukit Batok is seen as an uphill battle for the opposition as it is in the west, which has given the PAP handsome margins of victories in the past few general elections. The SDP will have to comb the constituency thoroughly to raise its chances of winning.

It will also have to play its cards right to clear the field of other opposition parties to ensure it gets to contest the PAP one-on-one.

On this count, the continued silence of the WP - the only opposition party with MPs - must be especially worrying for the SDP.

In 2013, the SDP declared its intention to contest in Punggol East, encroaching on WP ground, before ultimately backing down.

If the WP does contest Bukit Batok to settle scores, the SDP will find its attempt to regain a foothold in the House undone by the party it ceded its opposition crown to, even before the by-election begins.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline 'A chance for SDP?'. Print Edition | Subscribe