Thinking Aloud

Five things to watch out for in Bukit Batok by-election

The constituency is as heartland as Singapore can get and it can be a bellwether of heartland sentiments

I will be watching the result of the Bukit Batok by-election with interest, and not just because I used to live in the town.

I lived in the Hong Kah North part of Bukit Batok HDB estate for a year, five years ago. I liked its verdant greenery, the pavements wide enough to cycle on, and the way the estate, sufficiently remote from town, seems to have developed its own network of amenities and shops.

Most of all, I recall the strong sense I had while there that life in the Bukit Batok heartland is a struggle. There were more lorries, taxis and delivery vans in the carpark than Japanese executive sedans, let alone European luxury cars.

A set of curtains I discarded to make way for made-to-measure ones were taken within hours when I left them in the void deck.

Bukit Batok town is as heartland as Singapore can get.

Voters in Bukit Batok single-member constituency, which is one chunk of the larger Bukit Batok HDB town, go to the polls on May 7. The ward has a population of 45,900 and 25,727 voters. Almost all live in public housing; only 4.2 per cent live in private housing. About 32 per cent live in one- to three-room HDB flats; 39.4 per cent in four-room flats and 24.4 per cent in five-room or executive flats.

Bukit Batok can be a bellwether of heartland sentiments in May 2016. I will thus be watching the election for five reasons.

First, it will show the extent to which voters "punish" the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) for having an allegedly adulterous MP.

This by-election is being called after its incumbent MP David Ong stepped down in March over a "personal indiscretion" following allegations of an extramarital affair with a party activist. Mr Ong, an MP since May 2011, had been re-elected last September with 73 per cent of the vote in a three-way fight.

Will the PAP suffer a dent in vote share?

In December 2012, PAP MP Michael Palmer was similarly caught out and resigned as Speaker of Parliament and as MP. The PAP went on to lose the January 2013 by-election in the Punggol East constituency as its vote share plunged more than 10 percentage points - although at that time that was attributed less to the Palmer affair than to voters' acceptance of the two contestants.

Voters in Bukit Batok will have the chance to show their displeasure - or indifference - over Mr Ong's alleged affair and the resulting by-election.

Second issue to watch out for: whether this will be a straight fight.

In the Punggol East by-election just three years ago, there was a four-way fight: the PAP's Dr Koh Poh Koon faced off with Workers' Party candidate Lee Li Lian, who won.

The other two candidates were the Reform Party's Mr Kenneth Jeyaretnam and the Singapore Democratic Alliance's Mr Desmond Lim. Voters rejected the latter two resoundingly, causing both to lose their $14,500 election deposits after failing to secure the threshold 12.5 per cent of votes.

Perhaps heeding that very clear message of disapproval of spoiler contenders, other major opposition parties have indicated this time that they will not contest Bukit Batok.

If they keep their word, and no other independent candidate enters the fray on April 27, Nomination Day, then the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) will be able to face off the PAP in a straight fight. This would represent a minor triumph for opposition unity and maturity.

Third interesting issue: Just how a minority candidate fares against a Chinese one in a straight fight.

The PAP is fielding Indian lawyer Murali Pillai, while the SDP is fielding Dr Chee Soon Juan, a former university lecturer, who is Chinese.

If Mr Murali wins decisively, observers may cite his victory as evidence that heartland voters do not vote along racial lines.

This would challenge the Government's avowed stand that the group representation constituency is needed in Singapore to help entrench minority representation in Parliament.

Under the GRC system, MPs form a team, which must include a mandatory minority candidate.

This is the first time the PAP is fielding a non-Chinese candidate in a by-election since 1979, when Mr Devan Nair contested in Anson, and won. (He resigned in 1981 to become President and Anson had another by-election. The PAP's Chinese candidate lost to the Workers' Party's Mr J.B. Jeyaretnam).

In the three by-elections since 1981 - in 1992, 2012 and 2013 - the PAP fielded male Chinese candidates. Thus, fielding a non-Chinese candidate in the May 2016 by-election is a break from PAP convention for 37 years.

What can one read of this? Has the PAP changed its view on race-based voting patterns?

I think not, because other factors are at play. Which brings me to the fourth reason for watching this by-election: to see how a "grassroots" MP with strong links to a community fares.

In the 2013 Punggol East by-election, the PAP learnt a hard lesson when its candidate Dr Koh, a colorectal surgeon touted as being of ministerial calibre, lost to WP's fresh-faced Ms Lee, a polytechnic graduate. It realised that voters no longer accepted its choice of academic and professional high-fliers "parachuted" into a constituency, who have no prior exposure to or rapport with residents in the ward.

(Dr Koh was elected last year as part of the winning Ang Mo Kio GRC team and is now Minister of State in the Ministry of National Development and Ministry of Trade and Industry.)

This time round, it is fielding Mr Murali, a commercial litigator, who was an active PAP activist in Bukit Batok for years and was its branch secretary from 2007 to 2011. By doing so, the PAP shows it has internalised the lesson from Punggol East - that voters prefer someone familiar in the community. It will be the SDP's Dr Chee who will be the newcomer to the ward. He contested in the Holland-Bukit Timah GRC last year.

Fifth, this election will show if mainstream Singapore and the heartland warms to Dr Chee. He has a chequered history in opposition politics - from leadership tussles with former mentor Chiam See Tong to repeated run-ins with PAP leaders and a parliamentary committee. He has sought to soften his image in recent years online. In rally speeches and in person, too, he appears to have mellowed.

Are these enough to counter whatever negative views of Dr Chee might reside still in the bosoms of older voters who remember the past conflicts? One benchmark will be the 34.4 per cent vote share the SDP team got in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC. Anything much lower might be ascribed by observers to the chilling Chee Soon Juan effect on voters.

Already, even before the by-election gets under way, it's been interesting to see just how relaxed the PAP appears to be, by fielding a minority candidate in a straight fight against a Chinese candidate. Its rhetoric has been low-key.

It remains to be seen if it will eschew the heavy artillery approach of past elections in favour of letting its candidate fight the ground battle with his own foot soldiers.

No doubt this confidence is because Bukit Batok is just one single seat, and the PAP is secure enough, having won 83 of 89 seats and a vote share of 69.9 per cent last September.

So long as by-elections remain rare, the PAP can afford to be sanguine about one. Three MPs have quit in 49 months over alleged extramarital affairs. Two were from the PAP, one from the WP.

If the recent spate of resignations prove to be an anomaly, and death or disease does not cause more seats to be vacated, then Singapore may go back to the period of the 1990s and 2000s, when there was just one by-election over two decades, in 1992.

Then a by-election can be treated as a political non-event, a blip on the political landscape.

But even a blip can yield interesting insights into the way Singapore's ever dynamic political environment is evolving.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Five things to watch out for in Bukit Batok by-election'. Print Edition | Subscribe