Lawyer Murali Pillai is the PAP's candidate for Bukit Batok by-election

Lawyer Murali Pillai (centre) is the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate to defend Bukit Batok constituency at the by-election.
Lawyer Murali Pillai (centre) is the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate to defend Bukit Batok constituency at the by-election.ST PHOTO: THAM YUEN-C

SINGAPORE - Lawyer Murali Pillai is the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate to defend Bukit Batok constituency at the by-election.

Mr Pillai, 48, was part of the PAP team that nearly wrested Aljunied GRC back at the 2015 General Election.

On Monday (March 21), he was formally introduced by Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam as the PAP candidate at a press conference at the party's Bukit Batok branch.

Mr Tharman, who is Member of Parliament for Jurong GRC, said: "We have a man who knows Bukit Batok and its people well, works well with everyone, totally dedicated to residents. I've known Murali for the last 15 years and I have the highest regard for him."

 

The announcement comes a day after the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) named secretary-general Chee Soon Juan as its candidate for the by-election.

The by-election is triggered by the sudden resignation of former MP David Ong on March 12 over an alleged affair with a grassroots volunteer and party member. Both Mr Ong and the volunteer have since resigned from the PAP.

Mr Tharman said the party did not want to rush into making an announcement because it wanted to get a feel of what type of candidate people want.

Also present at the press conference were Jurong GRC MP Desmond Lee and Ang Wei Neng, and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, who is MP for Yuhua.

Mr Pillai said he is honoured that the party placed faith in him, adding: "I have a record of working in Bukit Batok."  

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

"More seniors will come along. It will be my job to help them," he said, adding that he would work towards preventing a permanent underclass from developing.

 

He also noted that the constituency has a number of rental flats, and one of his priorities will be to ensure that children there get the same basic opportunities that others get. "But these are not local issues but national issues. I am keen to pursue such issues in Parliament if elected," he said.

 

He recounted the story of a mother of five who was worried that she would pass on her debts to her children. The woman's husband died of cancer and she had to take over the servicing of debts. The woman wanted to end her life but Mr Pillai said he was able to intercede and help her to turn the corner. "This incident taught me to listen closely to residents."

Mr Pillai, a partner at law firm Rajah & Tann, has been the chairman of the PAP's Paya Lebar branch in Aljunied GRC since 2012. 

But he is no stranger to Bukit Batok, having been secretary of the PAP's branch in the constituency from 2007 to 2011. He also held roles such as the chairman of the ward's Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle and vice-chairman of its PAP Community Foundation.

Mr Pillai was also part of a team of four election rookies and one veteran backbencher who stood in the opposition-held Aljunied GRC in the 2015 General Election. The PAP team, which observers said had only a slim chance of winning, almost pulled off an upset and scored 49 per cent of the vote against the Workers' Party.

Some analysts, however, pointed out that Mr Pillai may have a disadvantage as a minority candidate, given that Bukit Batok has a higher proportion of Chinese residents than the national average - some of whom are elderly who may be more comfortable speaking in Mandarin.

Responding to that, he said while there may be a language barrier, he believes he can overcome it as long as he shows his sincerity in helping the residents.

Weighing in, Mr Tharman said: "When people look at Murali, they see Singapore. They see someone who is with them, not someone who is above them in any way. They see someone who listens to their needs. They see someone who represents our multiracialism.

"They see something about Singapore in him that they can associate with very easily."

The date of the by-election has not been announced. Some analysts, however, say it could take place as early as May, soon after Parliament completes its debate on the Budget on April 15.

Mr Tharman said he and his team do not know when the election will be. But they felt that one week was enough for things to settle and to listen  to views. "There was no reason to hold back announcing a candidate that we are very comfortable with."

On the so-called by-election effect where the opposition tends to have an advantage over the incumbent, he said: "That's the nature of by-election. We took that into account in picking someone who will appeal to Bukit Batok residents."

Asked about competing against a seasoned politician, Mr Pillai 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."

He added: "As far as I'm concerned I know it will be a tough battle.

"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."