PAP’s takeaways from the Bukit Batok by-election victory

Mr Murali Pillai, People's Action Party (PAP) candidate for the Bukit Batok by-election, thanking Bukit Batok residents for their support.
Mr Murali Pillai, People's Action Party (PAP) candidate for the Bukit Batok by-election, thanking Bukit Batok residents for their support. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

In this commentary, Chan Chun Sing, an organising secretary of the PAP, provides the ruling party's assessment of why it managed to win the Bukit Batok by-election.

Every by-election is difficult for the ruling party. A look back at our history will prove this: The People's Action Party (PAP) has never won a single-seat by-election since 1979.

For example, the PAP lost the 1981 Anson by-election after a 35 percentage point vote swing from just the year before. So we knew Bukit Batok was going to be a hard fight.

Furthermore, the PAP entered this race with some critical disadvantages.

First, there is the so-called "by-election effect", with voters being more willing to vote for the opposition because there is no risk of a change of government.

The by-election effect can cost the ruling party anywhere from 12 per cent to 35 per cent of the vote.

The outcome of the Bukit Batok race confirmed that Singaporean voters do not take kindly to being treated as stepping stones in someone's political journey.

In this case, the by-election effect was compounded by the fact that the by-election itself was the direct result of a PAP MP's personal mistake.

Also, the candidate the PAP fielded, Mr Murali Pillai, a minority, was up against a "full-time politician" with a high national profile and slickly packaged as the persecuted underdog.

Hence, many expected a "reversion to the norm" after the PAP's stronger-than-expected GE 2015 result.

With all these odds stacked against the PAP, we are naturally happy that Mr Murali won the election. Yet, despite the fact that this was the PAP's first victory in a single-seat by-election in 37 years, the party should not be exuberant.

It should study the result to understand what matters to our citizens and how we can serve them better.

WHAT WE CAN LEARN

The fact that the PAP managed to win back Bukit Batok despite Mr David Ong's personal mistake reflects that track record and hard work matter. Residents remembered the years of hard work put in by Mr Ong and the Jurong team. As a result, they were prepared to give their trust to Mr Murali, a PAP activist who has served quietly and diligently in the constituency for 16 years.

And as a result of the Jurong team, the party was able to demonstrate continuity of leadership despite the change in MP.

Conversely, the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP's) relative inexperience in managing a town council - and possibly, their weak record when they did manage neighbouring Bukit Gombak Town Council - would not have gone unnoticed. Our citizens are discerning, and will not vote for just anyone who comes along and makes promises.

Second, policies matter. A key thrust of the SDP's campaign was their policies, which they presented as original and better than the Government's. In actuality, they are recycled policies that had not worked elsewhere.

Furthermore, it became clear to Bukit Batok voters that SDP was not transparent in its policy presentation: It advertised the benefits of the policies but neglected to explain their costs and possible side effects. Selling a policy without being honest about its trade-offs is not respectful of the electorate's discernment. SDP must better appreciate that the Singaporean voter is rational and pragmatic.

Finally, motives matter: Singaporeans want leaders who will put them and their well-being first.

The outcome of the Bukit Batok race confirmed that Singaporean voters do not take kindly to being treated as stepping stones in someone's political journey.

On national issues, residents were able to see through the SDP's politics of alarm, division and populism. To divide rather than unite is not the brand of leadership that Singaporeans want.

But even as the PAP learns from the SDP's shortcomings, it is worth examining how the SDP conducted its campaign. Though it lost, I personally think it would be unwise of the PAP to underestimate the progress the SDP has made.

The SDP was able to gain national attention during the campaign. It showed its ability to profile itself in ways that might appeal to a new generation of voters who may be less familiar and more forgiving of Dr Chee's past.

The SDP's use of emotional appeals, its social media presence and Western-style rhetoric bear watching. These tactics did not work this time, but they may in the future.

CONCLUSION

But at the end of the day, Singaporeans should be heartened that no one gets into Parliament without his character, track record and policy positions being scrutinised.

The by-election made it clear that Singaporeans examine closely both the parties and candidates that offer themselves to the electorate.

Those who serve by putting Singapore and Singaporeans ahead of their personal interests will win the vote of Singaporeans.

  • The author, an Organising Secretary of the PAP, is Minister in the Prime Minister's Office and NTUC Secretary-General.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline 'PAP's takeaways from the by-election victory'. Print Edition | Subscribe