Race is always something on people's minds in a multiracial society, and it can be exploited during an election, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said yesterday.
He added that at the ballot box, voters should make their decision based on the candidate's "ability to contribute, his sincerity, his commitment and the colour of his heart - which is red - regardless of what race or religion he may belong to".
"But it is not unknown for racial sentiments to emerge and to be exploited during election campaigns," Mr Lee told reporters at a walkabout with People's Action Party (PAP) candidate Murali Pillai in Bukit Batok yesterday.
Mr Lee said he was confident that Mr Murali could win voters' confidence, but added that he was concerned about how race was being used by some in the campaign.
He noted there were some openly racially tinged comments online.
He had also heard of remarks going around within the constituency where people said: "Just vote for the Chinese; that's good."
Mr Lee cautioned: "That is completely wrong and bad."
He also pointed out that there were some comments on race on Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) candidate Chee Soon Juan's Facebook page that had not been refuted or taken down. "So I have no doubt that somewhere along the way, when pressures heat up, people will feel that, maybe, this is one way you can use race to your advantage. It's wrong," Mr Lee added.
Reporters had asked the Prime Minister whether Mr Murali was at a disadvantage in the by-election, being a minority candidate.
Mr Lee recalled how when he was first fielded in the 1984 General Election in Teck Ghee, the incumbent PAP MP in next-door Chong Boon, Mr S. Chandra Das, was up against a Chinese candidate.
"The opposition was going from door to door, and the message was simple. They didn't say: 'Vote for me.' They didn't say: 'The other chap is no good,'" he said.
"They just asked: 'Has that Indian man come yet?'"
Mr Lee added: "And everybody knew what it meant. There was a special UHF (ultra high frequency) signal there. So you say one thing, what you mean is another thing."
Mr Chandra Das won that election with 56 per cent of the vote against his opponent, Mr Ling How Doong of the SDP. Mr Ling was later elected MP for Bukit Gombak at the 1991 General Election, but was voted out at the 1997 General Election.
Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu had, at the PAP rally on Friday night, told voters to be wary of "anyone who plays the racial card, asking Chinese residents to vote for Chinese only".
She also asked the SDP to clarify its position on the issue.
Asked by reporters for his comments yesterday, Dr Chee said the PAP should "stop playing politics".
"You can't pick and choose what comments are being made," he said, adding that it was "not possible to go through" the hundreds of comments on his Facebook page - whether they are about race or personal indiscretions.
Mr Lee also said Mr Murali had shown at the last general election, where he contested Aljunied GRC, that "even despite his being Indian and not Chinese, he is able to connect, he's able to serve voters, he's able to win their confidence and win their votes".
"If Paya Lebar was a single-member constituency, Murali would be the MP now," he said, noting that the PAP got more votes in the ward where Mr Murali was active than the Workers' Party did. He added that given Mr Murali's track record of 16 years in Bukit Batok, he will have "no problem at all" winning residents' confidence and votes.
Mr Murali told reporters yesterday he was confident that he could overcome any language or race issues as he was "sincerely interested" in solving residents' problems.
His former teammate in Aljunied GRC, Mr Chua Eng Leong, told reporters yesterday that Mr Murali's race was also not an issue: "People find that he's very approachable."