Bukit Batok by-election

Verdict at kopitiam: 'Confirm already'

PAP's Murali Pillai thanks residents at a coffee shop after winning the Bukit Batok SMC By-election.
PAP's Murali Pillai thanks residents at a coffee shop after winning the Bukit Batok SMC By-election. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Around 9.25pm yesterday, the early results of the by-election the whole country's eyes had been on for the last nine days flashed across television.

You might have expected the Block 150 coffee shop in the very seat of contention - Bukit Batok - to be full of the chatter of excited voters eagerly awaiting the results.

But in the run-up, the patrons of the coffee shop just opposite the People's Action Party (PAP) branch were quietly focused on their food.

Then, the Chinese drama that had been playing gave way to a news bulletin. A sample count showed that the PAP's Mr Murali Pillai was in the lead against Singapore Democratic Party's Dr Chee Soon Juan.

And how was this greeted by Bukit Batok's kopitiam brigade? "As expected," one muttered in Mandarin, before returning to his drink. One woman, clad in white, pumped her fist in the air in triumph. Everyone else, having glanced up for the results, turned back to their food.

And that was that. At the huge central coffee shop at nearby Block 155, the TV channel hadn't even changed. It appeared to be another ordinary Saturday in the single-seat constituency. Away from the nine polling stations, you would not have realised that a by-election was being held.

Hours earlier, Block 155 had hummed gently with afternoon chatter - about everything except politics. Even a group of middle-aged men - usually a reliable demographic for political views - was talking about health issues instead.

"It's not exciting," said a semi-retired 67-year-old who wanted to be known only as Mr Tan. "Because we know it's very hard for Dr Chee to win."

Across the constituency, residents reacted with bemusement or amusement when I asked if they were excited about the by-election. A PAP presence in Bukit Batok seemed a given, a fact of life in the slow-paced estate.

"When we were young, in Mr Lee Kuan Yew's time, people would stay up late to wait for the news, very anxious," recalled a 73-year-old resident who wanted to be known only as Madam Low. "But now, the PAP has been here so long."

The seat has never been under any other party.

Even those who voted for Dr Chee had not expected to be on the winning side. Three older residents, relaxing on benches in the early evening, affirmed their support for him, but did not quite dare to hope.

"It'd be nice if the opposition wins but it's very hard to say," said a 77-year-old factory worker, who wanted to be known only as Mr Ang, in Mandarin.

The trio said they would wait for the results at home, and not stick around for the sample count.

The same equanimity was found on the PAP side, even though it was confident of victory.

Said lorry driver Lim Swee An, 63: "Whoever wins, we just carry on working as normal." But he was sure that "Ah Mu", the Mandarin name by which Mr Murali is known, would win.

For Mr Lim, the old altercation between Dr Chee and Mr Chiam See Tong - the former having ousted the latter from the SDP in the 1990s - proved impossible to forget.

"Young people don't understand, but my generation knows. Mr Chiam invited him into the party but was forced out. Would you vote for such a person?"

The PAP has also announced plans for the area, he noted. "It's good if they're helping people."

Technician Yusaini Kamaludin, 46, did not plan on staying up for the result: "All the way, we know we will win. For us, we are not scared. Confirm already."

Lawyer K.W. Tan was another who said he was unlikely to stay up - even though he had backed Dr Chee. "The results are quite foregone," said the 50-year-old, who was on the way to dinner with his wife.

As the results showed, he was right. There were no last-minute surprises, no changes to the status quo. The only drama was the TV serial.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Verdict at kopitiam: 'Confirm already''. Print Edition | Subscribe