Bukit Batok polls: The aftermath

2. A boost or a blow for SDP?

What lessons the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) draws from the Bukit Batok by-election will depend on how it views the result.

The party feels it gave the polls its best shot, having walked the ground daily for almost two months from the time it was clear a by-election would be called.

Those efforts translated into 38.8 per cent of the vote for its candidate and party chief Chee Soon Juan.

In the polls' aftermath, two schools of thought have emerged, each with opposing views about whether this is a good result and what it says about the political future of Dr Chee.

The first camp believes that his performance bodes well for his next electoral contest. After all, this is his best score in five bids for a parliamentary seat since he entered politics more than two decades ago.

The result was an 11.8 percentage point erosion of the People's Action Party's (PAP) 73 per cent vote share in Bukit Batok in last year's general election. In the 2013 Punggol East by-election, which was won by the opposition, the PAP's support fell by a slightly lower 10.8 percentage points.

It was also an improvement on Dr Chee's 33.4 per cent when he contested Holland-Bukit Timah GRC in GE2015, his first since he began putting his formerly more confrontational style of politics behind him.

As such, his more moderate image now is seen as winning increasing support and would give the party good reason to stay the course.

Others, however, are not so sanguine about Dr Chee's electoral prospects.

In this group are several opposition politicians who believe that the circumstances of this by-election were as good as they could get for the SDP leader to be elected.

The PAP's image had been bruised by the scandal surrounding the previous MP, Mr David Ong, who stepped down over an alleged extramarital affair.

Also in Dr Chee's favour were the proverbial "by-election effect" and the small size of the single-member constituency. So a candidate did not have to cover a great area to reach out to voters.

Given the various factors in his favour, they think Dr Chee underperformed, and blew his best chance yet at entering the House.

Reform Party chief Kenneth Jeyaretnam contradicted Dr Chee's view that the media was biased against him and said coverage of the by-election was "fairly balanced and much more equal time has been given to reporting the SDP's rallies and press conferences".

In a series of online posts, veteran opposition politician Goh Meng Seng dissected Dr Chee's result.

In his view, while Dr Chee managed a seemingly impressive vote swing of more than 10 percentage points, that showing is not as good as it looks.

To go from 26.4 per cent, which is the SDP's Bukit Batok result last year, to 38.8 per cent now is relatively easy because voters in that range are more easily persuaded to back the opposition, argued Mr Goh, who heads the People's Power Party.

Anything above 40 per cent requires winning over a bloc of increasingly politically neutral voters.

Get closer to 50 per cent, and one encounters greater resistance from voters who naturally lean towards the PAP, he added.

But the SDP has never crossed the 40 per cent mark in five general elections with Dr Chee at the helm, Mr Goh pointed out.

"He is just unelectable. This is the cruel but honest view I have with regard to Chee," he concluded.

Is Dr Chee the man who can guide the SDP in winning over that crucial 10 per cent of voters to put them over the top?

Those who do not think so point to a factor weighing on Dr Chee: his falling out with his one-time mentor, former opposition MP Chiam See Tong. Mr Chiam left the SDP after infighting within the party shortly after Dr Chee joined its ranks.

During the Bukit Batok campaign, his wife, Mrs Lina Chiam, spoke up twice against Dr Chee and pointedly stated that Mr Chiam did not endorse any candidate in the by-election. In a political landscape where the opposition usually makes a showing of unity, it was possibly more potent than any attack on his character the PAP could muster.

For now, party members are opting to keep the faith in the SDP leader. Last week, SDP chairman Wong Souk Yee issued a statement denouncing negative comments made in a news report about Dr Chee's political career.

Under Dr Chee, the party retains a niche appeal among those most concerned about civil liberties, as the Workers' Party is relatively less vocal on the intangible issues such as freedom of speech.

Still, the question of leadership succession lies ahead. Dr Chee is 53 and will be in his 60s after two more general elections.

No other SDP member has the same high public profile, and the party will have to groom a new generation of leaders within the next 10 years.

To Dr Chee's supporters, it will be a daunting task to fill the personality void when he steps aside.

To his detractors, Dr Chee's relinquishing of the reins of leadership is the first step the SDP must take on a route towards a brighter political future.

Chong Zi Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 15, 2016, with the headline '2. A boost or a blow for SDP? '. Print Edition | Subscribe