Bukit Batok by-election: PAP's Murali Pillai beats SDP's Chee Soon Juan with 61.2% of votes

PAP's Murali Pillai waving to residents and supporters outside the PAP's Bukit Batok branch office after the announcement of his win in the by-election. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
Mr Murali presenting a bouquet of flowers and kissing his mother after his win. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM
SDP's Chee Soon Juan, accompanied on stage by his wife, waving to supporters at Bukit Gombak Stadium. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE
A smiling Dr Chee hugging a supporter despite his loss. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The People's Action Party's (PAP) Murali Pillai has won the Bukit Batok by-election with 61.2 per cent of the valid votes cast.

Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan pulled in 38.8 per cent.

The by-election was called after PAP MP David Ong stepped down in March, citing a "personal indiscretion". He is said to have had an extra-marital affair with a grassroots activist.

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We analyse the results of the Bukit Batok by-election as the PAP's Murali Pillai beat the SDP's Chee Soon Juan by 61.2 per cent to 38.8 per cent.

In a Facebook post after the result was announced by Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong at around 11.30pm on Saturday (May 7), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong congratulated Mr Murali and thanked Bukit Batok voters for their strong support.

"You have chosen an MP who is committed, trustworthy, and will go the extra mile for you," Mr Lee wrote. "Murali and his team have campaigned hard, but now their real work begins. He has served faithfully in Bukit Batok for many years, and with your support, will serve residents for many more.

"Thank you to all the activists and volunteers who helped Murali campaign. This is not just a win for Bukit Batok, but shows all Singaporeans, and others too, that the government and people are united in building a better nation together."

A total of 24,192 votes were cast at the by-election, which included 622 rejected votes. This made up about 94 per cent of the 25,727 registered electors in the ward, the Elections Department said in a statement.

Mr Murali polled almost 12 percentage points lower than the 73 per cent that Mr Ong won in the September 2015 general election, where he was pitted against the SDP's Sadasivam Veriyah and independent candidate Samir Salim Neji.

Dr Chee's result is his best electoral showing in five attempts, and is higher than the 33.4 per cent that his SDP team got in 2015 when it contested in Holland-Bukit Timah GRC, which was retained by the PAP.

In 2001, he got 20.25 per cent in Jurong GRC, in 1997 he got 34.86 per cent in MacPherson SMC, and in 1992 he got 24.5 per cent in Marine Parade GRC.

The 12 percentage point swing away from the PAP in Bukit Batok is likely to be studied closely by both parties in the days to come.

The circumstances in which Mr Ong stepped down had been seen by some to favour Dr Chee and the SDP.

Political analysts had also pointed to the "by-election effect", whereby voters tend to plumb for the opposition as they know that the ruling PAP faces no risk of being unseated from power.

On his part, Dr Chee had sought to show a more measured approach to politics compared to his combative past, and the SDP had run what looked to be a well-organised campaign with a strong social media presence.

Mr Murali, 48, head of commercial litigation at law firm Rajah & Tann, was also only the second non-Chinese candidate to be fielded in a single ward in a recent election by the ruling party.

Still, in the end Dr Chee, 53, managed to improve by just 5.4 percentage points over his September showing. That he did not hit the 40 per cent mark might also come as a disappointment to him and his party.

Addressing the crowd gathered at the Bukit Gombak Stadium shortly after the result was announced, Dr Chee, who stood on a platform with his wife, congratulated Mr Murali and thanked his supporters.

"I said during the rally that I want to win with honour and lose with grace. I want to bow but not in defeat, but bow with grace and to thank again everyone who worked so hard to make this situation a possibility," he said, his voice cracking.

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He added that he would stay on to fight in Bukit Batok. "I hope you get to know me in the years to come... and we'll have better years ahead."

At his press conference at the PAP's Bukit Batok branch, Mr Murali said in Mandarin: "Thank you all for the support. Ah Mu will serve you."

Speaking in English, he said he was humbled and encouraged by the results. "I thank Chee Soon Juan and SDP. They ran a well-organised campaign, and I thank them for the contest."

He also said he will serve everyone regardless of their political affiliations, and added that his Meet-the-People session will start on Monday.

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During the nine days of campaigning, Mr Murali had emphasised his long-time grassroots experience in Bukit Batok. He served as branch secretary of the PAP's Bukit Batok branch from 2007 to 2011.

Adopting the nickname "Ah Mu" in an effort to connect with the ward's Chinese residents, the father of four focused on winning the hearts of voters by outlining his plans for a job placement programme to help those retrenched, as well as a healthcare cooperative to help meet the needs of elderly residents.

"A vote for us means a vote for certainty - there's no need to experiment," he said at his final rally on Thursday (May 5), adding that a win for him would mean Bukit Batok remains with the Jurong-Clementi Town Council, which has the capability, resources and a good track record.

Mr Murali will enter Parliament on his second try, having been part of a PAP team that came very close to helping the party wrest back control of Aljunied GRC from the Workers' Party last September. The PAP team got 49.05 per cent of the vote.

In his Bukit Batok campaign, Dr Chee, who is secretary-general of the SDP, had said that if elected, he would become a full-time MP and be a voice for Singaporeans, especially the elderly and lower income, in Parliament.

Among other things, he pointed to how the PAP was already in power, and that having an opposition politician in Parliament would enable him to ask the hard questions of the Government. He also pledged to run a town council that would surpass the performance of PAP-run ones.

The campaigning period was also marked by several high-profile exchanges between the two parties.

The PAP's upgrading strategy in the ward came under scrutiny following Mr Murali's announcement of a $1.9-million plan - under the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme - that included building a park in the ward's neighbourhoods. The SDP took issue with Mr Murali's remarks that he could carry out the plan only if he was elected.

A debate then erupted over the character of Dr Chee. PM Lee noted that at the SDP's first rally on April 29, several speakers took aim at Mr Ong but when Dr Chee - who was last to speak - came on, he told the crowd that it was not right to beat a man while he was down.

The SDP's Paul Tambyah then responded with a video statement asserting that "a person is not defined by his or her own actions or words", which prompted several PAP ministers, including Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, to hit back.

Describing the May 7 polls as a "very tight fight", Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is anchor minister for neighbouring Jurong GRC, had said at PAP's final rally that he would congratulate Dr Chee if he wins.

But if he loses, Mr Tharman said he would advise him to reflect. Noting that it is the fifth constituency Dr Chee is contesting, he said: "If he loses, please reflect on things. Don't keep blaming the system. And try to change."

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