The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has historically feared by-elections. In 1961, the PAP government lost two seats to the opposition. First, it lost Hong Lim to PAP rebel Ong Eng Guan and then Anson to WP founder David Marshall. After the loss of these two seats, the PAP suffered a split in which the left-wing faction of the party parted ways to form the Barisan Socialis. The PAP became a minority government, holding on to power by just a one seat majority. The by-election defeats had nearly brought about the end of the PAP.
Even after Singapore attained independence, PAP only managed to win by-elections in an era where politics was not hotly contested. After the Barisan Socialis boycotted parliament, the PAP became the default option for Singaporeans for nearly 15 years. The PAP held several by-elections during this period and won all contested seats. The last by-election won by the PAP was in 1979. In fact, not one by seven by-elections were held by the PAP in 1979. And they won all of them. Things seem to be going well for the PAP until J.B. Jeyaretnam of the Workers’ Party broke the PAP’s monopoly over parliament when he won the by-election in Anson.
After the Anson by-election in 1981, the PAP government did not hold another Single Member Constituency (SMC) by-election for decades till the Hougang by-election in 2012. The PAP knew that by-elections favoured the opposition and were an opportunity to cast protest votes because the government would not be affected by the election result. Even when SMC by-elections returned in recent years, the PAP still lost the Hougang and Punggol East by-elections, further reinforcing the belief that by-elections only go against the PAP.
However, now there is finally a by-election that favours the PAP. Bukit Batok SMC is a PAP stronghold and the popular Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam has considerable influence in the area. The main opposition party, the WP, has no presence in Bukit Batok, and has chosen not to contest. The Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) is the next strongest contender but faces an uphill battle. The SDP leader, Dr Chee Soon Juan, is a controversial figure in the eyes of many Singaporeans and despite his many valiant efforts, he has yet to overcome the stigma of his past and be competitive in elections against the PAP. History has shown that all the PAP had to do to win, was to use Dr Chee’s past baggage to finish him off.
Nevertheless, the PAP is unlikely to take any chances, knowing that a political veteran may be their opponent in the by-election. Hence, they are unlikely to field a newcomer, as was the case in the Punggol East by-election with Dr Koh Poh Koon. Instead, the PAP is more likely to field a tested candidate with election experience and familiarity with the grassroots in Bukit Batok. This approach paid off for PAP in Punggol East and it is likely the strategy they will use again.
Their candidate of choice is likely to be lawyer Mr K. Muralidharan Pillai, a long-time PAP activist, who contested in Aljunied GRC in the last General Election (GE) and was part of the PAP team that lost narrowly, garnering 49% of total votes. Mr Murali also defeated the incumbent MP, Mr Chen Show Mao of the Workers’ Party in his Paya Lebar ward. Mr Murali is likely to be chosen because he has been battle-tested in an opposition ward and more importantly, used to serve in Bukit Batok as the PAP branch secretary before he was transferred to Aljunied GRC. He has a strong connection with the PA grassroots in Bukit Batok since he served there for 15 years, participated in many activities and helmed many committees. (CV of Mr K. Muralidharan Pillai)
During the last GE, the PAP made it clear that they regarded Mr Murali as the heavyweight in their Aljunied team. The SDP would do well not to underestimate the strong challenge that the long-time PAP activist represents. It will be difficult for the SDP to win the constituency when faced with a heavyweight candidate who has strong grassroots connections, election experience and the endorsement of DPM Tharman.
Nevertheless, all hope is not lost for the SDP. The circumstances that led to the resignation of former MP David Ong do give a reason for more residents to vote for the SDP, and it is certain that the SDP will make inroads into the constituency. The PAP is unlikely to call the by-election before the Budget debates and the long interval from now to the by-election date will give the SDP the necessary time to work the ground and win more support.
Whether SDP is able to pull off an upset in Bukit Batok SMC is immaterial. That said, the by-election in Bukit Batok SMC still has political significance, both for the SDP and for the opposition as a whole. All the SDP has to do is to increase their vote share with a grassroots campaign and through the by-election effect, overcome the 40% barrier and demonstrate that last year’s dismal General Election results were an outlier that does not set the trend for politics in future. Next, the SDP has a duty to promote political awareness and reintroduce competitiveness in the political scene in the West of Singapore. If these objectives are achieved, it will be a huge morale booster for the opposition camp in the years leading up to the next General Elections.