Singapore: Crucial by-election tests ruling party

April 3, 2016
Opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) candidate Dr Chee Soon Juan

A by-election in the Single Member Constituency of Bukit Batok, which has about 25,000 eligible voters, is needed following the resignation of the People's Action Party (PAP) MP David Ong on March 14.

The PAP has ruled Singapore since 1959, when it was still a British colony. Its rule has relied on a combination of independent Singapore's affluence in comparison with its neighbours and political repression.

Ong won 72% of the vote in the September's general elections, defeating the Singapore Democratic Party's (SDP) Sadasivam Veriyah (26.4%) and independent Samir Salim Neji (0.6%).

Ong's resignation was for a “personal indiscretion”, later revealed to be an extramarital relationship.

This is Singapore's third by-election in the past four years — something new in Singaporean politics. The previous two by-elections were caused by similar “personal indiscretions”.

While the PAP used the resignation of Yaw Shin Leong in 2012 to attack the credibility of the opposition Workers' Party's (WP) candidate selection criteria, it naturally attempts to downplay “personal indiscretions” by PAP MPs.

In the general elections, the PAP won 70% of the vote, mostly attributed to the patriotic fervour surrounding the death of the PAP and Singapore's founding father Lee Kwan Yew and the 50th anniversary of independence, as well as the media fear-mongering that Singapore would descend to third world country status like neighbouring Malaysia if the PAP was to lose power.

The PAP mandate was strongest in the west of Singapore, where Bukit Batok is situated.

The man selected by the PAP to contest the by-election is K Muralidharan Pillai, a long-term stalwart of the PAP in the eastern part of Singapore.

The PAP has always harped on the loyalty, commitment and dedication of each one of their members to a respective constituency, even going as far as branding each of them as a “son” of the constituency.

In this case, the PAP has demonstrated that this is nothing more than lip service. This is not uncommon, as shown by similar cases in the general election where favoured candidates were re-deployed to distant constituencies in an attempt to get them into parliament.

The main opposition party contesting the by-election is the SDP. Despite the big margin to the ruling party at the general elections, the SDP is optimistic about getting back into parliament, and has nominated opposition stalwart Dr Chee Soon Juan for the seat.

Chee has been arrested, detained and declared bankrupt for sedition under Singapore's Internal Security Act — a law created by the PAP to oppress any dissent or opposition. However, despite the attempts to break Chee's spirit, he has always stood by his principles of social justice.

Since March 13, the SDP has held walkabouts in the constituency in an attempt to better engage the voters and has adopted the twitter hash tag #Nowisthetime. The SDP distributes food rations to low income families in the electorate.

Chee's reputation has changed from troublemaking villain to a social justice hero of ordinary people. In fact, one of his speeches was touted as the best speech of the 2015 general election.

In response to his nomination, Chee said, “This is a prime opportunity for the voters of Bukit Batok to send us into Parliament, be their voice, be the voice of Singaporeans, and to hold the government accountable.”

Several opposition parties have declared that they will not contest the by-election so that Chee will have the best chance possible against the PAP. WP leader Sylvia Lim and Reform Party leader Kenneth Jeyaratnam have given their support to Chee. So far no other candidate has thrown their hat into the ring to contest the by-elections.

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