BB BE: The Murali method

May 02, 2016 08.38PM |

by Bertha Henson

ONE man seems to have been forgotten over the weekend of sound and fury in Bukit Batok. He’s lawyer Murali Pillai. You remember him? The People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate?

It’s no wonder, because how can a mere candidate move out of the shadow of big wigs who accompany him on his walkabouts or speak for him at rallies? The spotlight will fall on the higher-ranked politicians, not the aspiring Member of Parliament (MP). So attention is paid to what the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister (DPM), and Cabinet minister said. Even the Facebook post of a Cabinet minister on the by-election is more newsworthy than Ah Mu’s walkabout.

Their words matter more because they can talk about policy and, hmm, character. They’ve been in the fray before and are already elected, so as party elders, they’re qualified to speak. But if a mere candidate starts, say, talking about honesty and integrity, then he comes across as a holier-than-thou, patronizing, and condescending upstart. Mr Murali could, of course, talk about policy, like rebutting Dr Chee Soon Juan’s charges that the G preferred educating foreigners to locals. He could try clarification and correction, but it would come across as defensive. If he agreed with Dr Chee, he would be breaking ranks.

Dr Chee knows this; hence, his rally statements that he can do more in Parliament than Mr Murali to keep the G to account and raise “hard’’ questions on policies. He is banking on the by-election effect, which has traditionally served opposition parties better. In fact, he is speaking as if he was contesting in a general election.

So the fighting words have come from other PAP leaders while Mr Murali keeps his nose to the ground and pounds the beat. Steadily. Quietly. Clearly, the PAP strategy is for its candidate to take on Dr Chee only on the issue of who is better suited to serve Bukit Batok residents at the grassroots level. (Leave the firing to the big guns, Ah Mu, go focus on the residents!)

So Mr Murali has been extremely bread-and-butter in his approach. He spoke about the $1.9 million Neighbourhood Renewal Plan he will push through if elected. Then there were announcements about a healthcare cooperative and a job placement programme. He referred to his past experience in Bukit Batok and later, Paya Lebar. He made sure people knew he could relate to people of all races.

Mr Murali was concerned enough about his rival’s pitch – on becoming a full-time MP if elected – to address the issue: “Dr Chee has mentioned, I’m told, that it is not humanly possible to have a day job and then attend to the needs of Bukit Batok residents. I’m afraid my experience is different. PAP MPs have been doing this day in and day out. They take care of the residents’ needs, as and when it arises – it can even be in the daytime – they will prioritise the residents’ needs ahead of their own.’’

A team approach, he said, was needed to meet the needs of residents. A single MP working full time without partnerships would not be able to do so.

Today, he brought in a representative of Good Life Cooperative, which will work with him to implement the healthcare cooperative. The cooperative, he said, would aim to “reduce the cost of certain consumables, particularly for the sandwiched class, because the sandwiched class don’t get the same amount of subsidies as the low-income families”. It will also help the elderly “understand illnesses better, so that they are able to prevent or delay the onset of illnesses through lifestyle changes”.

Speaker for speaker, Dr Chee beats Mr Murali hands down. He is eloquent in English and competent enough in Mandarin. He has rhetorical flourishes and relishes being on stage. Mr Murali, on the other hand, comes across as cautious and scripted. It does not help his profile that he keeps referring to the Jurong family, as if relying on the shadow of DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam to give him cover. So it is not a fight between Mr Murali and Dr Chee, but the PAP machinery and the head of an opposition political party.

Needless to say. Dr Chee has been needling Mr Murali on becoming a “part-time’’ MP, even if he pledged to give Bukit Batok residents priority. Dr Chee said he wants to show Singaporeans that “full-time MPs from the SDP can take care of their needs a lot better than what you see in PAP constituencies”.

The “full-time MP’’ proposal is a favorite line of opposition politicians in elections. The job comes with a $15,000 a month allowance, which leads to the uncharitable view that MPs who make less than this sum of money previously could well afford to drop their day job. (Dr Chee, by the way, has pledged to give half his allowance to kickstart a programme for children if he is elected.)

PAP candidates have never pitched themselves this way, although some move on into the role later. MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling, for example, left her job as a consultant at Ernst & Young in 2011 after she was elected.

“I thought that it is only the right thing to do, to dedicate more time, to understand the ground, to get to know the residents, to really have a better grasp of the issues that my residents face here. And also at work, I felt that if I had to spend more time on the ground, then potentially there would be an impact on my boss and also my colleagues. Between the two, I had to make a choice and I chose to dedicate myself to MacPherson.”

Then there was Mr Baey Yam Keng who, after six years as an MP, decided leave his managing director job in public relations firm Hill & Knowlton in 2012 to become a full-time MP in Tampines Group Representation Constituency (GRC). He used to serve in Tanjong Pagar GRC.

“I was new to my constituency and had to start from scratch. After six years as a MP, I found I did not have much time left after performing my MP duties and running the PR firm. Family time was being sacrificed,’’ he said when explaining his decision.

He is no longer a full-time MP; he was appointed Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) in October 2015.

Does it matter to residents if they have a full-time MP?

To an increasingly demanding electorate, having someone devoted to their needs full-time is a seductive notion. This is something that Mr Murali and the PAP will find difficult to counter, especially since a few of their own have done the same. They cannot say, for example, that an MP with work interests will gain a wider worldview of local and national needs, instead of getting sucked into municipal minutiae.

The consolation for the PAP is that being a full-time MP didn’t work for Ms Lee Li Lian of the Workers’ Party, who lost Punggol East in the last election. Then again, she is no Low Thia Kiang. Or Chee Soon Juan.


Featured Image by Najeer Yusof.

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