BB BE: And the winner is… Murali (Or Tharman?)

May 08, 2016 12.32AM |

by Bertha Henson

QUIETLY does it. The Murali Method worked. And rather than the by-election effect helping the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP), it had to contend with the Tharman effect.

That’s a guess, of course.

Back to the news.

So Mr Murali, 49, a lawyer, has come full circle. The former People’s Action Party (PAP) branch secretary for Bukit Batok who became a member of the PAP suicide squad in Aljunied GRC in the last GE was declared MP for Bukit Batok at about 11.30pm last night (May 7). He took 61.2 per cent of the vote while his rival, SDP’s Chee Soon Juan, secured 38.8 per cent.

It was not a nail-biting finish. Indications came when the sample vote count of the 25,727 votes was announced at 9.24pm. Mr Murali had 61 per cent of the vote compared to Dr Chee’s 39 per cent. With a 4 percentage point error margin either way, it was clear that Mr Murali would take the prize.

At a press conference after the final tally was announced, Mr Murali said he was humbled by – not triumphant about – his victory. He thanked the SDP for putting up a well-organised campaign as it helped him articulate his plans for the ward “much better”. He would start work immediately.

The press conference was held at the party branch premises at the void deck of Block 148, Bukit Batok West Ave 6. Asked why he eschewed the open field allotted for PAP supporters at Bukit Batok Industrial Park A and decided on the void deck office, he said: “This was where it all began 15 years ago when I started serving in this branch.”

Over at Bukit Gombak Stadium, Dr Chee stood next to his wife on a podium to thank his supporters and congratulate Mr Murali. He said: “I said before that I wanted to win with honour and lose with grace.”

At 38 per cent, Dr Chee did better than his party colleague, Mr Sadasivam Veriyah, who secured 26 per cent of the vote in GE2015. He managed to shave the PAP margin by 12 percentage points. This was also also his best electoral showing since he started his political career by taking part in another by-election, for Marine Parade GRC in 1992.

Mr Murali said he was encouraged by the vote and when asked about the thinner margin, he quipped that he was used to razor-thin margins after being a candidate for Aljunied GRC.

The two men’s respective choice of venues reflected their different campaign styles which would doubtless be dissected over the next few days for signs of what worked to swing voters. While Dr Chee stood for change and challenge, Mr Murali was about stability and effectiveness.

By-elections tend to favour the opposition, as evidenced by the wins of the Workers’ Party in the Punggol East and Hougang elections in 2012. The argument works this way: With the PAP already in power, why not vote in the opposition to check on the G?

Dr Chee, who spoke at four rallies in nine days, told Bukit Batok residents he would be their full-time MP and their “voice in Parliament”. He spoke on national issues, such as retrenchment insurance, while assuring residents that he could run their town council effectively. He kept a high profile, with the media trailing his every move, and his party churning out information on social media.

Mr Murali ran a muted campaign. His pitch to voters: Trust the PAP’s track record of running a town council and his own record of community service.

Was this what kept Bukit Batok in the PAP fold?

Bukit Batok is not a new estate teeming with young families complaining about lack of facilities or demanding transparency or freedom of expression. It is a mature estate with one elderly voter in 10, who are more likely than young people to be in the PAP camp. They need ramps and easy access to facilities, which the PAP and its grassroots network are more likely able to provide than the SDP.

Mr Murali had big hitters on his side including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who last weekend lambasted Dr Chee for being hypocritical in allowing SDP speakers to malign Mr David Ong, while he declared himself to be above the fray. Whether this had an effect on voters is uncertain, given that Dr Chee’s history of run-ins with the law and his old mentor Chiam See Tong would be lost on younger voters. It could also have turned off some voters who view the remarks as a character smear – something that the SDP made much of.

No one, however, should underestimate Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shamugaratnam’s pulling power. His Jurong GRC team scored an impressive 79 per cent of the vote in GE2015. Mr Tharman has been ever-present during the campaign, saying many times that the single-seat ward of Bukit Batok will be part of “the Jurong family” – and get priority treatment too. Unless there is great discontent with the work of the Jurong-Clementi Town Council, there is little reason for the residents to cut themselves off and come under an untested SDP regime.

His speech at the last PAP rally on Thursday night was a tour de force. He picked apart the SDP’s policy proposals and threw his weight behind Mr Murali’s candidacy. He was a man you can trust, said Mr Tharman.

The DPM was not there at the press conference. Instead Mr Murali was flanked by PAP branch leaders. Whatever cover the DPM had provided for Mr Murali, it was clear that the stage was for Mr Murali. The win went to him, and his party helpers.

There’s another thing, an undercurrent, about this by-election: race.

In a straight fight between an Indian and a Chinese, the Indian won. This is despite the ward having a higher proportion of Chinese residents than other wards. You can read the results either way: Race had nothing to do with the election or Mr Murali would have scored less.

Or, that race had something to do with it or he would scored more.

Perhaps, it doesn’t matter. In the end, Mr Murali won.

And Mr Tharman is not Chinese either.


Featured Image by Natassya Diana. 

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