Of vice and men: Singapore’s third by-election in 5 years

By Jolene Yeo

The year 2015 was significant for Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP). It performed exceedingly well for the election that was largely regarded as a barometer of the post-Lee Kuan Yew era. This, despite even social media seeming to convey Singaporeans’ desire for greater political diversity, in recent years.

However, recent by-elections necessitated by the personal indiscretions of a handful of Members of Parliament (MPs) have rung a warning bell to the possible jeopardy of Singapore’s finely knitted social contract.

While many may debate whether public figures should be held accountable for their private lives, it should not come as a surprise that Singapore – characterised as embodying strong Confucian values and traits as at the height of the Asian values debate in the 1990s – would intrinsically find itself leaning towards the Confucian ‘rule by virtue’ belief.

Prior to the 2016 by-election, the by-election for Punggol East constituency in January 2013 due to the resignation of its MP Michael Palmer, who also the Speaker of Parliament, for whom an alleged extramarital affair led to his fall from grace. This resulted in Lee Li Lian of the Workers’ Party triumphing with 54.5%.

Before that in 2012, the Workers’ Party expelled its elected MP for Hougang constituency, Yaw Shin Leong, thereby vacating that parliamentary seat. In any event, the Workers’ Party continued to hold Hougang in the ensuing by-election.

Next week on 7 May, Singapore will hold its third by-election in five years, due to a similar moral transgression, this time by MP David Ong of Bukit Batok constituency. He won with a robust 73.02% during the 2015 general election. Mr Ong resigned on 12 March, and issued an apology to the residents of Bukit Batok constituency thereafter.

Following nomination day, and after strife speculations of a multi-cornered fight, it has been confirmed that Mr Murali Pillai of the PAP and Dr Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) will go on head-to-head for Bukit Batok.

‘Hardware’ vs ‘Heartware’?

Already in the lead up to Nomination Day on 27 April, the candidates-hopeful have since walked the grounds and unveiled their respective plans for Bukit Batok SMC.

In a report published by the Straits Times on 25 April, Mr Murali has unveiled $1.9 million worth of infrastructure plans—which could be made possible were he to be elected, in what seems to be an attempt to cajole residents and canvas for votes.

While the circumstances that led to the resignation of David Ong may catalyse a shift in loyalities among voters, the PAP hopes Mr Murali’s promise of a “better Bukit Batok” will reorient voters’ focus away the personal failings of the fallen MP, to what seems to be a dependable slew of PAP leaders serving the Jurong-Clementi town council which runs Bukit Batok.

On the other hand, Dr Chee Soon Juan of the SDP has promised to roll out social initiatives for Bukit Batok residents, should he be elected. Asiaone reported that the programmes target a broad swathe of residents from youth to the elderly, and will help those who have fallen through the cracks. The social initiatives that have been unveiled include households adopting needy families to support, organising youth clubs, and the establishment of a financial clinic and a legal clinic.

The SDP’s contesting of the Bukit Batok constituency holds great political significance to Singapore. The Online Citizen—a community blogging platform involved in political activism in Singapore reports that it is “immaterial” as to whether SDP is able to pull of an upset in Bukit Batok SMC. Rather, an increase in vote share past the 40% barrier would demonstrate that last year’s dismal results for Singapore’s opposition does not set the trend for the future of Singapore’s politics.

This increase in vote share can be brought about through party campaigns and by riding on the waves of what is now known as a “by-election effect”, a phenomenon observed during the 2013 by-election to which SMU law professor Eugene Tan notes as “voters turning to the opposition knowing that the ruling PAP is already in power.”.

Moving full swing ahead

As the by-election campaign kicked off with the nomination of candidates yesterday (27 April), it remains to be seen which candidates will win the hearts and minds of the electorate.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, leader of the PAP, wrote in a Facebook post that the “partnership between Government and citizens is key to our success. I hope Bukit Batok residents will elect the candidate who will be concerned for their welfare, represent them ably in Parliament, and make Bukit Batok the best home for them”.

Notwithstanding the outcome of the by-election, it would be to the betterment of Bukit Batok residents if the suggestions by both the candidates contesting would be taken into the government’s consideration, so as to let ground up social initiatives complement the necessity and practical benefits of infrastructure improvements.