On April 19, a political analyst in Singapore who declined to be named said opposition leader Chee Soon Juan, a five-time unsuccessful political candidate for office, would have to get 30 to 35 percent of the vote in a by-election in the working-class Bukit Batok district to remain a viable political leader.
Chee was trounced as usual, this time by a 48-year-old People’s Action Party veteran named Murali Pillai, an indication of the thankless business of being an opposition politician in a state where the majority party holds the cards. But the leader of the long-repressed Singapore Democratic Party did manage to pull 38.8 percent of the vote in the constituency, most of whose residents live in public housing. That was a 12 percent improvement over the SDP’s candidate in the district in the 2014 general election.
Chee will stay on as the head of the party, he said. Clad in his trademark red polo shirt – as were his campaign workers — and garlanded with orchids, Chee climbed onto a makeshift stage in the middle of a field at 11:30 on Saturday night and told his constituents: “I want to thank my supporters, the voters of Bukit Batok who voted for us, you have my deep gratitude. For those who didn’t, I will be around to persuade you to continue to work, to convince you in the next round to work for the SDP.”
The by-election opened up when David Ong, a PAP MP, resigned his seat in the constituency when the husband of his lover and campaign volunteer lodged a complaint about their affair and the subsequent publicity drove him from both the office and the ruling party.
Whiffs of inconvenient immorality from a political party that demands purity from its participants might have created a favorable political atmosphere for Chee, along with the fact that the district is largely composed of working-class constituents in public housing. The SDP’s youthful idealists working for Chee could visit all the voters in the projects, unlike many private housing estates.
In the end it didn’t work out in Chee’s favor. There is still memory on the part of people in the public estates of delays in upgrading their digs if they cast inconveniently incorrect votes. Goh Chok Tong, who succeeded Lee Kuan Yew as prime minister from 1990 to 2004, once threatened to turn constituencies into slums if they didn’t vote for the PAP. Lee Kuan Yew in his heyday was considerably harsher.
This time, Murali Pillai and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong both assured the voters that that sort of thing doesn’t happen anymore. For decades, Singaporeans refused to believe their votes were really secret, for the good reason that they may not have been.
It may have been that voters indeed weren’t willing to take that risk. But there is also the problem that the SDP and other splinter parties that make up the country’s tiny opposition continue to exist at the periphery of the political system, too often scratching for issues in a city state where a majority party combines technocratic competence with a fearsome electoral machine and vast financial and political resources.
The race does seem to have been run largely on the level despite the fact that the government controls all of the media and uses it in the same way that armies use howitzers, Chee’s army of young volunteers were able to have the run of the housing estate and to deliver their message. Chee apparently lost some cred when he misstated government employment figures and was caught out.
“Last night, Chee lost the by-election,” said Teo Soh Lung, the leader of the Function 8 Ltd. NGO and an SDP backer. “It was understandable because seven million-dollar ministers were against him and they threw tons of mud at him.”
Nonetheless, despite the lopsided defeat, there seems a general feeling of hopefulness that Chee got enough of the vote to provide for a solid base to grow on despite the PAP’s pounding away at him over character issues. These are issues that were largely manufactured by the government, as the PAP often has. Chee has arguably been the most maligned politician in the nation since the then-neuropsychologist joined the SDP to contest a local election only to have his position at the National University of Singapore terminated, allegedly for misappropriation of research funds. He later initiated a hunger strike, saying the charges were fabricated. Ultimately, Chee was named a Prisoner of Conscience by Amnesty International. He has repeatedly been sued for libel in cases that human rights organizations have denounced as fabrications. Nonetheless, PAP figures have continued to question his suitability for office.
The conclusion of the Bukit Batok race leaves the SDP still without a single seat in the parliament. Its rival opposition party, the Worker Party, has six as well as three who are non-elected “non-constituency members of parliament or nominated members of parliament. The PAP, having righted its ship in the 2014 race, has 82 members and looks set for a comfortable future.