Take heart SDP, and take heed PAP

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By Howard Lee

It was perhaps a great deal of hope that Dr Chee Soon Juan would win the Bukit Batok by-election, but at the base of every hope there would be a bit of doubt.

That doubt was realised on 7 May. In spite of one of the best-run and most co-ordinated election campaigns I have seen, peppered with many heartfelt moments on social media, SDP lost to the People’s Action Party.

But what, really, should we have expected? Bukit Batok was PAP’s to lose with the odds stacked firmly against Chee and SDP. Right off the bat, the incumbent swooshed in offering an upgrading carrot even before nomination day. This was followed by a relentless barrage of character attacks on Chee himself, led by many cabinet Ministers including the Prime Minister himself.

Bukit Batok voters were left with the unreasonable choice of choosing between a PAP yes-man who would bring in the goodies, and a charismatic champion of social justice who would likely face unsurmountable obstacles in implementing any plans he can dream up. In Singapore politics, pragmatism always weigh heavy.

But SDP and its supporters should take heart, for there is definitely light at the end of this dark tunnel. While the results might be an anti-climax of the famed “by-election effect”, there is really a lot to cheer about.

For one, the margin. We need to look at the results in comparison to what Sadasivam Veriyah, the previous SDP candidate in Bukit Batok, achieved (26.4%) and what Chee achieved in Holland-Bukit Timah (33.38%). Looking even further back, Chee’s personal election record in either a general election or by-election, GRC or SMC, has never exceeded 35%. The results on Saturday, by comparison, is a commendable improvement over all this.

If we were to put the results next to the hustings, what can we infer? Clearly, an SDP led by Chee has made enormous headway into the electorate. In spite of the salvos of attacks on Chee’s personality, his perceived checkered past, the upgrading promises by the PAP, and the endless stream of support from PAP bigwigs – including the extremely popular Tharman Shanmugaratnam – something clicked among the voters of Bukit Batok.

Was it regret about the massive swing to the PAP in GE2015? Very possible, and all the more poignant given that this is a PAP stronghold resting on the safe shoulders of Tharman.

Nevertheless, we should also take heart that this by-election was rare in that a lot more was said about national issues. Chee’s dogged determination to ignore the assault on his character and focus media attention on his party’s policy proposals would likely have led to a refreshed awareness of SDP’s town council plans, healthcare plans and most significantly, the retrenchment insurance proposal.

Policy issues was covered to such a great extent that the PAP looked almost desperate when they finally trotted out “Thaminator”, the only person in PAP’s current fold who has ever taken on the SDP directly on its alternative policies, in a last-ditch attempt to debunk them.

By all counts, this by-election was an extremely good public relations project for SDP, one which they seized with gusto. Drowned out by the cacophony of petty bickering and “integrity slamming” at GE2015, the media attention for Bukit Batok was clearly different. While “character” still took centre stage, there were definitely more lines given to national policies, a forte that justly belongs to SDP.

Defeat is always hard to stomach, no matter how good the results might be. But SDP will surely live to fight another day, and Chee himself has clearly won a lot of ground.

For the PAP, this is hardly the time to gloat. Of course, there might eventually be some self-consolation on how Murali lost on the race card, but the fact remains that the PAP has pulled out every trick to multi-racialise him, including election posters and the affectionate “Ah Mu”.

But the swing in support for SDP is a sure sign that a lot more attention needs to be paid on two fronts.

The first would be a serious reconsideration of national policies that includes SDP’s ideas. And if you copy, admit it and give credit where it is due. If there is one thing that the electorate has shown contempt for, it would be hypocrisy.

The second, end the gutter politics. Character attacks on candidates should have no place in our political life. Focus on the contest of ideas.

There is no honour in winning by side-stabbing your opponents, or by side-stepping the issues. The voters of Bukit Batok have made that much clear, and we should respect them for edging up our political discourse to a new level.