By Howard Lee
If studies by the Institute of Policy Studies are anything to go by, half of the voters in Bukit Batok would have already decided on who to vote for in the coming by-election. My views would have little to no impact on the results, and neither do I wish to. This is their vote, and a choice they have to make for their future, at least for the next few years.
But certainly some things must be said about this particular contest, in particular how the mainstream media has pitched the battle to voters. The best of mainstream media coverage, to its credit, have focused exclusively on the contest between the People’s Action Party’s Murali Pillai and the Singapore Democratic Party’s Chee Soon Juan, and this in all fairness is likely to be the way the contest will shape up to be. Coverage of one has been match by coverage of the other, almost in a tit-for-tat literary battle, but we cannot say for sure that this balance should be viewed as fairness to both.
Nothing characterises this best than a commentary in The Straits Times, which essentially broke down the battle into five “worth-watching” pivots – character (ala infidelity), straight fight or not, race politics, heartlander vs professional, and Chee as the “bad boy made good”. If any Bukit Batok voter would to consider these seriously, they might be aghast to discover how trivial such pivot arguments are.
For a start, the real contest in any election or by-election has never been any of those considerations. It has been the face-time of politicians (the PAP would baulk at this suggestion of populism, but they are the biggest beneficiaries of this), the grassroots advantage, and the goodies.
Murali has the upper hand in all three areas, the first two being closely related. He benefits from the established grassroots support in the constituency, built up over the years as part of Jurong GRC. In a similar vein, the face-time he has with residents has also been established, chiefly from his time as a former grassroots leader in the area. While some might see this as unfair advantage, we have to acknowledge that these factors have been a mainstay of the PAP machinery, and we should not begrudge Murali reaping their benefits to his advantage.
Murali also has face-time advantage in mainstream media, although most might not notice it that way. The likes of The Straits Times continue to pitch Murali against Chee as the “bad boy made good”, which by itself is already a clear snide to Chee, placing him immediately at a perceptual disadvantage. Such pitches by the media should never have been condoned, and we should question why a national broadsheet would continue to play up Chee’s political past rather than focus on what he is presenting to voters.
And finally, the goodies. Murali could hardly wait until nomination day to announce the PAP’s usual slew of election carrots – estate upgrading plans that have been used as far back as the 1990s should have been considered obsolete in the PAP’s electioneering armada. Nevertheless, Murali continues to ride on the glory of plans already laid out by government agencies, which some have already pointed out to be bogus.
Conversely, Chee’s response to Murali’s carrot was conveniently drowned out by a non-issue. The use of former MP Chiam See Tong on the SDP website was wrung out as an attempt by Chee to ride on the glory of his former mentor and Singapore’s political legend. SDP has denied this to be so, and it should have not gone further than that, but the media continues to stoke old fires.
Meanwhile, while it was good that Chee’s policy proposals – a detailed town council handover plan, retirement insurance funds, and citizens’ consultation on estate upgrading – received their fair share of airtime, Murali was never quizzed on what he has to match.
Bukit Batok voters would likely be left to grapple with the same old choice: Vote for stability and a well-maintained estate (which according to the PAP is really what an MP should be focused on), or vote for someone who will fight for your long-term welfare, but will invariably face stiff resistance in Parliament (even though the PAP has not made a bleep in objecting said proposals).
In reality, there is very little to choose from. And we should all feel ashamed that politics has devolved to such a state in Singapore.
Bukit Batok residents are now forced, by political play as much as by media play-up, to make a choice between a town councillor and a policy advocate, when in any reasonable democracy, they deserve to have both. The injustice is not just to them, but to all of us in every election that came before David Ong decided on his “personal indiscretion”.
The true infidelity here, then, is not Ong’s but of pundits and media alike who want to see a catfight more than a genuine debate on the issues that matter, and we are all losers in this spectacle.
Voters’ choice for Bukit Batok – what really matters?
By Howard Lee