SDP on journey to nowhere under Chee Soon Juan?

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Even with the factors in his favour in the Bukit Batok by-election, the opposition politician still lost. PAP activist Michael Chia said the outcome showed that voters do not trust him.

When the SDP's Dr Chee Soon Juan lost the Bukit Batok by-election, he declared that "this doesn't feel like a defeat". He seems to think that scoring his highest vote percentage since his debut in politics should be regarded as a feather in his cap.

But is this really the case?

The general sentiment was that this was an election for the SDP to lose for three main reasons: the personal indiscretion of PAP's former MP, the "by-election effect" and the race factor. Many analysts deduced that for these reasons, the SDP had the by-election all sewn up prior to voting on May 7.

First, the very reason for the by-election would have obviously put the PAP on the back foot.

The infamous "by-election effect" was a second crucial factor. The last time the PAP won a by-election in a single seat was in 1979. In past by-elections, voters had demonstrated that they were willing to support the opposition candidate because there was no risk of the PAP not forming the government as a result of the by-election outcome. As such, a by-election has always been seen as an opportunity for voters to bring opposition voices into Parliament.

Race was also thought to be a third factor in the SDP's favour. Since the Chinese comprise a majority of the population and the PAP fielded a non-Chinese candidate, Bukit Batok seemed ripe for the picking for the SDP.

Despite these factors, the PAP's Murali Pillai won. A party activist with 16 years of service in Bukit Batok, his dedication and sincerity clearly won the hearts of the voters.

Dr Chee only managed 38.79 per cent despite the odds in his favour. While he described it as his "personal best", the fact remains that he failed to breach the psychological threshold of 40 per cent, even though this was his fifth election in almost 25 years.

His previous "best" was in the 1997 general election when he contested MacPherson where he got 34.9 per cent of the vote. Almost 20 years later, his new "best" was 38.79 per cent - an increase of less than 4 per cent. That's all he has to show after spending a quarter century in Singapore politics. Never in our history has a politician gained so few votes after spending so much time in politics!

Chee Soon Juan disrespects electorate

What takes the cake was Dr Chee's admonishment of the local media for their "biased" reporting. Any objective analysis will show there was balance by the media in their coverage of the two candidates' campaigns.

In blaming the media and other external factors for his defeat, Dr Chee is devaluing the Singaporean voter and disrespecting their choice. He is essentially saying Singaporeans were unable to choose the better candidate independently.

The SDP also tried to blame the PAP for raising issues about Dr Chee's past and character. But in not recognising the importance of character, Dr Chee and other SDP leaders also showed a fundamental misreading of the Singapore electorate.

Finally, to surmise that GE2015 was a fluke because of the passing of Mr Lee Kuan Yew and SG50 celebrations would be to discount the many policy shifts made by the PAP government in the last few years.

Improved sentiments towards PAP

The PAP's ability to hold on to Bukit Batok with a 20-plus percentage point margin, despite the punishing "by-election effect", is actually evidence of a sustained improvement in the national mood towards the ruling party.

In contrast, remember what happened in 2012 when the WP's Yaw Shin Leong vacated the Hougang seat under scandalous circumstances? The PAP was unable to win the seat at that time. But clearly, sentiments towards the PAP have improved since then.

Obviously, a majority of the Bukit Batok electorate do not like or trust Dr Chee. Furthermore, they do not think the SDP's policy alternatives are credible enough for them to overlook their dislike or mistrust of him. Dr Chee lost, even with the circumstances in his favour.

All this begs the question whether Dr Chee's brand of politics and leadership is leading SDP in the right direction.

The SDP had at one time held three seats in Parliament under the leadership of its former Secretary-General, Mr Chiam See Tong. In contrast, Dr Chee has failed to secure a single seat, even when a winning hand was dealt to him.

As the SDP scrambles to explain this "latest stop" in what Dr Chee calls his "political journey", they may do better and recognise that with him at the helm, theirs may well be a journey to nowhere.

The writer is a PAP activist at Bukit Timah Branch.

This article was first published in the May 2016 issue of Petir Magazine.

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