HAVING spent more than 16 years as an activist in Bukit Batok, Murali Pillai hopes the residents there will give him their vote at the upcoming by-election in the single-member constituency.
The 48-year-old father of four, a top lawyer at Rajah & Tann, was formally introduced on Monday as the People's Action Party (PAP) candidate to contest the poll.
It is not known when the by-election will be held; Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has only said it would be called "in due course", but political watchers reckon it is likely to take place as early as May, after the two-week Budget and Committee of Supply debate in Parliament is over in mid-April.
The by-election was triggered by the surprise resignation of former Member of Parliament David Ong on March 12, allegedly over his extra-marital affair with a fellow party member. Both Mr Ong and the woman have since resigned from the PAP.
Mr Murali, a former secretary at the PAP's Bukit Batok branch, was in the ruling party's five-member team that narrowly lost to the opposition Workers' Party in Aljunied GRC in last September's general election.
The announcement of his candidacy came a day after Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) chief Chee Soon Juan was officially unveiled as the opposition party's choice to contest the ward.
Speaking at a packed news conference, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said the party was "very comfortable" with its decision to field Mr Murali.
"(He) proved his worth in Aljunied. He worked very hard, got to know people on the ground, and he swung the vote. So Murali, because of his personal character, his knowledge and relationships in Bukit Batok, gave us confidence," said Mr Tharman, who is also the PAP's second assistant secretary-general.
"We have a man who knows Bukit Batok and its people well, works well with everyone, (and is) totally dedicated to residents. I've known Murali for the last 15 years and I have the highest regard for him."
Mr Murali, a former senior police officer, is the head of the commercial litigation department at Rajah & Tann, and has more than 100 lawyers reporting to him.
He said that if he wins the by-election, he would stay on at the country's largest law firm.
He pledged to serve "with all my heart" if elected, stressing that his special focus would be on the elderly and needy residents in Bukit Batok, which is a mature estate.
The constituency has a population of about 45,900, with around 27,000 people eligible to vote. Nearly 96 per cent of them live in public housing, with four in 10 households in four-room flats.
During the hour-long press conference, Mr Murali said he was not concerned about the prospect of facing Dr Chee, a veteran politician preparing for his fifth run for a place in the House:
"As far as I'm concerned, politics is only about serving residents and I consider myself seasoned because I have put in quite a bit of time serving residents' needs, and that's really the focus," said Mr Murali. "I'm also confident that, if elected, I will continue to be able to support their needs with the support of grassroots activists."
Meanwhile, Mr Tharman said the party had considered several strong candidates before plumping for Mr Murali, and that the final decision had been made before the SDP declared Dr Chee as its candidate.
Mr Tharman, the anchor minister in the neighbouring Jurong GRC, said: "We did not want to rush (our) announcement immediately after David Ong's resignation ... We also wanted to listen to the ground (and) understand what sort of person they wanted to see."
He added that Bukit Batok residents have a "high regard" for Mr Ong - their MP for six years - and felt sorry that he had to leave.
"They understood why we had acted, they understood why he resigned. (It's) because the PAP upholds high standards in politics," said Mr Tharman.
He conceded that the opposition holds the advantage in a by-election, and that the party had factored that in during its discussions to pick its candidate.
At the last GE, the PAP won comfortably in Bukit Batok with 73.02 per cent of the vote in a three-cornered fight. The two other contenders were the SDP's Sadasivam Veriyah, who got 26.4 per cent, and independent candidate Samir Salim Neji, who lost his election deposit when he picked up only 0.6 per cent of the vote.