SINGAPORE: Chee Soon Juan and Murali Pillai are among the top-spending candidates in Singapore's electoral history, with both men shelling out more than S$80,000 each for last month’s Bukit Batok by-election.
Dr Chee of the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) spent S$87,200, while the People’s Action Party (PAP)'s Mr Murali reported a total expenditure of S$82,091.
The numbers surpass the previous high in a single-member constituency (SMC) of S$81,165 chalked up by PAP’s Tin Pei Ling in MacPherson at the 2015 General Election.
25,727 Bukit Batok residents were eligible to vote in the by-election on May 7, which saw the PAP retain the seat. Mr Murali garnered 61.23 per cent of the votes to Dr Chee's 38.77 per cent.
On a per voter basis, Dr Chee’s spend of S$3.39 exceeded the previous high held by PAP’s Desmond Choo. Mr Choo, who was unsuccessful in his bid, spent S$3.32 per voter in the 2012 Hougang by-election.
In the 2015 General Election, the PAP spent S$2.16 per voter, compared to 73 cents for the opposition parties.
Mr Devadas Krishnadas, the CEO of Future-Moves Group, noted that the average spending per voter is rising with each electoral episode. "This reflects the growing competitiveness of political contests," he said.
COMPARISON WITH PUNGGOL-EAST BY-ELECTION
On a per vote won basis, the numbers translate to a spend of S$9.54 for Dr Chee. This is higher than what the top-spending PAP and opposition SMC candidates reported for GE 2015. The PAP’s Grace Fu spent S$4.39 in Yuhua, while the Singapore People's Party’s Jeannette Chong-Aruldoss spent S$8.77 in Mountbatten.
The Singapore Democratic Alliance’s Desmond Lim still holds the record for the highest expenditure per vote won, at S$355.61. In the four-cornered Punggol-East by-election in 2013, he spent S$59,743 – including the S$14,500 election deposit – and got only 168 votes, or 0.57 per cent of the vote share.
The 2013 by-election was also more expensive overall, with the four candidates spending a total of S$223,269, compared with Dr Chee and Mr Murali's combined S$169,291.
OF FLYER DISTRIBUTORS AND FACEBOOK ADS
Almost half of the bill for both candidates went to publicity and advertising. Dr Chee spent S$41,932, with a third going to logistics and manpower to distribute publicity materials. In comparison, Mr Murali's advertising costs came up to about S$37,279.
Dr Gillian Koh, Deputy Director of Research, at the Institute Of Policy Studies, said the fact that SDP "spent quite a lot of money hiring people to send out flyers" is indicative of the position of the two parties in Bukit Batok.
"The PAP has been there campaigning, has very long-term grassroots connections there. On the other hand, presumably SDP doesn't have as strong a network of volunteers and grassroots circle down in Bukit Batok," she said.
For both candidates, the budget for publicity and advertising also included money spent on Facebook advertisements. Dr Chee forked out S$645 in Facebook ads, while Mr Murali spent about half that amount – about S$317.
Associate Professor Tan Ern Ser, a sociologist at the National University of Singapore pointed out that the Facebook ads still only make up a small portion of the budget.
"Because this is a by-election relating to one constituency – you do not necessarily need to spend so much on social media, because you'll end up hitting all kinds of people who eventually won't be your voters. In a General Election, it makes more sense to try and spend more on social media," he said.
TRADITIONAL RALLIES VERSUS ONLINE CAMPAIGNS
The next big ticket item was the rallies, which account for a third of the total bill for both men. Dr Chee spent about S$30,060 to hold four rallies, while Mr Murali spent at least S$28,224 on two.
This contrasts with the Punggol-East by-election just three years ago, in which rallies formed the bulk of the bill – at 70 per cent of expenses for the Workers’ Party Lee Li Lian, and 50 per cent for PAP’s Koh Poh Koon.
"This reflects less the declining importance of rallies and in person outreach – which remain relevant and well attended – and more that our society is more connected," said Mr Krishnadas, adding that this means political communication has to be multi-channel.
He also noted that data analytics from online campaigning can also provide intelligence on social sentiment and inform electoral strategy.