SINGAPORE: Murali Pillai has an avuncular manner about him. Throughout our interview he is amiable and exudes an approachability that might make most people want to invite him for coffee.
But when required, he can be a fiery politician as seen during some of his speeches during his PAP team’s campaign in the 2015 election in Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) and again when he contested and won the 2016 by-election in the Bukit Batok Single-Member Constituency.
It was only then that he became a Member of Parliament, making him the newest MP in Parliament today.
Two years on, the 51-year old lawyer has spoken in Parliament about issues such as social mobility, balancing the Budget and legal matters such as rehabilitative options for offenders with challenging psychiatric illnesses.
As we sit down to discuss his political career so far, he describes his election experiences as “phenomenal”. Both times, he had to go up against highly experienced opposition politicians.
But he says the most important lesson he learnt goes back to the basics of public service.
“The relationship of trust is key. Trust takes an eternity to build but can be lost very, very quickly and that must be the focus in grassroots politics - building that trust,” he says.
His debut election experience in Aljunied GRC certainly proved that.
To listen to the full interview, click here.
BEING PART OF THE ‘SUICIDE SQUAD’
In 2011 the PAP lost the GRC to the Workers’ Party (WP) led by Mr Low Thia Khiang.
In 2015, the PAP team that went up against the WP in Aljunied was dubbed a “suicide squad”.
Mr Murali was selected to be part of this squad.
His team lost narrowly, garnering 49 per cent of the vote.
But Mr Murali managed to beat WP heavyweight Chen Show Mao by about 300 votes in his Paya Lebar ward.
When I point this out, he decisively interjects.
“No comments on that. We fought as a team and we lost as a team. I think it’s not fair to Mr Chen to talk about this. Let's be clear on this. There were five of us and we lost to the five-member WP team.”
He acknowledges it was, at the very least, a “tough fight”.
“We were going up against real WP heavyweights - Mr Low, Sylvia Lim, Pritam Singh, Chen Show Mao, Faisal Manap. It’s a recognition of their popularity and the work that they do in Aljunied.”
While some would describe Mr Murali as a political novice, he was not a stranger to the area.
He was a long-time party activist, who joined the PAP in 2001 and was noticed largely because of the pro bono legal work he did for residents in Bukit Batok.
He was the branch secretary at PAP's Bukit Batok Branch from 2007 to 2011 and in 2012, he was appointed the chairman of the party's Paya Lebar Branch.
“The precursor to me being fielded is that I was involved in restarting a number of community programmes in Aljunied GRC, specifically the Paya Lebar division from around 2012. Through that process I got to know the community leaders there, the residents and eventually that led to the party leadership asking me to stand for election there.”
His experience on the ground was clearly insufficient.
“We must, in every election, present an agenda that must chime with our people. And if it doesn’t chime, we take responsibility for it and work harder. That’s really the hallmark of democracy. I think ultimately it's the residents' decision. We presented our agenda to them. We focused on community programmes, on how we would run the town council and quite clearly, they were not attractive enough.”
He admits however that his team’s political inexperience played a part.
“Mr Yeo Guat Kwang is a fantastic comrade. He had been an MP for almost 20 years. But aside from that, we were newly-minted, and we didn’t have the depth of experience that, for example, Mr Low had. So, we were learning on the job.”
I ask him if he thought it was unfair of the PAP to field a less experienced team. He chooses to look at it positively.
“This is not something that I decided. The party decided. But they had confidence in us. And I think the results showed that. We fought to win. We tried our best. We were supposed to be the suicide squad, but thankfully we turned in a respectable performance. We must always fight the good fight. How we fight is also important. And we made sure that our focus is our residents. We presented our plans, we treated our opponents with respect, and when the result came, we accepted it and we wished them well. That’s how it should be fought and that’s how I remember it.”
While I sense a tinge of disappointment as he speaks, he claims his own disappointment was irrelevant to him at the time.
“I felt more for my people – branch members and volunteers - who really worked hard. They were disappointed. I was focused on encouraging them. I wasn’t really thinking about disappointment for myself.”
When I ask him what strategy he thinks might help the PAP regain Aljunied in the future, he takes objection to the word “strategy”, saying that it sounds “calculative”.
“I'm not very comfortable with that. Ultimately, I think it’s important to examine why we are doing this. And if you're doing it for our people, our community, our country, and you put your programmes out there, people will make their own decisions as to whether we are trustworthy. That has to be the way. Otherwise, it’s about trying to win them over for the purpose of staying in power. That doesn’t sound correct at all.
"It has to be focused on improving the lives of our people. That’s extremely important. Ultimately it has to be a contest of ideas, irrespective of where they come from and the best idea must prevail for Singaporeans.”
GOING UP AGAINST DR CHEE SOON JUAN
Mr Murali’s next opportunity presented itself in Bukit Batok the following year, with the calling of the by-election in the SMC after the resignation of PAP MP David Ong.
“I had an opportunity to serve in Bukit Batok under the late Dr Ong Chit Chung, who was the MP then. I did a pro bono matter for him. I represented a resident who was wrongly accused of molestation. Thankfully, he was acquitted. Mr Ong then invited me to help out at the legal clinic there. That was the start of my service in Bukit Batok.”
Soon, he got involved in organising other types of community events and helping less fortunate families in the area.
“When the opportunity came for me to step into politics, I really saw it as an extension of the social work that I did. I had a much more established track record of serving in Bukit Batok.
“But just coming out from a loss in 2015, I knew that the line between success and failure is very, very thin. Also, as it turned out, I was fielded against a very experienced politician.”
Going up against the Singapore Democratic Party’s Dr Chee Soon Juan must have been daunting, I remark.
“I knew that I was in for a tough battle. I was absolutely correct. It was a tough battle. He’s a seasoned politician who had been fielded in a number of general elections and of course, he’s the secretary-general of a major political party too.”
RIDING ON THE COATTAILS OF MORE PROMINENT PAP CADRES
I remark that he, on the other hand, had the firepower of the PAP behind him.
Party bigwigs such as Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Mr Chan Chun Sing and even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong showed up in Bukit Batok and at by-election rallies.
In fact, some members of the public remarked that he had come into Parliament on the coattails of these more powerful political personalities.
“I think people are entitled to their views. What people must realise is what mattered then were the opinions of the Bukit Batok residents and those were the people I was focused on. I met them at small gatherings, at the coffee shops and I had to explain my agenda to them and they made up their minds.
“I think Bukit Batok residents decided between myself, with whatever inexperience that I may have, and Dr Chee. Whoever may be behind me is immaterial. I think residents would be rather offended if it were to be suggested to them that they decided on the basis of my backers.”
POLITICS AND RACE
During the election campaign, he took on the Chinese nickname “Ah Mu”.
When I ask him why he felt compelled to take on the nickname and if he felt his race was working against him, he explains that, on his part, it wasn’t calculated at all.
“My close friends and colleagues already call me ‘Mu’ for short. In or around 2000, when I joined Bukit Batok as a community leader, the late Dr Ong introduced me to Mr Ng Soo Phio, then the Bukit Batok Citizens’ Consultative Committee chairman, as ‘Murali’. Almost immediately thereafter, the Chinese-speaking Mr Ng came up with a tongue-in-cheek Chinese name for me; “Mou Nah Lee”. Translated directly from Mandarin, it sounds like ‘touch where?’. Needless to say, I was alarmed. So I was grateful and relieved that he and the other Chinese-speaking community leaders whom I worked with later settled on a more palatable term of endearment, Ah Mu.”
He claims his race did not pose an obstacle in connecting with Chinese residents.
“I was quite fortunate that I had a history of service there so I was able to connect. I learnt a little bit of Mandarin over the years from just interacting with residents. I can speak Malay quite fluently because I learnt Malay in school and I can speak a bit of Tamil. So through this, I can help communicate and it’s important for me to be able to communicate with the more senior residents in Bukit Batok. On balance, I think I didn’t have a difficult task being a minority candidate because I’m already familiar with the residents and the ground.”
When asked whether he believes, in general, that the race of a political candidate plays a part in voters’ decisions, he is more circumspect.
“I think this is something that’s sometimes primordial and people have views, maybe consciously or unconsciously, expressed in terms of the decisions they make. I do hope that at some point in time, race would not be a concern.”
I ask him where he stands on Singapore’s first reserved presidential election, held last year.
“The progression only kicks in in a situation where for a long time, a member of a particular race is not elected. So it’s like a safety valve. I think that it’s a recognition that ultimately, we want to build a multiracial society. If that’s our goal, we must make sure from time-to-time that the highest office of the land can be occupied by members of all the races,” he replied.
“I think that’s a good ideal. The President is seen as a unifying force for the nation. Plus it’s still based on merit as the candidates have to fulfill the eligibility criteria. So it is to make sure that minority race candidates with merit are not ignored.
“The aspiration is that we won’t need to use this safety valve, but the question is when one race is excluded for such a long time, then what do we do to ensure there’s no disenfranchisement within society.”
I raise the next question, on whether Singapore is ready for a minority race Prime Minister.
“Because a presidential election is a direct election, we have to consider that race might be a factor for certain parts of the electorate, so we need a safety valve in that case. But in the case of the post of Prime Minister, the electorate votes for the MPs and political parties and ultimately, Members of Parliament and the political party with the most number of seats decide who should be the prime minister.
“I certainly don’t take the view that a prime minister must be from the majority race. He or she must have the capability, the leadership skills and also put Singapore in a strong position going forward. It has to be the most capable person who can lead Singapore into the future, irrespective of his race.”
Since we are on the subject of race, I wonder if he thinks the GRC system is still necessary to ensure minority race representation in Parliament, considering that he himself managed to win a seat in an SMC.
He believes what secured his win was his long grassroots engagement with residents, something that not all political candidates might be able to bank on.
“You need to have a diversity of candidates, not just community leaders like myself. So my sense is that the GRC system is still necessary. Again, for the same reason that we spoke about in relation to the reserved presidential election, to make sure that we have representations from all races in Parliament. Race, as I mentioned, I believe is a primordial issue. We don’t want to take the chance that we end up with no minority representation even though there are minority race candidates with merit.
“I do hope race will become less of an issue. As a society, we are quite fortunate that our founding fathers have always espoused the aspiration of being a multiracial country and through institutions like National Service and schools where we mix people from different races, different backgrounds together, all these things would percolate into a better outcome as far as this issue of race is concerned.”
THE LAW AND SECTION 377A
In the last two years, Mr Murali has also taken a special interest in policy matters pertaining to his personal area of expertise – law.
He was the head of commercial litigation at law firm Rajah and Tann. After being elected in 2016, he stepped down from his post to better balance his work with his political responsibilities. Today, he is an equity partner, but no longer a head of department.
“I was inspired by the late David Marshall. That’s why I switched from wanting to study engineering to studying law. I was a police investigator first, then I wanted to be an effective lawyer like David Marshall. He had a very strong sense of justice. He wanted to make sure that his clients, whatever their backgrounds may be, have access to justice. He was not motivated by money. He was motivated in making sure that he gave his clients the best defence, whatever their backgrounds may be.”
One of the more notable cases he has handled includes that of former PAP MP Choo Wee Khiang who was acquitted of corruption charges in 2014.
“He was charged with the offence of criminal breach of trust as an agent when he was the president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association. But it was clear from the prosecution’s case that it was not that he personally benefited from the amount that was alleged to be taken,” he explained.
“He was alleged to have given the amount to a coach without authority, without the sanction of the association. I was glad that eventually he was acquitted without him entering into the witness box to give his defence.”
Since entering Parliament Mr Murali has called for more community-based options for offenders with mental disorders.
He noted that while offenders with disorders such as depression or schizophrenia are provided treatment, others with "more challenging psychiatric illnesses", such as antisocial personality disorder, or mental retardation, may not receive such help.
“We are fortunate now that the criminal procedure code has been amended. So now the court has a wider suite of options. And I'm glad that these options, particularly the Mandatory Treatment Order, are available even in the context of a criminal who may need inpatient treatment.”
I ask him about his stance on a hot-button legal issue that has re-emerged in Singapore.
Since a recent landmark ruling by India’s Supreme Court repealing Section 377, a British colonial-era ban on gay sex, the debate over whether similar legislation should be repealed in Singapore has been reignited.
He grows circumspect as we talk about this.
“It is certainly a vexed issue. My overriding view and hope is that whatever decision that is eventually made in Parliament about Section 377A, it is done after we have made our best attempt in reaching a consensus within our society on this matter. This may seem like wishful thinking on my part since our society is currently polarised. But I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic because I believe there is a general recognition that a homosexual is deserving of equal treatment, deserving of dignity and respect, and should not be treated as a social outcast.”
But does he personally agree with this standpoint?
“Yes, certainly,” he says.
When I put it to him that perhaps the Government should take a firm stand on the issue and set the tone as it has with many other tough issues, he says the matter has to be looked into holistically.
“At the same time, there is a belief that a decision on Section 377A may have an impact on important institutions such as marriage and family. This must be addressed too,” he adds.
“Hence, I strongly feel that we should take a holistic approach. This involves properly identifying all the issues associated with the matter, a thorough engagement and discussion with civil society, religious groups, etc, and an effort at forging a consensus on the main issues involved. The hallmark of democracy at the end of the day is that we must be able to justify the moves we make even if not every single person agrees. We are not alone in this journey. This is happening in the rest of the world too. It is important that we study and gain insights from the global developments too. The efforts, the studies on these fronts should start now but will take time to complete. So be it. To be an effective interlocutor for this process, I feel that I should be open to suasion at this stage.”
He points out that while Section 377A is still in the penal code, it is not enforced. Some have remarked that considering this, it might make more sense to simply repeal it.
"The penal code is an old code and there were a number of other provisions which were removed over time. They were removed in a point in time when society kind of accepted it. For example, the provision outlawing adultery. That was in the books. There was a provision dealing with enticing a woman out of wedlock. That was in the books even after it became irrelevant. But over time, they were taken out. So let's work on looking at the issue holistically and let's see where that goes in relation to 377A."
HIS FATHER – THE MOST POWERFUL INFLUENCE IN HIS LIFE
As we approach the end of our conversation, I ask him who, besides David Marshall, has influenced him.
Inevitably, his father comes up.
“My late father who passed away in 2007 was the most powerful influence in my life. He impressed upon me that civil service could be the way I should go and that’s how I started serving in the police force in the first place, which led to all of this.”
It’s widely known that his father, PK Pillai, was a unionist detained during Operation Coldstore in 1963. He was released two years later.
This occurred even before Mr Murali was born but he says his father talked about it with him.
“My understanding is from what he told me, and I think we probably have copies of the detention papers in the house somewhere. As I understood, the circumstances were in relation to him joining Barisan Sosialis. He was a PAP member but he switched allegiance to Barisan Sosialis and he took over as the chairman of the PAP Sembawang branch after the late Mr Ahmad Ibrahim passed away, and tried to fight against the merger with Malaysia. That was the reason, or at least part of the reason, why he was detained and was part of the struggle that he was involved in.
“You must also understand he was an anti-colonialist and that really drove him. So when he came from India, just before India’s independence, he promptly joined the Malayan Communist Party and fought against the British during the emergency.”
He says his father gave him “permission” to join the PAP and he would not have done it if his father hadn’t done so.
“He just wanted me to do it for the right reasons. When I told him I wanted to do it because I felt I was able to contribute, he actually said something very interesting. He said actually, if Barisan Sosialis had been in charge, Singapore wouldn’t have made such progress. He said it was Lee Kuan Yew who had that creativity to bring about economic growth. My father said that Barisan only knew ‘Robin Hood economics’, but it was the Lee Kuan Yew government that generated wealth for Singapore. He acknowledged that.”
Mr Murali’s father also influenced him in other powerful ways.
He whips out an old school “555” notebook from his pocket.
“My father had one of these on him all the time. He would write down every cent he spent. He was a very frugal man. After being released, he became a security guard and at some point in time, he had to take up another job. He was a labourer, breaking rocks in the road to take care of his family and he never thought about himself, always about the children. He’d wear torn shirts but he didn’t really think too much about it. So he was a really selfless person.”
He himself carries the notebook as a reminder of his father’s philosophy and while he doesn’t use it to keep track of his expenses, he uses it to take down notes during meetings with residents.
When I ask what mark he would ultimately like to make in politics, he brings up his father again.
“He influenced me in terms of focusing on doing service and not thinking about the outcome. If you’re too interested in the outcome, you could lose focus on achieving the desired result. So I’m not interested in making a mark, to be frank. My focus has been and will continue to be taking care of my residents, expressing my mind in relation to issues concerning policy and contributing without being too concerned about how the outcome benefits me.”