There is general consensus that Singapore citizens have evolved. The old unquestioning attitude is still there in many quarters. But, a significant part of the population is questioning, demanding answers (often vociferously) and refusing to back down. Given the fact that the opposition vote in the 2011 Genereal Elections was slightly over 800,000 and that even amongst many PAP supporters there is a certain amount of disillusionment (that was partly reflected in the significantly small percentage of votes received by the “endorsed” candidate for the Presidential Elections), many commentators have boldly painted the picture of Singapore walking into a new era of politics.

There is no doubt that many citizens today have little tolerance for the politics of yesterday. ‘More of the same’ is no longer an option for the PAP. For a time after the General Elections last year, I started believing in the serious possibility that there might be a change of style in the way that PAP governs and seeks to govern in the future. But, recent events (threatened legal actions for defamation and refusal to call for a by-election in Hougang) appear to be an indication that it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. (For the avoidance of doubt, that is a figure of speech and not an insult in the vein of that PRC student’s ‘dog’ remark.)

After the Yaw Shin Leong saga, I thought that the PM would play the game ‘new-normal’ style and affirm the Hougang residents’ constitutional right. Instead, the knee-jerk reaction was to give an answer that was pretty much in keeping with the old approach. This has led me to ponder on how the PM could have reacted to the announcement of the Parliamentary vacancy. If I was the PM, this is how I would make a press statement:

“What has happened in Hougang is most unfortunate. Not only do we expect persons taking up public office to be of high competence and calibre but also to be possessed of good moral fibre. We do not know whether the rumours surrounding Mr Yaw were true. It appears now that when confronted by his own Party colleagues, he has failed to account to them on the truth or otherwise of these rumours.

Whatever may have happened, we do not seek to judge. The Parliamentary seat is vacant and the residents of Hougang have been deprived of representation in Parliament. This government is committed to the democratic franchise and the residents of Hougang have my assurance that a by-election will be held. I have not, as yet, made any decision as to the timing of the by-election. But, I will not stand in the way of the Constitutional rights of the citizens of this country. A by-election will be called expeditiously and a public announcement will be made in due course.”

What has the PM got to lose by making the above statement? Nothing. The reality is that Hougang is a constituency that is not going to revert back to the PAP in a hurry. If the next General Elections are held in 2016, the PAP is bound to lose in Hougang barring some unforeseen developments. There is absolutely nothing to be gained in indefinitely postponing by-elections or in totally refusing to hold one. On the contrary, refusing to hold a by-election by relying on semantics does nothing more than alienate even the moderate voters.

How do you win political capital in a losing battle such as this? You change. You change your own operational philosophy. You recognise that political office is a privilege accorded to you by the electorate. You recognise that the right to vote and the right to have a representative in Parliament is too fundamental to be argued away. You internalise this concept more than any other partisan interests that you might have. Once you have done that, the words will come out naturally. People will notice the difference. People will begin to believe that change has not only taken root in the minds of the electorate but also in the minds of the political leaders. With that believe will come a willingness to engage in dialogue. With such dialogue, the groundwork for winning back votes can be laid.

You can’t win back votes through perception management. You can do so if you change your thinking about democracy and the Constitution.