Celebrating the Year of SG Women with our alumna – President Halimah Yacob ’78
President Halimah Yacob ’78 has served in NTUC for more than three decades before joining politics. In her career, she has introduced programmes promoting social cohesion, strengthening interfaith unity, programmes for senior and disabled care, and she is also the patron to many social services agencies. She was the first woman to be the Speaker of Parliament, and the first woman to helm the position of Singapore’s President. As 2021 is the Year of Celebrating SG Women, Professor David Tan from NUS Law caught up with President Halimah on her career journey, challenges, and her advice for women in law.
I first met President Halimah in 2017, when in her capacity Speaker of Parliament, she launched the guidebook “Navigating Muslim Law in Singapore” at the Syariah Law Forum on Bukit Timah Campus. I was struck by how friendly Madam Halimah was, and how frequently she smiled in the course of our conversation.
Fast forward to 2021, and she is the first female President of Singapore, providing a steady hand to guide the country through the worst pandemic to ravage the country since its independence. We have read a lot about President Halimah, but not many of us know about her childhood years. I asked if she could tell us more about her life growing up, and whether there were any significant challenges for her and her family.
President Halimah recalled the times when she grew up amidst great deprivation and hardship: “We were poor when my father was alive, but the situation worsened after his death when I was eight years old. I spent a lot of my childhood days helping my mother run a cooked food stall.” When her father died, her mother became the sole breadwinner having to raise five children. “It was a real struggle trying to keep body and soul together, and that almost caused me to drop out of school. It’s difficult to describe that childhood journey except that I hope no child would ever have to go through that. Every year we celebrate Children’s Day. It’s a joyous day for children, but growing up I didn’t know such a day existed as I didn’t even get to celebrate my own birthday,” she said.
President Halimah remarked that today she sees many adults posting happy photos online of their childhood clasping toys or having parties with their families. However, she did not remember having toys or having her photos taken. So, when she became a public figure, she had great difficulty producing any childhood photographs when asked by the media, and indeed, by LawLink. “I have no regrets though as deprivation and hardship taught me very valuable lessons that stood me in good stead when I went to work and entered politics,” she shared. “It taught me resilience, the ability to bounce back and not let setbacks and difficulties overcome me and define who I am.”
From NUS to NTUC
How did President Halimah end up studying law at NUS? She explained that studying law had always been her choice because when she was young, she was seized with the idea that she could help the most vulnerable and deprived gain access to justice and fair treatment. President Halimah said: “This was due in part to my own growing up years where I witnessed how little power and voice those without resources have. Although I was called to the Bar, I didn’t practise law but became an in-house counsel in the NTUC Legal Department, advising unions and workers on their industrial relations and employment rights. It was a very fulfilling period as I felt that I was giving voice to workers, fighting for their rights and ensuring a fairer workplace.”
Indeed very few law graduates back then wanted to join NTUC as it was not considered a glamourous job or a good paymaster. Most wanted to work for big employers such as the banks or the Legal Service, or go into private practice. President Halimah recalled: “In those days, every time I told a friend or former law classmate that I worked in NTUC, they asked whether I was working for Income or the supermarket. I saw my role then as balancing the bargaining power between unions and employers who had much more resources and were in a stronger position.” She found a niche for herself working in NTUC. “At that time, there were not many lawyers who were well-versed in labour or employment laws,” she elaborated. “Even the university stopped teaching labour law many years ago, maybe because of our peaceful industrial relations climate and labour laws being seen as having little commercial value.”
President Halimah’s legal background also helped her to represent workers’ interests and those of Singapore well when she served on the Board of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) for 12 years. She became the Workers’ Spokesperson, representing the global workers, on a couple of standard-setting committees including her last piece of work where the ILO Convention on Domestic Workers was successfully negotiated and passed.
Entering politics in 2001
President Halimah was then persuaded that by entering politics, she could potentially contribute to all of Singapore, and not just to the labour movement. She was also very aware of the fact that women leaders must themselves walk the talk in order to be credible. “One of my tasks in NTUC was to persuade younger women to take up leadership positions in their own unions or in NTUC. It was a daunting task because many cited the difficulty of balancing work and family as a huge deterrent. Having spent time cajoling and persuading women to step up and be prepared to sacrifice for a higher purpose, I felt that I should practise that myself,” she shared. “I believe that it is important for women to be involved in policymaking and make their voices heard. When I first joined NTUC in the late 70s, I was inspired by some very strong women and that left quite an impression on me.”
Madam Halimah was a backbencher for a decade between 2001 and 2011, and during this period she was able to raise numerous issues pertaining to workers and lower income families. She then served at the Ministry of Community Development and Sports (MCYS), now known as MSF, for a relatively short period from May 2011 to January 2013. Finally, Madam Halimah served as Speaker of Parliament for four-and-a-half years between January 2013 to August 2017.
In her inaugural speech, President Halimah highlighted three core values of multiculturalism, meritocracy and stewardship that are fundamental to Singapore’s economic development and social cohesion. I asked her to expound on how these values continue to be relevant in a new normal defined by the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained: “As President, I experienced first-hand the importance of stewardship of our precious financial resources. Without the Past Reserves, we would not have been able to navigate the serious disruptions to the economy and our people’s lives caused by the pandemic. We would have had to borrow to mitigate the impact and in the process incur serious debt which would have burdened future generations. Good governance, honest leadership and prudent management of our financial resources have helped us tremendously during such rainy days.”
What about multiculturalism? Is it a term that has been bandied around too often such that people have become desensitised to its fundamental ethos? President Halimah was adamant that “multiculturalism is not just a mantra but something that underpins how we organise our society and our people’s relationships with each other.” She added: “Singapore became independent in 1965 based on this very important principle that every race and creed has a place, and none is more equal than others. But we must expect that multiculturalism will come under tremendous pressure as people struggle to establish their own identities and increasingly recede into their own enclaves of race, language and religion. It’s already happening all over the world and in many cases the politicians have exploited this for their own benefit. This has led to a lot of conflicts and harm. Whilst our multiculturalism is still strong, we must continue to invest in strengthening it. This cannot be done by the Government alone. Everyone has a part to play.”
Last but not least, while meritocracy has served Singapore well by spurring us to do our best to uplift our lives, there are murmurs about its relevance in the years ahead. President Halimah commented: “The concern with meritocracy however is that its rewards may not always be due to one’s efforts alone as other circumstances may impinge on our ability to achieve the desired outcomes. As a result, a smaller group may end up benefitting more because those who have been more successful have the resources to invest in their children’s futures. Hence, there is a need to balance meritocracy with doing more to support those without means. Those who are successful should give back to society and help those who have less. We should work together as a society to be more caring and inclusive. This is a work in progress and I now see many efforts to help level up children from low-income families through various programmes.”
Challenges facing the minority communities in Singapore
Minority communities, like all Singaporeans, want to live in a prosperous Singapore that offers them many opportunities to work, live and play. They understand the challenges faced by a small nation state that must punch above its weight despite having no natural advantages like others with more resources. They want to be part of Singapore’s narrative for the future. President Halimah is cognisant of these challenges, and phrased the issues as follows: “Their dreams and hopes are no different from others and they want fair and equal treatment. At the same time, the minority communities too struggle with issues of identity. They are Singaporeans but they are also Malays, Indians and Eurasians with their own faiths, cultures and languages that they struggle to keep amidst the constant changes that our society faces. The Malay community, for instance, find that increasingly, younger Malays cannot speak Malay well, so concerted efforts are made to enhance the use of Bahasa.”
The 21st Century brings with it a digital convenience that may empower these communities. President Halimah agrees: “Younger Malays have grown up in a very different environment. They are better educated and are exposed to many different ideas particularly through the internet. They have strong opinions and are more confident in articulating their views. Like other young people, they want their voices to be heard and their views reflected in policymaking.”
Looking back, looking forward
I asked President Halimah to reflect on some of her many achievements, and wondered if she could single out some memorable moments. She said: “At MCYS, I mooted the idea of the Enabling Village. It was meant to be a community space that would embrace the diversity of our abilities. At that time, it was a novel concept. I am glad it has since broken many new grounds. Just last year, the Enabling Village celebrated its fifth anniversary!” The Constitution prescribes President Halimah’s role as Head of State, whose function includes strengthening bilateral relations through state visits, and she had done quite a few until COVID-19 put a halt to them. Nonetheless, US Vice President Kamala Harris did call on President Halimah during her visit to Singapore in August 2021. Perhaps true to her grassroots days, President Halimah shared that the role which she truly enjoys is her community role: “Through my community engagements, I met many vulnerable groups in society. I have sought to give them a stronger voice, particularly people with disabilities, those with mental health issues, ex-offenders and those affected by the digital divide. I used the President’s Challenge, a fund which raises more than $10 million every year, to empower our vulnerable groups through various programmes run by social service agencies. I initiated the $20m Empowering for Life Fund under the President’s Challenge. I also launched the Enabling Employment Pledge where more than 175 employers have signed on to train and place people with disabilities. I intend to launch a programme organised by IMH and some social service agencies to help youth with mental health issues.”
In 2019, Singapore held its first International Conference on Cohesive Societies. His Majesty King Abdullah II ibn Al-Hussein of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan delivered a keynote address at the Conference, which was well attended by local and overseas participants from many countries. This Conference was mooted by President Halimah, and it was a great platform to discuss plans and strategies on strengthening peace and social cohesion. President Halimah shared that there are plans to do a follow-up conference in 2022.
On the need to advance the cause of gender equality and ensure greater fairness, equity, and inclusivity in the treatment of women, President Halimah was optimistic about the future. “Whilst I’m glad that we are having this conversation, and efforts to elevate women’s status are more prevalent now, the fact that we are still talking about it, shows that we still have some way to go in achieving equality. It’s a work in progress. The reality is that laws and policies alone will not work, although they are important in framing the issues and ensuring certain desired outcomes. We need a strong mindset shift where women are treated with respect and as equal members of society.” I agree with President Halimah that there are many women of good calibre and capabilities in Singapore achieving success in various industries. Indeed, as she observed, many have broken the glass ceiling to reach where they are now and have paved the way for others. Although she hopes that her Presidency has helped to inspire other women that glass ceilings are meant to be broken and they should always push boundaries, she cautioned: “At the same time, we must acknowledge that societal attitudes towards women have not fully modernised – there may still be expectations on women to shoulder more caregiving responsibilities and pre-conceived notions of the roles women should play and how women should behave.” To increase diversity on public listed boards, President Halimah initiated the Diversity Task Force in 2012. The Task Force’s recommendations included the establishment of the Diversity Action Committee, which has since been succeeded by the Council for Board Diversity in 2019. “The results are still not satisfactory, but we are making progress as more women are now represented on boards,” she mused.
Advice to women in law
As 2021 has been designated the Year to Celebrate SG Women, I cannot resist posing the question to President Halimah if she had any advice for our young female law graduates or for women in the practice of law. She was quick with her reply: “Prior to 1994, there was not a single female High Court judge in Singapore. Today there are seven female High Court judges. This is progress and things will continue to change as momentum builds.” President Halimah notes that there is no stopping this progress as women have entered the workforce in large numbers because of education and will not be content to play a subsidiary role in the workplace. She concludes: “They want their voices to be heard and have access to equal opportunities. My advice to women in law is to be the best that you can be and never settle for second fiddle. Never think from a position of weakness but from a position of strength.”
This story was first published on LawLink.