SINGAPORE — Madam Halimah Yacob was at an Singapore Armed Forces Day event in July this year when a 10-year-old girl, whose father was receiving an award, came up to her.
“She told me: ‘I’m very grateful to you, President Halimah. You have inspired me and you have motivated me, and thank you for doing all the work that you do for the country as well as, you know, representing the women’,” Mdm Halimah recalled.
“To me, incidents like these are so inspiring,” said the 69-year-old, Singapore’s outgoing president, during a one-on-one interview with CNA on July 5.
In the interview, aired on Tuesday (Sept 12), Mdm Halimah spoke fondly about her time in office, saying that having inspired young girls to strive to be “leaders of tomorrow” has been her most satisfying achievement.
Other than the interaction with the 10-year-old girl, Mdm Halimah said that there have been many other instances of young girls coming up to her and thanking her for being an inspiration, with some even giving her cards.
“They thank me, and then they say they really (aspire) to be someone like me… I think that’s truly inspirational if I have planted some seeds of hope in our young girls who will become the women, and hopefully the leaders of tomorrow,” she said.
“That is the most satisfying thing.”
Mdm Halimah also shared her thoughts on being the first female president and the first president to wear a tudung, as well as the pride she has in advocating for those in marginalised segments of society.
She also touched on what she planned to do after her retirement.
Mdm Halimah’s six-year term as president will end on Wednesday, and Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who was elected president on Sept 1 with a dominant 70.4 per cent vote share, will be sworn in at the Istana on Thursday.
In May, Mdm Halimah had announced that she would not be standing for re-election, drawing a mix of reactions – from those who lauded her work with marginalised communities, to those who were disappointed she would be stepping down.
ON THE PRESSURES, OPPORTUNITIES OF BEING THE FIRST FEMALE PRESIDENT
Mdm Halimah said that her appointment as president was significant, as she is the first woman to attain the office, and the first woman from a minority group to wear a tudung and become president.
Mdm Halimah took office on Sept 14 in 2017, after running in an uncontested election due to a lack of other eligible candidates. The election was reserved for ethnic Malays because there had not been a president from the racial group for the five most recent presidential terms.
“For a woman, I think it’s very important because there are very few women that reached very high leadership positions and this is not just in Singapore, it’s also across the world,” she said.
She said that while there are still systemic issues that mean women are underrepresented as a head of state or government, she hopes that her example shows that it is possible for a woman to take on these roles.
“I hope that, in terms of gender, that provides at least an opportunity for people to say well, you know, at least in Singapore, you can, regardless of gender, regardless of race, regardless of religion, you are able to reach the highest office, provided you want to work, that you have the capability,” she said.
She said that her background as a member of a minority group, as well as having come from a poor background, has provided her with a “very unique opportunity” to serve all classes of people regardless of race, gender, religion or social status.
And her origins and identity have also helped when she met foreign leaders.
“When I meet foreign leaders… it is good for Singapore because it shows that Singapore does practise what it preaches… in terms of providing avenues for social mobility, in terms of providing avenues for meritocracy to all individuals.”
HER EFFORTS IN ADVOCATING FOR THE DISADVANTAGED, MARGINALISED
Mdm Halimah’s championing of causes that she feels strongly about is among one of her defining roles as president, she said.
“Issues like mental health, like people with disabilities and situation of women, low-income families, workers… those are issues which are very close to my heart,” she said.
“I hope that during my presidency, I’ve been able to give them a little bit more ‘highlight’ and given them a little bit more attention, increase awareness about such issues.
“If I’ve done that, then I’ll be most happy and grateful.”
When Mdm Halimah announced her decision to step down as president, various leaders of social service groups had come out to offer praise on her work to highlight the challenges faced by those with disabilities, her push to empower women, as well as her advocacy for inter-faith and inter-religious harmony.
On top of her advocacy work, Mdm Halimah was also entrusted with her key roles such as being a check on the reserves during the pandemic, as well as representing the nation during diplomatic meetings.
The deliberations on whether or not to approve the five drawdowns from the past reserves during the pandemic were far from straightforward and had to be discussed over “many, many meetings” with the Government, she said.
“It was very thorough but it was done in an atmosphere where we respect each other’s roles,” added Mdm Halimah.
“The Government has its role to make sure it provides for the people during such a critical crisis… We have our role to protect the reserves and to make sure that the Government’s request is reasonable.”
She said that her work in diplomatic relations had also been fruitful over the years, giving her “a chance to basically project Singapore’s image, Singapore’s position, strengthen bilateral relations, advance our economic interest and cultivate friends”.
Mdm Halimah has also been known to have made both her role as president and the Istana more accessible to the public.
For instance, she kickstarted the Picnic@Istana series in 2017, in a bid to make the Istana grounds more accessible, including to children from disadvantaged homes who are specially invited.
She had also organised visits to the Istana Gardens, where groups such as those with motor neurone disease have been invited.
“If I have succeeded in actually making people look at the presidency as not something that is distant, not attached to people, but at least as one that’s more engaged, close to the people, I think that would be something that I would be very happy about,” she said.
WHAT IS NEXT FOR MDM HALIMAH?
Mdm Halimah shared that her primary consideration in not standing for the presidency again is because she wanted to retire.
She said that public office had been “entirely all consuming” with no privacy and “intense scrutiny” from the public.
“One of the things that we always say (is) we are going to try to catch up with the family,” she said.
She pointed out that this could be a challenge in itself, as her children have all grown up and have their own lives.
She said that in any case, she will focus on her grandchildren.
“That’s one way where I can then refresh, reignite, strengthen the bonding with the family,” she said.
Asked what she looks forward to when she becomes an “ordinary citizen” again, Mdm Halimah said that simply shopping at the supermarket was one of the many things she looks forward to doing.
Even after she steps down, she said she will continue to champion causes close to her heart.
Chief among those is to help those with mental illnesses, and also persons with disabilities.
Mdm Halimah had kickstarted initiatives under the President’s Challenge, such as the Enabling Employment Pledge, which advocates for employers to make it more accessible for people with disabilities to find work.
She said that while she may not have the same resources like the President’s Challenge when she steps down, she will still do what she can.
“I am sure that in other capacities, I can try to contribute in any ways I can,” she said.