SINGAPORE — In an era of shifting geopolitical alliances and economic rivalries, Singapore will need to have the same sense of unity and purpose as seen during the Covid-19 pandemic in order to move ahead, President Halimah Yacob said.
Speaking at her farewell reception on Wednesday (Sept 13) at the Istana, Mdm Halimah said that Singapore — a small and open economy — will continue to face many economic challenges.
“But if we stand together and stay united, we have a better chance of keeping Singapore exceptional.”
Mdm Halimah’s six-year term as Singapore’s eighth President ends on Wednesday.
She spoke about how the country stood united during the pandemic, when people observed the safe distancing rules and supported each other.
This helped the country “navigate safely out of the pandemic” and the Government could not have done it alone, she said.
“We will need that same sense of unity and purpose, in an era of shifting geopolitical alliances, economic rivalries, huge climate change challenges and a rapidly ageing population, in order for us to move ahead.”
Mdm Halimah also reflected on her time as President since she was first sworn in on Sept 14 in 2017.
She said that during her presidency, the country had suffered the “most severe and unprecedented crisis” with the onslaught of Covid-19.
The Government had to make difficult decisions concerning the past reserves and it was an “excruciating balance” between saving for the future and making immediate withdrawals to protect livelihoods, she added.
“We weathered the storm, and our economy is slowly recovering although we continue to face major headwinds in the aftermath of Covid-19.”
The pandemic provided the opportunity to once again test the working of the “two-key system”, she added, referring to the Government and the presidency working together to unlock financial reserves during a crisis.
“As the custodian of the second key, my task was to assess the need and gravity of the request.”
She had very “extensive, robust, and thorough discussions” with the Council of Presidential Advisers before she gave her consent, she said.
Mdm Halimah then spoke about the other key function of the President — approving certain key public appointments.
Although the Government has a rigorous process in place for appointing capable persons with integrity to key posts, the requirement for the President’s approval is another layer of checks, which is important in ensuring good governance, she said.
She took into consideration the recommendations from the Council of Presidential Advisers, but made her own assessment “based on the merits of the candidates”.
“Overall, I had a good working relationship with the Government based on based on mutual trust, respect and a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities.”
On uniting and rallying Singaporeans, Mdm Halimah said that she had focused on creating a more caring, compassionate and just society.
With the strong support of donors and volunteers, among others, they had raised generous amounts for the President’s Challenge to help communities in need, she added.
The impact of the Empowering for Life Fund, which she launched to help the less fortunate, had also been positive and significant, she noted.
Endeavouring to stay close to the people of Singapore, Mdm Halimah said that she had officiated at more than 1,400 community events, as well as made the Istana more accessible to people, such as those who are wheelchair-bound and hospice care patients.
The Istana serves as the official presidential residence and office.
A strong believer in the importance of inter-racial and inter-religious harmony, she had also initiated the International Conference on Cohesive Societies in 2019, with a second run held last year.
“In an increasingly polarised world, where race and religion have become serious dividing forces, it is important that Singapore remains a country where people of all races and faiths can live peacefully, have equal access to opportunities and build a shared future together,” she said.
Touching on diplomacy, Mdm Halimah said that she had made 21 overseas visits, including 12 state visits during her presidency and in the midst of the Covid-19 restrictions.
“It was a chance to raise Singapore’s international image, strengthen our bilateral ties and open new economic opportunities for our companies.”
She also said that being the first female head of state and from a minority community had its benefits — for the world to see that meritocracy and diversity are “real and not mere slogans” in this country.
Towards the end of her speech, Mdm Halimah expressed her gratitude towards the presidential councils for their significant service, as well as the social service agencies and business organisations that had supported and worked with her over the years.
She also thanked her family, especially her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, a retired businessman.
“My family’s love, encouragement and sacrifices have been the bedrock of my strength. I am forever grateful for your unwavering support, understanding and love.”
Mdm Halimah added that it has been a privilege to be the voice of the people of Singapore, to listen to their concerns and work tirelessly on their behalf.
“I carried your aspirations in my heart, and it is your unwavering support that has fuelled my determination to serve, every day and every step of the way.”