The 63-year-old Singapore’s first female President and the first Malay head of state in more than 47 years, has actually breaking the barriers after being elected as the first female Speaker of Parliament in 2013.
She was the only one of three prospective candidates to receive a certificate of eligibility for this year’s Presidential Election, which was reserved for the Malay community. Two other presidential hopefuls, Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican and Mr Farid Khan, had their applications to stand for the election turned down as both did not meet a requirement for private-sector candidates to helm companies with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity.
The youngest of five children, Halimah Yacob was just eight years old when her father, a watchman, died. Her mother became the sole breadwinner, helping out at a food stall before dawn till late at night. “From the age of 10, my hours outside of school were spent being my mother’s assistant: cleaning, washing, clearing tables and serving customers, and I am a better person for it,” she wrote in her bio on her website. “I have experienced poverty firsthand and know how debilitating it can be as you struggle to survive, to put food on the table and also grapple with the uncertainty of the future on a daily basis. It limits your choices but also tempers your determination to succeed.”
In Secondary 2, she was nearly kicked out of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School for missing too many classes. “That was one of the worst moments of my life. But I told myself, ‘Stop wallowing in self-pity, pick yourself up and move on”, she told in a television interview. She later went on to attend Tanjong Katong Girls’ School and graduated from the University of Singapore with a law degree, subsequently obtaining her Master of Laws at the National University of Singapore. Her career began in 1978 with the National Trades Union Congress, where she served in various roles for the next three decades, eventually rising to become the labour movement’s deputy secretary-general. She entered into politics at the urging of then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 2001, and was elected Member of Parliament (MP) for the Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC). Ten years later, she was given the portfolio of Minister of State for the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports.
Halimah yacob served at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) as the Deputy Secretary General, Director of the Legal Services Department and Director of the Women’s Development Secretariat. She also served as the Executive Secretary of the United Workers of Electronics and Electrical Industries. She was elected as the Workers’ Vice-Chairperson of the Standards Committee of the International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva from 2000 to 2002 and in 2005. In 2003 and 2004, she was the Workers’ Spokesperson for the ILC Committee on Human Resources Development and Training.
She is married to Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, a retiree of Arab descent, and has five children. She lives in a public Housing and Development Board duplex in Yishun.
Prior to announcing her intention to run as President, Halimah Yacob was serving as both Speaker of Parliament and MP for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC – both roles she has since relinquished. Over the years, she has advocated for women’s rights, spoke up on senior citizens and mental health issues, and served as patron to associations such as Club HEAL and PPIS (Singapore Muslim Women’s Association). The decision to run for the highest office of the land did not come easy: The mother of five told to a television channel that her children initially had reservations about being in the public eye. However, they and her husband Mohamed Abdullah gave their support after some discussion.
Since her bid for presidency was made known, she has repeatedly denied allegations that she may lack independence due to her close ties to the People’s Action Party. “It is a gross disservice, even (among) those who continue to hold party colours, if they put the interest of people behind party colours,” she revealed.
She also said that her commitment to serve Singaporeans was not affected by the fact that there is no election. “I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore and that doesn’t change whether there is an election or no election, My passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remains the same.”
In recognition of her contributions, she was conferred the Berita Harian/McDonald’s Achiever of the Year Award in 2001, the “Her World Woman of the Year Award” in 2003, the AWARE Heroine Award 2011, and was inducted into the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations’s Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame in 2014.
“In Singapore, no matter where we begin in life, if we work hard, we will have ample chances to do well. And when we make good, we have a responsibility in turn to help others around us.” President Halimah revealed in her speech at the Istana. She pledged to be a President for all Singaporeans, regardless of race, language or religion.
Her mother also played a big part in helping to take care of her children when she was pursuing her career, as did her husband, Mr Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, a retired businessman. He would, when her children were younger, do the marketing, take them out, fix things in the house and make sure the bills were paid on time. When asked how her husband feels about being married to a successful woman, Madam Halimah said: “Fortunately he’s able to handle that because he doesn’t see me as a power woman.”We balance out quite well at home, I believe in empowering relationships. He empowers me, I empower him. That’s how we maintain the balance and harmony at home.”
On Sept 11, 2015, on the morning of Polling Day for the 2015 General Election, President Halimah’s mother, Madam Maimun Abdullah, breathed her last. She had been in hospital for more than a week.
Her mother was a huge influence on her, and once talking about her mother she said, “This was the saddest moment of my life. My mother was largely responsible for making me who I am today”.
A humble person with no airs, President Halimah is a familiar and popular figure among her block’s residents. She recounted in a 2013 interview how she had a neighbour who was a very good cook and would make nice dishes for her family.
A Deloitte study released earlier this year shows that Singapore is trailing Asian neighbors such as India, Malaysia, and Thailand in the percentage of board seats held by women. Women make up 10.7 percent of boards in the city-state, according to the report. That lags behind the 17.6 percent in Vietnam, the highest in Southeast Asia, and falls far short of the 42 percent in Norway.
Halimah Yacob spoke about being Singapore’s first woman president: “It shows that this is not just tokenism, that when we talk about gender diversity we are not just chanting slogans, we really mean it. Every woman can aspire to the highest office of the land if you have the courage, determination and the will to work hard”.
Published in Melange Intl. Magazine September 2018.