Halimah Yacob a president with heart, say observers and those who worked with her
SINGAPORE - History might remember her as Singapore’s first female president or the first head of state to live in public housing when she initially assumed office.
But President Halimah Yacob’s legacy will extend beyond her as an individual to the social issues and causes she cast a spotlight on, said political observers and social service agencies she worked with.
Madam Halimah announced on Monday that she will not be seeking re-election in the upcoming presidential election, slated to be called by Sept 13.
Political observers The Straits Times spoke to paid tribute to her commitment to causes including mental health, gender equality and inter-faith harmony.
Singapore Management University associate professor of law Eugene Tan said: “She has brought a high profile and an unassuming vibrancy that the office has not seen for quite some time now.”
Noting how the President keeps her calendar filled with commitments in Singapore and abroad, he added: “Madam Halimah will be remembered for the energy, dynamism and dedication she brought to the office. In the past six years, she went about her duties with a common touch that is so quintessentially her.”
Political analyst and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) associate lecturer Felix Tan agreed, noting that Madam Halimah was well-liked as an MP. He said: “She was able to connect with people from all walks of life... She connected the presidency with Singaporeans. (It shows) that she is not just a figurehead.”
Madam Halimah was sworn in as the nation’s eighth president in September 2017, unopposed in a reserved election for candidates from the Malay community. While this led to some initial criticism, political observers and social service agencies she has worked with said this should not, in any way, stain her reputation.
Dr Tan declared the criticisms that she got at the very beginning of her term “unfounded”, while Associate Professor Tan said: “No one now can, in all honesty, fault her for the fact that she was elected unopposed in the first reserved presidential election in 2017.”
Former Nominated Member of Parliament Chia Yong Yong said she always felt aggrieved when others said Madam Halimah became president “through the back door” and questioned if she was of the Malay race.
“It was really courageous of her to still, despite all that, step forward to serve, knowing that such comments will continue however good a job she does... Yet, she was prepared to take all that just because she wanted to serve.”
A calendar filled with causes
It is hard to find a blank spot on Madam Halimah’s calendar, said the founder and president of inter-faith initiative Roses of Peace, Mr Mohamed Irshad. He has worked closely with the President, who became a patron in 2017 while she was still Speaker of Parliament.
She always makes time for his social service agency, he said.
Mr Irshad added: “She is very good at bringing people from all walks of life together, uniting us as Singaporeans.”
He recalled that Madam Halimah had initiated Roses of Peace’s youth ambassador programme, which involves appointing young people as peace ambassadors.
“It was her brainchild. She encouraged us to leverage our forte in engaging youth to inspire and empower the next generation of inter-faith and inter-racial leaders in Singapore.”
After assuming office, Madam Halimah, a former labour MP, continued to show unwavering support for workers, National Trades Union Congress secretary-general Ng Chee Meng wrote on his Facebook page.
She regularly engaged with union leaders from various sectors and profiles to stay informed about workers’ issues.
“In these interactions, I personally witnessed the deep care Madam President holds for our workers, encouraging younger unionists to remain dedicated to their cause despite the challenges and demanding nature of the work,” he said.
Madam Halimah also showed strong support for SPD, a charity for people with disabilities.
Ms Chia, who is a member of SPD’s board advisory panel, of which Madam Halimah became a patron of in 2018, said the President always used her office to uplift others and wanted to know what more could be done.
“That was always an encouragement for us,” said Ms Chia.
Mr Eddie Teo, chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers, noted that Madam Halimah uses her role as president to champion the causes close to her heart, such as the plight of workers, the less fortunate and people with disabilities.
“These were the issues she felt strongly about even before she became president; as president, she could and did do more to support these groups,” he said.
Madam Halimah would also very often raise pertinent, penetrating and difficult questions, he noted.
“Government officers quickly realised they should be very well prepared when raising proposals relating to the past reserves,” Mr Teo said.
In a Facebook post on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat likewise noted that Madam Halimah asked many tough questions when he was finance minister and sought approval to use past reserves to fight the Covid-19 crisis.
He said Madam Halimah has been serving with dedication, dignity and compassion throughout her term, and her stewardship role was particularly instrumental during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a Facebook post: “She brought to the presidency her own character, judiciousness and humility. Always taking an interest in every individual, no matter their background, and most especially the disadvantaged.”
Apart from tackling domestic affairs, Prof Tan noted that in her ceremonial duties, Madam Halimah will be remembered for the seriousness and charm with which she went about her duties.
He said: “She travelled abroad regularly as our head of state before the pandemic, and it (the travelling) has picked up again with border restrictions being relaxed (after Covid-19).”
Madam Halimah strengthened bilateral ties with countries on state visits, and was the first Singapore president to make such visits to countries including Germany, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
An outspoken president
In Madam Halimah’s constitutional role where she exercised her custodial powers, her term will be remembered for the five Budgets she approved in 2020 to tide the country through the pandemic, said Prof Tan.
“The fiscal lifelines she facilitated ensurthat the country had the financial resources to ensure lives and livelihoods were protected,” he added.
While the president does not create policy and is not meant to be a competing locus of power, Madam Halimah provided food for thought on several policy issues.
For example, she wrote in December 2022 that a spate of rape cases involving children in their homes was “highly disturbing and sickening”, and suggested that it would be timely to review the law that exempts men above the age of 50 from being caned.
She also expressed concern over cases of self-radicalised teens and highlighted the need for continuous efforts to explain where Islam stood on such issues, and supported the Retirement and Re-employment Act that seeks to protect workers from being dismissed due to old age.
“She has often used Facebook to convey her personal views, but they carry weight and also show that she follows developments in the country very closely,” Prof Tan said.
Ms Nydia Ngiow, managing director of policy advisory firm BowerGroupAsia’s Singapore office, said Madam Halimah’s candour on social issues will be remembered.
“We can all appreciate how she has continued to be outspoken on social issues even as president, with her calls for a more inclusive society to see beyond paper qualifications or to promote interfaith efforts.
“Although her call for caning older rapists was contentious, it did provoke debate and discussion which Singapore as a society can benefit more from,” added Ms Ngiow.
Regardless of the legacy Madam Halimah will leave, her decision not to run opens up the contest for her post, said observers.
Prof Tan said: “Madam Halimah’s decision not to run throws the field wide open. We will now have announcements in the weeks and months ahead by presidential hopefuls of their intention to run.”
Cue. (2023, May 29). Halimah Yacob a president with heart, say observers and those who worked with her. The Straits Times. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/a-president-with-heart-say-observers-and-those-who-worked-with-madam-halimah-yacob