Saturday, 26 January 2013

Halimah Yacob: Soft heart, strong will

New Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob tells Susan Long how she went from selling pushcart nasi padang and almost getting expelled from school to one of the highest offices in the land.
The Straits Times, 25 Jan 2013

AT ONE Marina Boulevard, a new security guard stopped Madam Halimah Yacob at the entrance one morning. He wanted to know what she was there for. She said she worked in the building. "Ah," he concluded. "You're the cleaner."

He was taken aside by his supervisor. But the then deputy secretary-general of NTUC just laughed off his assumptions. "It's become a standing joke in my family," she recounts, eyes crinkling.

In 1999, she became the first Singaporean elected to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) governing body, which sets labour standards for 174 member countries. Her international colleagues, who voted for her, told her she had "broken many glass ceilings all at once" - as an Asian, a woman at that, and furthermore, one wearing a tudung.

The 58-year-old newly appointed Speaker of Parliament's life has been an exercise in debunking stereotypes. When she entered politics in 2001, post-Sept 11, few could see past her headscarf, which fringed thick glasses and a solemn mien. But the tiny tudung dynamo, as she came to be known, taught Singaporeans to look past appearances. She won over many with her steadfast devotion to low-income families, single mothers, the elderly and the disabled, groups she spoke up for and helped over decades variously as a unionist, volunteer, Member of Parliament and junior minister.

At NTUC, where she spent 33 years, she started the Back-to-Work programme, which helped thousands of women learn new skills and re-enter the workforce. At the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF), she worked almost two years developing home-based care for the frail elderly and conceptualising a training and employment agency for those with special needs.

Her crowning achievement was passing the history-making ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers in 2011, which enshrines a day off, adequate rest and other benefits for maids. To reach that consensus , she lets on that whenever she led week-long sessions at the ILO in Geneva, she was so busy marshalling arguments and support that she often slept no more than three hours a night. At her final ILO Workers Group meeting in 2011, she received a rare standing ovation, says fellow unionist and Nominated MP Mary Liew.

On the domestic front, Mr Mohd Yusof Ismail, 55, chief executive of Ain Society, says Madam Halimah's most visible achievement is refashioning the tudung. "She is an inspiration to all Malay-Muslim women, that you can practise your faith, maintain your roots and live out your values.

"She is demure and soft-spoken but firm. Once she locks onto something, she really goes for it."

The former minister of state never relies on official feedback channels alone but keeps her ears planted to the ground, he adds. At MSF, she would visit voluntary welfare groups at least twice a week to find out their problems in implementing policies.

Thus, the hands-on Jurong GRC MP reveals that it was with regret that she gave up her ministerial post - as a constitutional requirement - to preside over Parliament. "I tell you what's my biggest challenge becoming Speaker," she confides. "I love going to the ground, talking to people. I had to go through a very deep thought process."

Finally, she reconciled herself to it, thinking that the Speaker's role, while structured, is "very defined", "its larger purpose is to serve Singaporeans".

She intends to "meaningfully project" her new role and stamp her own identity on it. She is grateful that NTUC, Mendaki and the National Council of Social Service have appointed her as adviser, giving her avenues to continue to pursue her social causes.

Ponteng queen

HER starkest memory of childhood was when her father died of a heart attack when she was eight. An aunt told her and her four older siblings: "Your life will be tough. Remember, even if you have only five cents, learn to share it with one another." Soon after, they were thrown out of government quarters - her father was a government watchman - and rolled out mats nightly to sleep in the living rooms of relatives.

Every morning, for the next decade, she awoke at 5am, helped her mother buy ingredients at the market, darted off to school, then returned to help her mother sell nasi padang. They operated from an illegal pushcart plying Shenton Way, dodging policemen, till they got a hawker stall licence.

She led a "stressful" double life - going from hawking to Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS), where children pulled up in fancy cars. She was only one of a few minority girls there. Her fees were often unpaid and her homework not done.

She scraped through primary school but almost got expelled during Secondary 2. It became "too trying" to cram homework into a long day of wiping tables and washing dishes that ended past 11pm. She became a "ponteng queen", cutting classes with impunity. Finally, the SCGS principal warned her that if she kept it up, she would be booted out.

She panicked, fearing that she would then have to spend every waking moment at the stall - "a worse punishment". So she showed up at school and started studying on the bus between stops and at the stall between orders. She made it to the University of Singapore's law faculty - the only one in her family to go to university.

On matriculation day, with $5 in her pocket and unable to afford any joining fees, she "ran away" from all the society recruiters. Classified as an Indian-Muslim after her father, she had gone to university on a "leap of faith", not knowing where her fees would come from. At the last minute, a $1,000 annual bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore came through. Her brother, who had started work as a prison officer, chipped in with $50 a month. Every term break, she worked as a library clerk to make up the rest of her living expenses.

Upon graduation in 1978, she became a legal officer with NTUC to represent workers and "fight for a just cause". Her peers felt she had shortchanged herself. "I had a hard time every time I met friends from law school. Whenever they asked 'what are you doing' and I said 'I'm with NTUC', they would assume it was NTUC FairPrice and go, 'oh, the supermarket'."

Two years after graduation, she married her university sweetheart, Mr Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, now 58, a physics major. They started married life in a rented room, then lived with relatives, before they bought their own five-room flat in Tampines for $75,000. They moved into the spartan, unrenovated flat, and had five children in steady succession. "One thing my mother taught me is, no matter how poor you were, never borrow money," she relates, adding that she paid for everything in cash, till she had to travel to Geneva extensively for work and applied for her first credit card in her mid-30s.

Having it all

SHE learnt that a woman can have it "all" - a demanding career, five children, volunteer work, three terms in politics and counting - but only with help from her mum, extended family and her businessman husband, who debunked gender roles and worked from home mostly at night.

She also learnt that rallying a network of support is possible only if "we invest in our emotional bank accounts and develop relationships with family".

When babysitters bailed, she could count on her elder sisters to help out, two of whom now live with her, as does her mother. Her late mother-in-law, who was bedridden, lived under the same roof for five years till she died in 1999.

That was why 30 years ago, they bought two adjacent five- and four-room flats in Yishun, and knocked down the dividing wall, to reinforce to their children the importance of communal living and taking care of elders.

In her household, everything is family-sized and common property. "The idea of sharing is very important to me. You do not buy things just for yourself. You buy things to share with everybody."

She has not had a maid for several years now because she "never really got over the feeling that it's not a relationship of equals". Everyone does their own chores, launders their own clothes and changes their own sheets, herself included.

She is less concerned with how successful her two sons and three daughters, now aged 22 to 31, are at school and work, and more with "what underpins their success in years to come". But she strenuously refuses to reveal any details about her husband and children, beyond saying that they are "proud of me but don't want to be defined by me".

What saddens her most is that young people today decide whether to marry or have children based on cost. Her richest comfort, she confides, is coming home to children who follow her example by going to the door, taking her bag, and asking her how her day went. "Can you imagine going home to a house with nothing in it but all the things you have bought, and there's nobody, no warmth, no affection?" she says with a shudder.

If there is one thing she has learnt, it is that "you cannot live life fulfilling your own needs only". "It's only when you help to fulfil other people's needs and lives that you find your own fulfilment."

Her mother, Madam Maimun Abdullah, now 88 and with dementia, remains the heroine of her narrative. "I call her the Axe brand generation. For every illness, be it a cut, stomach ache or tooth ache, she uses Axe brand oil. She expects very little from others, believes this is her lot in life and she should just make the best of it."

She has only gratitude - no regrets - for her rough start, which gave her hard-headedness, her soft heart and her values that propelled her to one of the highest offices in the land. "It shapes you - the discipline, the hard work, the fierce self-reliance. For me, the more loaded the dice is against me, the more I grit my teeth and never say die. If I had the roof collapsing on me, the next thing I will be thinking about is how do I get it off my back and move on."

Halimah on...

Her tudung

"People can hold all the stereotypes they want, it's basically how you live your life that's important. Don't be inhibited by constraints others put on you. Just continue to contribute and be taken seriously in your own right. People will assess you based on outcomes, with or without a tudung. Over time, they will just accept you for who you are."

Glass ceilings

"I find that sometimes it's not just a Malay-Muslim community thing but also gender. In meetings, when there are a lot of male voices, women tend to be quiet. I always tell my women union leaders: "Look, you have an opinion. Speak up, you have something to contribute, you can make a difference." I think it's the same with the Malay community, we need to feel comfortable in our own skin, confident of what we are, who we are, to begin with."

Whether a woman can 'have it all'

"I think you've got to prioritise what you want in life. For me, earlier in my career, we didn't have much money or even a home. But I wanted to have a family so of course my career took a slower track to develop and grow. Another thing: Set realistic goals. Whatever you do, keep it simple."

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