Wednesday 13 September 2023

Halimah Yacob: A President For Everyone

Singapore’s eighth President Halimah Yacob reflects on the defining moments of her six years in office, from unlocking past reserves, to advocating for causes close to her heart.

Farewell, Madam Halimah: Singapore’s first female president’s last day in office
By Jean Iau and Natasha Ann Zachariah, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2023

Six years after making history as Singapore’s first woman head of state, President Halimah Yacob left the highest office in the land with accolades of being a powerful symbol of unity for all Singaporeans.

At her farewell reception held at the Istana on Wednesday evening, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Madam Halimah’s efforts to expand opportunities for all made for a more united and inclusive Singapore, where everyone belongs and has a part to play.

He said that throughout her tenure, Madam Halimah showed the way with “grounded leadership, and a warm heart for the people”.

“Your ability to empathise and resonate with Singaporeans from all walks of life has brought our nation closer together, and reminded us that we all have a role to play to make Singapore a better home,” he added.

In her speech following PM Lee’s, Madam Halimah said the president plays “an important role in uniting and rallying people together”.

“In this capacity, I focused on creating a more caring, compassionate and just society,” she added.

Madam Halimah, 69, said she reached out to different communities and underprivileged people, and highlighted various programmes that she launched while in office.

She championed issues such as providing more support for caregivers, skills upgrading for lower-income families, and building interracial and interreligious harmony and social cohesion.

Diplomacy was also a key part of her work, and she saw it as a chance to raise Singapore’s international image, strengthen the nation’s bilateral ties, and open new economic opportunities for companies here.

As the first female president, Madam Halimah knew that she had the “distinct opportunity” to inspire other women and girls.

She shared that someone had told her she had “allowed people to imagine the president as a woman” and that “images and ideas give birth to reality”.

“I wish Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam all the best in discharging his duties,” Madam Halimah said, addressing the President-elect, who was standing near the front of the audience with his wife, Ms Jane Ittogi.

Mr Tharman, 66, will be sworn in on 14 September, after securing 70.41 per cent of the vote at the presidential election on Sept 1.

As she left the podium, Madam Halimah received rousing applause from an audience of more than 200, including foreign diplomats, MPs and leaders from the social service sector.

With her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, by her side, she received well wishes and took wefies with guests, including MPs from both sides of the House.

She had earlier in her speech called her family’s love, encouragement and sacrifices “the bedrock of (her) strength” and said she was forever grateful for their support.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim, who was among the crowd, said Madam Halimah has been a unifying figure not just for Singapore but a symbol of aspiration for minority women everywhere.

“She will be remembered not only as a decisive president who supported the Government in steering our country out of the pandemic safely, but also as a president who is generous in lending her voice to speak up on behalf of various segments in our society such as youth, women and workers,” he said.

Before departing the Istana, Madam Halimah posed for pictures on the staircase by the main entrance with her family. She had said her farewells to members of the Istana staff earlier on Wednesday morning, shaking their hands and sharing laughs before taking a group photo.

Her aide-de-camp, Major Toh Su Sin, said it had been an honour to serve Singapore’s first female president. “As challenging as it was to plan and manage the range of events in Madam President’s packed diary, it was even more rewarding to be able to witness the difference she makes in the lives of others,” she said.

She added that Madam Halimah’s warmth and genuine care for everyone she meets will be missed.

Senior butler Zaidi Hashim recalled feeling awestruck on Madam Halimah’s first day in office. He said: “Madam President treated everyone with equal respect, dignity, and compassion – whether they were foreign dignitaries or her staff.

“It was bittersweet bidding farewell to her on her last day in office.”

‘It has been a privilege to be your voice, to work tirelessly on your behalf’: President Halimah
By Jean Iau, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2023

In the final hours of her presidency, Madam Halimah Yacob said she was humbled that the people of Singapore had placed their trust and faith in her as their President.

It was this unwavering support that fuelled her determination to serve every day of her six years in office, President Halimah, 69, said in her farewell speech at the Istana on Wednesday night.

Noting that Covid-19 was the most severe and unprecedented crisis during her presidency, Madam Halimah reflected on how it required her and the Government to make very difficult decisions concerning the Republic’s past reserves.

“It was an excruciating balance between saving for the future and immediate withdrawals to protect jobs and livelihoods,” she said.

Yet, it also gave Singapore the opportunity to once again test the workings of the two-key system, where, as the holder of the second key, the president assesses the need and gravity of the Government’s request to unlock the country’s past reserves, she said.

The pandemic saw the Government seek Madam Halimah’s approval to withdraw up to $69 billion from the reserves over three years, with about $40 billion used eventually.

This was the largest amount drawn from the nation’s past savings since the two-key system was created. In 2009, then President S R Nathan approved the withdrawal of past reserves to counter the global financial crisis.

The Government drew $4 billion then, which it returned to the pot in 2011.

The greatest lesson from the pandemic period is how the past reserves, built up so painstakingly over the years by successive governments, enabled the Republic to act decisively without having to face the burden of crippling debt, she added.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a memory of the past now, but it would be a mistake to let the memory fade with time,” she said.

Madam Halimah said her task as custodian of the second key was to ensure that the threat facing Singapore was so severe that it warranted an exceptional response from the Government.

Giving insight into how she decided to consent to the withdrawal, Madam Halimah said she was briefed by the Government and that she had very extensive, robust and thorough discussions with the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) before she gave her consent.

“The severity of the pandemic necessitated five withdrawals as the infection spread with great speed and intensity, and the Government had to respond quickly with support measures,” she said.

As laid out in the Constitution, the President’s Office is “not meant to operate as a parallel ministry of finance or investment advisory body of our past reserves”, she emphasised.

Instead, her office worked closely with public officers dealing with matters related to finance and past reserves.

These officers were always open and accessible, and performed their duties with great professionalism, she said.

Looking back, Madam Halimah said she had a good working relationship with the Government that was based on mutual trust, respect and a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities.

“The relationship was always at arm’s length and conducted with great propriety and decorum,” she said. “My queries and requests for information were taken seriously, and I was always able to carry out my duties properly and independently.”

In her role of uniting Singaporeans, Madam Halimah said she endeavoured to create a more caring, compassionate, and just society.

The strong support of donors to the President’s Challenge not only aided communities in need, but also allowed for an important shift where help could go towards empowering the less well-off, and to include caregivers.

For instance, the Empowering for Life Fund she launched has programmes that promote skills upgrading, capacity-building, and employment for beneficiaries from disadvantaged families.

Madam Halimah also spent many hours on the ground during her tenure, officiating at more than 1,400 community events.

She made the Istana more accessible, particularly to Singaporeans who would otherwise have no chance to visit, such as hospice care patients and those suffering from motor neuron disease.

The Istana Gardens were also enhanced to be made more wheelchair-friendly.

Madam Halimah said she also reached out to different communities, including persons with disabilities and those suffering from mental health issues, and was proud of Supporting Youth in Community, a collaboration with the Institute of Mental Health and four social service agencies to offer mental health support services to young people.

Madam Halimah thanked the Presidential Councils, the CPA and the many social service agencies and business organisations that supported and worked with her over the last six years to uplift the underprivileged in the society.

As Singapore’s top diplomat, she flew the flag on the international stage with 21 overseas visits, including 12 state visits, even amid the pandemic.

As Singapore’s first female president, Madam Halimah said she had the unique opportunity to inspire other women and girls.

“Many have shared with me about how uplifting it was for them to see a female head of state and its strong message about women’s place in our society,” she said.

She added: “If I have been able to empower women in Singapore, to push the boundaries and reach their fullest potential, I am most grateful for the chance to do so.”

Being the first female head of state and coming from a minority community, Madam Halimah said her presidency let the outside world see that in Singapore, meritocracy and diversity are real and not mere slogans.

She ended her farewell speech by thanking her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, and her family for supporting her through her term.

Addressing the people of Singapore, Madam Halimah said: “I am humbled by your trust and faith in me as your President. It has been a privilege to be your voice, to listen to your concerns, and to work tirelessly on your 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.”

President Halimah a powerful symbol of unity who has been an inspiration to all Singaporeans: PM Lee Hsien Loong
By Natasha Ann Zachariah, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Sep 2023

On President Halimah Yacob’s last day in office on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid a heartfelt tribute to her for bringing Singaporeans together, being a conscientious custodian of the country’s reserves, and building a more inclusive society.

In a speech at a farewell reception at the Istana to thank her for her “illustrious service” to Singapore, PM Lee called Madam Halimah “a powerful symbol of unity for all Singaporeans”.

He said it was not just because of what the office represents, but also how she carried out her duties and led Singapore as its eighth president.

“Throughout your tenure, you showed the way with grounded leadership and a warm heart for the people,” said PM Lee.

“Your ability to empathise and resonate with Singaporeans from all walks of life has brought our nation closer together, and reminded us that we all have a role to play to make Singapore a better home.”

PM Lee said Madam Halimah had led the way in crucial times, citing how she was among the first to take the Covid-19 vaccine and visited front-line workers on the ground during the pandemic.

She later hosted them at the Istana to thank them and recognise their sacrifices.

“Your presence and your concern lifted spirits, and made all the difference,” said PM Lee.

He added: “Seeing our President with us gave everyone hope, showed that every contribution was appreciated, and inspired us to soldier on despite the difficulties and personal sacrifices.”

Being a woman from a minority community, and coming from a humble family background, Madam Halimah proves that Singapore’s meritocratic system works, said PM Lee.

Her father, a watchman, died when she was eight. Madam Halimah, who is the youngest of five children, helped her mother who sold nasi padang, doing the cleaning, washing, clearing of tables and serving customers.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School alumna later graduated from the University of Singapore with a law degree.

In 1978, she joined the National Trades Union Congress as a legal officer.

She later joined politics, and in 2011, became minister of state at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. Two years later, she became Singapore’s first female Speaker of Parliament.

In 2017, she become Singapore’s first female president, occupying the highest office in the country.

PM Lee said Madam Halimah’s lived experience had to be a major reason why she strongly believed in building a more egalitarian and inclusive society.

During her time in office, he said she worked hard to strengthen mutual understanding, trust and respect across diverse community groups.

She also took an interest in many worthy causes, especially those focused on helping the less privileged, so that they would feel valued and recognised in society, added PM Lee.

He highlighted four areas she particularly championed: gender equality, disability inclusion, mental health issues, especially among the young, and workers’ interests.

On elevating women, PM Lee said Madam Halimah’s efforts “challenged gender stereotypes and heightened awareness of the biases still faced by women”.

He noted that she paid particular attention to those with disabilities. Under the President’s Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge, she advocated for more inclusive and accessible workplaces and employment policies.

To understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities and to encourage employers and Singaporeans to be more accepting and understanding, Madam Halimah frequently visited social welfare agencies, said PM Lee.

Concerned about mental health issues among young people, Madam Halimah launched the Supporting Youth in Community programme to provide this group with psychosocial support.

PM Lee said: “This programme has helped many young people to overcome their mental struggles and emerge from dark moments in their lives.”

He also praised her for always looking out for workers’ interests, in particular lower-wage workers, given her close ties with the labour movement.

PM Lee noted that she launched the Empowering for Life Fund in 2018 to offer tailored support for skills upgrading and employment assistance to vulnerable individuals.

In 2022, she focused the President’s Challenge’s fund-raising efforts on “Supporting Lower-Income Families” – the group hardest hit by the pandemic – raising a record $17.3 million.

Beyond her ceremonial and symbolic roles, PM Lee noted that Madam Halimah also carried out her duties as the custodian of Singapore’s reserves thoroughly.

Holding the “second key” to the nation’s reserves, she “had to exercise this important duty on an unprecedented scale” because of the pandemic, said PM Lee.

Over three years, the Government sought Madam Halimah’s approval to draw on the reserves repeatedly.

PM Lee said Madam Halimah, who was advised by the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), worked closely with the Government to understand the rapidly developing situation and to assess its proposed responses and requests.

She also had to ensure the requested draws on reserves were necessary and justified, he said.

He added that he was glad the officials were able to deal fully with her “searching” queries and clarifications, and address the reservations and concerns that she and the CPA raised.

PM Lee said: “As the officials involved will attest, you participated actively in a thorough process. Rigorous, but not antagonistic.”

Eventually, Madam Halimah approved a cumulative $69 billion draw on the reserves over three years, though only about $40 billion was used, said PM Lee.

He noted that this was the largest amount ever drawn since the system of the “second key” was created.

Doing so enabled the Government to move swiftly and confidently to tackle the crisis, without having to take on a heavy debt burden and encumbering future generations, he added.

On Madam Halimah’s decision to approve the requests,PM Lee said: “With your support, the Government was able to save lives, stabilise the economy, preserve jobs, and ensure that Singapore emerged more resilient and stronger after Covid-19.”

He also paid homage to her efforts in representing Singapore on the world stage and strengthening relations and friendships with other countries, despite the pandemic’s limitations on travel.

Madam Halimah had hosted many foreign leaders in Singapore and made impactful state and official visits, including to several Asean countries, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, Japan and Europe, said PM Lee.

In doing so, he said she helped other countries understand Singapore better, and opened new opportunities, such as through the numerous bilateral agreements concluded during her trips.

He also mentioned that she always took special care to engage overseas Singaporeans and keep them in touch with home.

Calling her “Singapore’s top diplomat”, PM Lee said she fulfilled these duties with dignity and grace.

PM Lee also expressed appreciation for Madam Halimah’s husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, who he said played a “critical role” in supporting her during her time in office.

“He was constantly by your side as you carried out your official duties, be it engaging foreign dignitaries or meeting Singaporeans,” said PM Lee. “His calm and informal nature complemented well your own warmth and approachability.”

As he closed his tribute to Madam Halimah, PM Lee recalled what she said when she was first elected six years ago: “I’m a President for everyone.”

Through her leadership and heart for the people, PM Lee said she had “certainly fulfilled (her) promise”.

He said that her efforts to expand opportunities for all have made for a more united and inclusive Singapore, where everyone belongs and has a part to play.

“Your commitment to improving our society and concern for every Singaporean will continue to inspire and guide Singaporeans as we refresh our social compact and press forward together.”

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