From The Straits Times archives: Madame Speaker's staying put in Yishun

Halimah Yacob in a photo taken on Jan 8, 2013. She told The Straits Times in an interview that she was staying put in her HDB flat despite becoming Speaker of Parliament.
Halimah Yacob in a photo taken on Jan 8, 2013. She told The Straits Times in an interview that she was staying put in her HDB flat despite becoming Speaker of Parliament. PHOTO: ST FILE

Halimah’s happy in her HDB home, so stop asking her if a new job means it is time to upgrade

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 13, 2013

Madam Halimah Yacob has lived in the same five-room Housing Board flat in Yishun for 30 years. 

It has been the only home for three of her five children and it is where her two sons got married. A daughter may follow suit next year. 

Like most homes, it has seen sadness too: Her mother-in-law, who lived with the family, died there in 1999.

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But ask her if she is planning on moving any time soon, especially now that she is about to become Speaker of Parliament, and the answer is a firm "No". 

"I have been asked so often why I am still living in an HDB flat that I now ask those who ask me that question, ‘Why not?’ After all, more than 80 per cent of our population live in HDB flats and if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me," she told The Sunday Times.

The 58-year-old unionist- turned-politician, a tireless champion of workers, women and the poor, will be elected Singapore’s first woman Speaker when Parliament sits tomorrow. 

In a nation of eager home upgraders, Madam Halimah acknowledges the weight of societal expectation that "when you hold a certain position, you must live in a certain type of property"."

When I became an MP, everyone expected me to move to a private property. But I did not," she said. 

"The same thing happened when I became Minister of State, and now that I have been nominated to be Speaker of Parliament, people expect me to move.

"Yet, to her, a home is not merely a piece of property to be flipped for profit. It is, instead, a priceless repository of a lifetime of memories. 

"To me, a house is not just a place that we live in, but it is a home and a life that we build together as a family. It is a place where we bring up our children, share happy and sad moments, and where we seek solace and comfort after a long day at work," she said. 

The youngest of five children of a watchman and a food-seller, she grew up in a one-room home on Hindoo Road, and settled on Yishun by accident.

After marrying businessman Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, 58, she wanted to live next to her mother, Madam Maimun Abdullah.

When she heard that two sisters living in adjacent Yishun flats wanted to sell their units at the same time, she jumped at the chance. In the early 1980s, Yishun was nothing like the bustling township it is today. 

Madam Halimah recalled the days when, as a young union officer, she would buy groceries near her workplace to take home.

"Things have changed so much. Yishun is now a mature estate." 

Her home is accessible to shops, the family doctor’s clinic is nearby, public transport is convenient and the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital is a short distance away.

All of this is important now that her mother, who is 88 and still lives next door, has dementia. 

When Madam Halimah’s children were young, Madam Maimun helped look after them. Now the roles have reversed.

"It is the children’s turn to show her love and affection," said Madam Halimah. "So they take turns to take her for her medical appointments, and it is really convenient when the GP and hospital are both near our home."

When emergencies happen, like when my mother had a fall and I was at my Meet-the-People Session at 11pm, the children could quickly take her to the hospital."

Home also involves forming and fostering relationships in the community. The woman who runs the local provision shop, for example, still asks about Madam Halimah every time a family member stops by her store. 

"Occasionally, I visit her shop and she shares with me her woes about the rental costs and how hard she has to work."

The general practitioner who has treated the family for three decades also knows them well. "He has all my medical records although thankfully I don’t have to visit him often," said Madam Halimah.

She has had good neighbours too over the years, though some have left and others have arrived. "I had a neighbour who was a very good cook and we used to get very nice dishes from her but she has since moved away. She is like a part of our family and I still make an effort to visit her once a year during the Hari Raya Puasa period." 

The veteran unionist, who spent 33 years at the National Trades Union Congress, holds a master’s degree in law from the National University of Singapore. She became a People’s Action Party MP in 2001 and a Minister of State in 2011. 

Her nomination to be Speaker followed the resignation of Mr Michael Palmer in the wake of an extramarital affair last month.

Madam Halimah said that living in public housing has given her a keen sense of what bothers people and the daily frustrations they face if their estate is not well taken care of.

"I know what they are talking about because there are times when I experience some of these frustrations too, such as when the lift breaks down frequently or the place is dirty."

But overall, her experience of living in public housing has been a positive one. "It is convenient, safe and generally well maintained."

Those who know Madam Halimah well, like Ms Molly Too, 56, are not at all surprised that she has no plans to leave her home now that she is being elevated to Speaker.

The chairman of the PAP women’s wing at Bukit Batok East constituency first met Madam Halimah more than two decades ago. 

"In our society, there is always a pressure to upgrade your flat to show off your station in life. But Halimah has always been her own person," she said. 

Mr G. Muthukumar, 62, a union associate who has known Madam Halimah for three decades, says living in public housing has kept her "close to the ground"."

Her constituents, her neighbours, her community are all like her children. She cannot move away," he said. 

Meanwhile, as Madam Halimah begins a new chapter in public life, she holds out new hopes on the home front too.

She is looking forward to a daughter’s wedding next year, and to new additions to the family.

She once carried her children in their Yishun home when they were babies. "I hope that I will be able to carry my grandchildren there too," she said.