Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob has been conferred an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws by National University of Singapore (NUS), its top honour for individuals who have served the community and country with distinction.
Madam Halimah, 61, received her scroll from President Tony Tan Keng Yam, who is also chancellor of NUS, during a ceremony at her alma mater yesterday.
The commencement ceremony is the first of 23 to be held until next Thursday at the University Cultural Centre, for 10,395 students who are graduating this year.
Madam Halimah, a former labour lawyer and unionist who became a politician in 2001, was lauded for being a trailblazer who turned early adversity into a lifelong motivation to serve society.
The accolade puts her among luminaries such as founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, and former chief justices Yong Pung How and Chan Sek Keong.
In his speech, NUS president Tan Chorh Chuan recounted Madam Halimah's tough childhood.
Her father died when she was eight, and her mother became an itinerant food hawker to raise her five children. The young girl would wake up early to help prepare the food before going to school.
She had just $5 the day she matriculated at NUS. But with a bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and part-time work, she graduated with honours and became a legal officer at the National Trades Union Congress.
"We can learn valuable lessons about how passion, a willingness to try, an eagerness to learn and a commitment to contribute to society can help each of us to excel despite the challenges that we may face," said Prof Tan.
Law Faculty dean Simon Chesterman also noted in his citation that Madam Halimah had smashed many glass ceilings: she was the first Malay woman to be elected an MP when she joined politics in 2001, and the first woman to be Speaker of Parliament in 2013.
She was also the first Singaporean to be elected to the governing body of the International Labour Organisation, a United Nations body that sets labour standards.
She has inspired many "to see themselves as not defined solely by their class, gender, race or religion", said Prof Chesterman.
Madam Halimah said she was honoured to be recognised for her contributions, and told the 180 graduands of the School of Computing, who got their degrees yesterday, that success is achieved not as a goal, but as a by-product of dedicating oneself to a cause.
She urged them to have a direction in life and to rise to the occasion when faced with unexpected challenges. "How you respond and deal with adversities will make a difference," she said.
She acknowledged that stories like hers are harder to come by today as families with more resources can give their children greater access to opportunities, but the Government will strive to to keep Singapore a "fair, just and equal society".
This is why the Government continues to invest heavily in early childhood education and ensure children from all backgrounds have good access to it, she told reporters in an earlier interview.
She called on young graduates to give back to societyand to remember that they have excelled with the help of many people, not just on their own steam.
She recalled her own support network, like the teachers who helped pay her school fees from their own pockets first, and her older brother who gave her $50 every month for the four years she was doing law.
Yesterday, retiree Mohamed Ismail Yacob, 64, was among 10 proud family members who witnessed the conferment.
Madam Halimah said: "Let's have the humility to accept that not everything that has happened to us was because of how smart or how good we are, but because we had a lot of help."