Halimah Yacob on valuable lessons from her early struggles

A younger Madam Halimah Yacob before she entered politics. She went on to become the first Malay woman MP since Independence.
A younger Madam Halimah Yacob before she entered politics. She went on to become the first Malay woman MP since Independence.ST FILE PHOTO

In 1999, while holding a full-time job as a unionist and taking care of five school-going children, Madam Halimah Yacob decided to pursue a master's in law at the National University of Singapore.

She knew it would not be easy to balance work, family and studies, but she wanted to make sure her mind would not atrophy.

So during the 35-minute MRT commute from her Yishun home to her Shenton Way office, and in between meetings at work, she would bury her nose in her law books.

"My husband said: 'You are crazy! You have got a full-time job and you have got five children. How are you going to manage?'"

"I said: 'Let me just give it a try.'"

At age 45, she saw the juggling act as a personal challenge.

But when she was 13, having to balance her studies and work caused her a lot more pain.

 
 
 
 
 

Her father had died five years earlier, leaving her mother to bring up five children.

Madam Halimah, then a secondary school student at Singapore Chinese Girls' School, had to help out at her mother's hawker stall after school, on weekends and during the school holidays.

It made her so tired that she often skipped classes and was nearly expelled. "At some point, I almost wanted to give up. It was such a terrible struggle... I hit a wall," she said.

Being a poor student in a school of mostly privileged students made things worse, as she did not have the home support her classmates had. Also, it was hard for her teachers to focus their efforts on helping her as she was the odd one out in class. Eventually, it was the fear of becoming like the delinquents and drug addicts in her neighbourhood that steeled her resolve to try harder.

"I didn't want to end up like them, so I decided I had better pick myself up and improve," she said.

Madam Halimah, 62, recalled the difficult times in a matter-of-fact way at an interview with The Straits Times yesterday, with no hint of resentment.

The struggle taught her lessons that would stay with her, she said, adding that having to fend for herself made her mature faster and become more resilient.

"That is the good thing about kids who go through a great deal of hardship. You learn to overcome adversities," she added.

Over the years, she achieved several firsts, including becoming, in 2001, the first Malay woman MP since independence, and in 2013, Singapore's first woman Speaker of Parliament.

Asked how she feels about breaking the glass ceiling, Madam Halimah said she would "prefer to be known not by my gender".

"People should be assessed based on their abilities to contribute, their track record and what they can do to benefit Singapore and Singaporeans. Men, women, it doesn't matter, because there must be the desire and the passion to serve - that is the most important," she said.

It was this same attitude that her mother Maimun Abdullah held when her husband died.

"My mum didn't have any skills except the ability to cook, but she told us, 'I've got two hands and two legs, so we can survive. We lost a breadwinner but I will become the breadwinner'," she recounted.

"In that way, she's transmitted the value to me. I never thought women couldn't work, support the family and raise children at the same time," she added.

Her mother also played a big part in helping to take care of her children when she was pursuing her career, as did her husband, Mr Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, 63, a retired businessman. He would, when her children were younger, do the marketing, take them out, fix things in the house and make sure the bills were paid on time.

Asked how her husband feels about being married to a successful woman, Madam Halimah said: "Fortunately he's able to handle that because he doesn't see me as a power woman.

"We balance out quite well at home... I believe in empowering relationships. He empowers me, I empower him. That's how we maintain the balance and harmony at home."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 11, 2017, with the headline 'Valuable lessons from her early struggles'. Print Edition | Subscribe