SINGAPORE - Shortly after her inauguration as the nation's eighth president on Thursday (Sept 14), Madam Halimah Yacob acknowledged the disquiet among some Singaporeans about her walkover victory in the the country's first reserved election, saying that she respected their views.
"Like them, I look forward to the day when we will no longer need to rely on the provision to have reserved elections, and Singaporeans naturally and regularly elect citizens of all races as presidents," said Madam Halimah, in her first address as president from the Istana State Room.
"Today, I want to assure all Singaporeans that as your president, I will serve every one of you, regardless of race, language or religion."
Her remarks came as she said that she welcomes the recent moves to protect the country's multiracial identity by ensuring every ethnic group - including the minorities - have a chance to rise to the highest office of the land from time to time.
The introduction of the reserved election this year, following changes to the Constitution, has seen divided views among Singaporeans. While some see it as a necessary step to protect multiracialism, others believe it to be a move that undermines meritocracy.
Madam Halimah, 63, said on Thursday: "We have made great progress building a multiracial society over the years, but we also know that this endeavour is a constant work in progress. We need guideposts to help us along this journey."
Integration in housing and schools is now part of the social landscape, she noted.
"Had we left them on their own, they might have taken a different direction. Every generation faces new challenges to our multiracialism," she added.
"Every generation must update our institutions to strengthen our shared values. And every generation needs champions who care deeply about multiracialism and fight to uphold and realise this ideal."
In Singapore's formative years, its first president Yusof Ishak and its other founding fathers had established the foundations of multiracialism, said Madam Halimah.
"They understood that multiracialism does not mean ignoring or forcibly erasing differences between ethnic groups. Instead, they recognised our diversity, and took steps to reassure every community that they were a unique and valued part of our society," she said.
"I am glad that our founding leaders went beyond enshrining multiracialism in our national pledge, to entrench it in key national policies like housing, education, and security."
Thanks to these strong foundations, a diverse yet cohesive community has been built, said Madam Halimah, noting her own background. She grew up in Selegie House, in a multiracial neighbourhood, and attended the Singapore Chinese Girls' School, studying alongside classmates of all races.
In the unions, where she served for over three decades, she helped workers regardless of their race. And when she became MP, she looked after the needs of Singaporeans from every race and religion.
"I am proud that I belong to a country that does not just say it is diverse, but lives out this diversity every single day," she said.
The presidency is the highest office in the land and a key institution in our democracy, she noted.
"It unifies our nation by embodying our shared values as a people - multiracialism, meritocracy, and stewardship. These values are even more important today, guiding us as we find our way forward in a troubled and uncertain world," said Madam Halimah.
She also spoke on meritocracy - another of the country's core values.
All Singaporeans should have the opportunity to get a good education and a good start in life, no matter where they come from or who their parents are.
"We firmly believe that anyone who works hard should be able to realise his or her full potential, and make valuable contributions to society," said Madam Halimah.
"I have strong personal convictions about our meritocratic system, because without it, I would not be here today."
She was just eight years old when her watchman father died. She and her four siblings were brought up singlehandedly by their mother, she said.
"We experienced poverty and hardship first-hand, struggling to survive every single day. Fortunately, I was growing up in Singapore," said Madam Halimah. "Even though my family was poor, I could get a good education by working hard, with the strong support of my family, teachers and the community. That enabled me to launch my career in the public service, and later to give others in need a helping hand."
It is not an uncommon life story in Singapore - and this is something special and precious to the country, she added.
She also promised to build on the work of her predecessors S R Nathan and Tony Tan Keng Yam.
She will use the President's Challenge, which was started by the late Mr Nathan in 2000, to uplift the less privileged. And, she noted, Singapore must also assist needy families in getting ready for the challenges of tomorrow.
She thus welcomes the Government's plans to make major investments in early childhood education, "to get those from humble backgrounds off to a good start, ready to do well in our meritocratic system" - as well as in skills upgrading, "to help their parents earn more and enjoy better job security"
Madam Halimah, a veteran unionist and politician, said that she has in her previous roles seen how much Singapore can achieve by working together.
"Now, as President, my duty is to unite the people, to overcome the many challenges ahead of us, together. I pledge to continue this journey of service to our country. I call on all Singaporeans to join me in this endeavour," she said.
"Our goal must be to leave behind a better Singapore for future generations. We must measure our success not just by how well we do for ourselves, but by whether we enable the next generation to do even better. Let us commit ourselves to this task, and together create a brighter future for all Singaporeans."