Halimah Yacob to contest presidential election: 8 things about the veteran unionist

Madam Halimah Yacob will contest in the upcoming presidential election.
Madam Halimah Yacob will contest in the upcoming presidential election. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Madam Halimah Yacob, who on Sunday (Aug 6) announced her decision to contest the upcoming presidential election, will make history as Singapore's first female President if she is elected.

The 62-year-old unionist-turned-politician is the third person so far to declare her intention to run, with the other two being businessmen Farid Khan, 62, and Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67.

She stepped down from her positions as Speaker for Parliament and Member of Parliament for Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC on Monday, saying she had made the decision after careful consideration and consultation with friends, colleagues and family members.

Here are eight things to know about Madam Halimah.

1. Humble beginnings

Madam Halimah's father, a watchman, died when she was eight, leaving her mother to raise her and four older siblings. Home was a one-room flat in Hindoo Road.

She would wake up before sunrise to help her mother - who initially sold nasi padang from a pushcart plying Shenton Way before getting a hawker stall licence - before going to school.

Her time studying at Singapore Chinese Girls' School and Tanjong Katong Girls' was a stressful one as she had to juggle schoolwork with wiping tables and washing dishes, while her school fees often went unpaid.

2. Only one in her family to attend university


Madam Halimah receiving the Doctor of Laws degree from President Tony Tan Keng Yam on July 7, 2016. The top honour, which recognised her contributions to Singapore and the community, put her in company of luminaries such as former prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

Madam Halimah, in her own words, took a leap of faith and enrolled in the University of Singapore's law faculty.

She did not know where her school fees would come from, but secured a last-minute $1,000 annual bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. Her brother, who had just started work as a prison officer, contributed $50 a month.

She worked as a library clerk during term breaks to make up the rest of her living expenses.

3. Start of her unionist career



Madam Halimah, seen here in a 1997 photo when she was director of NTUC's legal services unit. PHOTO: THE BUSINESS TIMES 

Madam Halimah graduated in 1978 and joined NTUC as a legal officer, as she wanted to represent workers and "fight for a just cause".

 
 

During a career spanning 33 years, she rose to head NTUC's legal services unit and its women's development secretariat, and also became the first Singaporean on the governing body of the International Labour Organisation from 1999 to 2011.

She was NTUC's assistant secretary-general from 1999 to 2007 before becoming deputy secretary-general until 2011.

She earned her master's in law from NUS in 2001.

4. Marrying her university sweetheart

Two years after her graduation, Madam Halimah wed businessman Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, a physics major who is of the same age.

The couple initially lived in a rented room before buying their first home, a five-room flat in Tampines for $75,000.

They have two sons and three daughters, now aged 26 to 35.

5. Joining politics


Madam Halimah congratulated by supporters at Jurong East Stadium following the 2001 general election. PHOTO: ST FILE 

In 2001, Madam Halimah was elected an MP in Jurong GRC, where she served three terms before becoming an MP in Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC after the 2015 general election.

She became an office holder in 2011 when she was appointed Minister of State in the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, after which she moved to the Ministry of Social and Family Development in 2012.

She became the first woman to be appointed Speaker of Parliament in 2013.

6. Staying put in a HDB flat


Madam Halimah, seen here preparing food in the kitchen of her Yishun home in 2004. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO 

Madam Halimah has made no secret of her preference for living in her HDB flat in Yishun, which she moved into in 1983.

She said on Sunday she hoped to continue living there even if she is elected president - a stance that has remained unwavering since she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, despite questions over why she had no desire to "upgrade".

 
 

In a Straits Times interview that year, she said: "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."

7. A lifetime of memories and communal living

Madam Halimah's current Yishun home, which is near Khoo Teck Puat Hospital, comprises two adjacent five- and four-room flats with the dividing wall between them knocked down.

She jumped at the chance to buy both units when she heard the two sisters living there wanted to sell, as she had wanted to live next to her mother.

She said that her concept of home is not merely a piece of property to be flipped for profit, but a "priceless repository of a lifetime of memories".

It is also the only home for three of her five children and where several of them got married.

In another interview shortly after she became Speaker of Parliament in 2013, Madam Halimah revealed she had wanted to reinforce to her children the importance of communal living and taking care of elders.

Members of her family do their own chores and wash their own clothes (herself included) because she decided to do away with having a maid, as she "never really got over the feeling that it's not a relationship of equals".

8. A supportive husband

Madam Halimah has been steadfast in her refusal to reveal more details about her family, beyond saying in a 2013 interview that they are "proud of me but don't want to be defined by me".

Her husband was said in the same interview to have "debunked gender roles" by working from home - mostly at night - so he could help bring up the family while she was coping with a demanding career.


Madam Halimah was accompanied by her husband Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee at a National Day event in Marsiling on Sunday (Aug 6), when she announced her decision to run for president. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM 

On Sunday, he accompanied his wife to the National Day dinner in Marsiling where she announced her decision to contest.

"She is very capable, she works very hard and she is very experienced representing Singapore in various unions, so I think she's the right person," he told reporters.