SINGAPORE - People have always come before party colours for presidential hopeful Halimah Yacob, who said at a press conference on Tuesday (Aug 29) to unveil her campaign slogan that her close ties to the ruling party will not affect her ability to act independently as president.
The long-time People’s Action Party MP, who left her political and party posts earlier this month to run in the presidential election, said: “Whatever I do, it must always be the people first, and the people first, and the people first.”
“And if, as a candidate, at any time I feel that I am not able to be independent, I would not offer myself.”
Madam Halimah,63, was speaking a day after the Writ of Elections was issued, at at press conference where she unveiled her slogan, “Do Good, Do Together”.
Describing it as a call to action for all Singaporeans, she said she hoped they would join her in building a community of excellence that is inclusive and progressive.
At the press conference, she also fielded questions ranging from whether she could truly be independent, to whether she hoped for a walkover or a contest.
Since the former Speaker of Parliament announced her presidential bid, she has sought to convince Singaporeans that her past political affiliations will not compromise her independence.
Pointing to her long years in public service, Madam Halimah - who spent more than three decades in the labour movement before joining politics in 2001 - said she has always placed the interests of people first.
Those who do not put the people first are doing “a gross disservice”, she added.
“Every day we get up, we have to look at ourselves and ask ourselves, who are we serving?” said Madam Halimah.
“I have asked myself that question and I know where my loyalty lies. My loyalty lies with Singapore and Singaporeans.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had issued the Writ of Election on Monday, which means that Singaporeans will vote for their eighth president on Sept 23, if more than one person qualifies to run for the position.
The winning candidate will be the second Malay president in Singapore’s history, and the first to be chosen in a presidential election reserved for candidates of a specific community.
Madam Halimah, 63, is one of three people who have stepped forward to potentially join the contest. The others are marine services firm chairman Farid Khan, 61, and property company chief executive Salleh Marican, 67.
Asked at the press conference if she would prefer to contest in an election open to candidates of all races, Madam Halimah said “the requirements are the same” for both reserved and open elections, and the principle of meritocracy “is not undermined in any way”.
This is because all candidates who take part must still meet various qualification criteria, she said.
She added that she would still contest in an open election, but stressed that being elected in a reserved election would not impact her ability to perform in any way.
She also said she hopes a president elected through reserved elections would be seen as someone who represents all Singaporeans.
While Singapore has been successful at promoting harmony among the different race, she said, there was still a way to go before race becomes a non-issue at elections.
“At some point, I do hope that in future we may not need a reserved election... but this is still a work-in-progress,” said Madam Halimah.
Singapore has not had a Malay president in 47 years, since the country’s first president, Mr Yusof Ishak, died in office in 1970.
Whether the nation’s 2.5 million eligible voters get to cast their vote at the coming election all hinges on the Presidential Elections Committee, which screens all presidential hopefuls to see whether they meet the required criteria and will inform them of its decision by Sept 12.
If only one candidate qualifies, he or she will be declared the president on Nomination Day, Sept 13.
Among the three who have indicated their desire to run, only Madam Halimah automatically qualifies as she has served as Speaker of Parliament for more than three years.
Asked if she would be disappointed by a walkover or worry about her legitimacy as president if she won without contest, she said she would “leave it up to the Presidential Elections Committee to decide”.
“This is a democratic process, eligibility criteria is transparent,” she said.
She added that she would be prepared whether the election turns out to be a two- or three-cornered fight.
Elaborating on her campaign, she said she had chosen the slogan as “a president should unify the nation”.
“I really believe there is a lot of good that we can do... we can do so much good for everyone if we do it together,” she said, adding that her goal, if she becomes president, is to look at the shared goals and common values of Singaporeans.
In her 40 years in the public service, she said, she has approached each task “passionately and from the bottom of my heart” and has always advocated multiracialism, meritocracy and social cohesion.
“If I succeed and become elected president, these are values I will continue to promote,” she said at the press conference which her husband, retired businessman Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, 63, also attended.
She also spoke about how her own experience, coming from a disadvantaged background, impressed upon her the importance of a progressive society that provides access to opportunities for all.
Madam Halimah’s father died of a heart attack when she was eight years old, leaving her mother as the sole breadwinner. As a student, she helped out at her mother’s hawker stall daily, juggling work and school.
“My story and that of many Singaporeans mirrors that of Singapore,” she added. “We started with nothing... but we built something out of nothing.”
Madam Halimah also introduced her campaign team made up of volunteers, friends and former colleagues from different segments of society.
She said she was happy for their support.
Many are from the trade union, such as Mr G. Muthukumarasamy, veteran trade unionist and general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Daily Rated Workers, and Ms Mary Liew, president of National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).
Madam Halimah’s first job, fresh out of law school at the then University of Singapore, was as a legal officer at the NTUC, where she worked for three decades.
Others in her campaign team represent “different segments of the community”, she said, and include Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong, chief executive officer of Sheng Siong supermarket chain Lim Hock Chee, and chief executive officer of Ain Society Haji Yusof Ismail.
Haji Yusof, speaking in Malay about why he decided to help in the campaign, said Madam Halimah “is very down to earth, and she always puts others before self”.
Ms Liew, meanwhile, pledged her support, saying: “We’ll never forget what she has done for the labour movement and we will be there for her.