More consultation needed before my decision to run for president: Halimah Yacob

Whether to run for elected presidency is not a question you can decide on alone, she says

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Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob touring an orchid garden in her Marsiling constituency yesterday. She is widely seen as a likely establishment candidate for September's election.
Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob touring an orchid garden in her Marsiling constituency yesterday. She is widely seen as a likely establishment candidate for September's election. ST PHOTO: MARCUS TAN FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

For months, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob has been asked by her constituents and Singaporeans if she would run for president.

Speaking to reporters on the issue for the first time at an event in her Marsiling constituency yesterday, she said: "I have to give it some consideration. I also currently have duties that I need to perform, and those are the duties I really love."

Until yesterday, she had refused to address talk of her candidacy, deftly deflecting questions without confirming or denying when asked.

She has been widely touted as a likely establishment candidate for September's election, the first reserved for Malay candidates to ensure the presidency represents Singapore's multiracial society.

In a public service career of 40 years, Madam Halimah, who was trained in law, has been a unionist, MP, minister of state and since Jan 14, 2013, Speaker of Parliament.

She is a well-known advocate of workers' rights, having been deputy secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, and champions issues affecting seniors.

As Speaker, she assumes the duties of the president should both he and the chairman of the Council of Presidential Advisers be away.

She said: "I feel that in whatever capacity we serve, it is important that we serve Singapore and we serve Singaporeans. That is always my guiding principle."

Singapore Management University (SMU) law don Eugene Tan said given that the election is two months away, "her remarks suggest that she is on the verge of announcing her intention to run".

Although she has spoken to her family and colleagues about it, Madam Halimah said she wanted to consult them further: "It is not a question you can (decide on) alone. I need to consult my family and colleagues who are supporting me in the various duties I do."

Asked whether her husband will mind being in the public eye, Madam Halimah said: "Whoever is the spouse of the elected president will have to see it as a contribution to public service as well." Her husband, businessman Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, 62, has taken part in "a lot of (constituency) activities" and is known to grassroots leaders and residents, she said.

Dr Norshahril Saat of the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute said Madam Halimah made "the right decision to test the ground at this point in time". He said: "We can expect some discussion on the ground. Her name will definitely be associated with the People's Action Party so it would be prudent to get a sense of how people will take it and how grassroots leaders will react."

If she decides to contest, Madam Halimah will have to resign as MP and Speaker by Nomination Day, and leave the PAP. Education Minister (Higher Education and Skills) Ong Ye Kung said at a separate event that she "has a heart for the people", and wished her the best.

Madam Halimah said yesterday her residents will always be close to her heart. Security officer Chandran Mariyappan, 59, said he was not worried about losing her as MP, as she would still be looking after him "as a citizen".

Grassroots volunteer Koh Soon Yong, 69, said she would make a good president, seeing how much she cares for her residents.

Madam Halimah said the encouragement and support of residents and Singaporeans is one factor that made her think hard about whether she should run: "To me, that is really very meaningful, very important."

Shortly after news of her mulling a bid broke, Mr Farid Khan, one of two private-sector chiefs keen to stand, said in a statement to the media: "I welcome Madam Halimah's intention to contest in the upcoming presidential election."

Asked about possible contenders, Madam Halimah said that in a democracy, it is good that people "come forward and take part in whatever processes there are".

The announcements of Mr Farid and Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican seeking to run had sparked some debate online on whether they are "Malay enough". Both are generally seen as members of the Malay community, but some took issue with the fact that Mr Farid is of Pakistani descent, while others have criticised Mr Salleh, whose father is Indian, for not being fluent in Malay.

Asked for her comments on the issue, as past media reports had said her father was Indian, Madam Halimah said: "I am very much a member of the Malay community."

She added that her father, who died when she was eight years old, was born in Singapore, and she was brought up by her Malay mother.

SMU's Professor Tan noted that she had qualified for parliamentary elections as a Malay candidate and "the criteria for running as a minority in a GRC team is the same as that for a presidential election".

Article 19B of the Constitution defines a "person belonging to the Malay community" as "any person, whether of the Malay race or otherwise, who considers himself to be a member of the Malay community and who is generally accepted as a member of the Malay community by that community".

Aspiring candidates must apply for a certificate of eligibility as well as a community certificate. They have till five days after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong issues the Writ of Election in late August.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline More consultation needed before my decision to run for president: Halimah Yacob. Subscribe