Reaching out

The new President and NParks' group director (Fort Canning and Istana), Mr Wong Tuan Wah, in the gardens of the Istana last Thursday. She wants to make the compound more accessible to the public. Madam Halimah meeting supporters at the People's Assoc
President Halimah Yacob with trainees undergoing social skills coaching at the Association for Persons with Special Needs Centre for Adults last Friday. It was her first public event as president.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI
The new President and NParks' group director (Fort Canning and Istana), Mr Wong Tuan Wah, in the gardens of the Istana last Thursday. She wants to make the compound more accessible to the public. Madam Halimah meeting supporters at the People's Assoc
Madam Halimah meeting supporters at the People's Association HQ in King George's Avenue where she filed her presidential nomination papers. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG
The new President and NParks' group director (Fort Canning and Istana), Mr Wong Tuan Wah, in the gardens of the Istana last Thursday. She wants to make the compound more accessible to the public. Madam Halimah meeting supporters at the People's Assoc
The new President and NParks' group director (Fort Canning and Istana), Mr Wong Tuan Wah, in the gardens of the Istana last Thursday. She wants to make the compound more accessible to the public. ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

President Halimah Yacob hits the ground running with special attention given to special needs

With quick flicks of her hands, President Halimah Yacob launched the International Week of the Deaf yesterday by signing the words out.

She spent the afternoon at the Singapore Association for the Deaf, mingling with the people who have worked hard to raise awareness of the needs of the deaf community, and learning of efforts from companies like Uber to make sure the hearing-impaired are not left behind.

Last Friday, she visited the Association for Persons with Special Needs Centre for Adults. It was her first public event as president and - as she fielded requests for photographs from excited passers-by - she spent more than an hour learning about how people with intellectual disabilities are trained to find employment.

Madam Halimah has signalled her commitment to building an inclusive Singapore by reaching out to people on the margins of society in her first two days in office after her inauguration, said sociologist Tan Ern Ser. "She is hitting the ground running shortly after she was sworn in as president, continuing what she has been doing as a union leader, MP, minister of state and Speaker of Parliament," he noted, adding that she now has the ability to do more.

Madam Halimah, 63, had promised during her campaign to build a community where nobody is left behind, and where everyone is taken care of, regardless of race, gender or background.

"Coming from a very deprived and disadvantaged background, I strongly believe in access to opportunities for everyone," she said at a press conference on Aug 29, a day after the Writ of Election was issued.

  • Sept 11, 2015

    Madam Halimah buried her mother and, later in the day, won Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC in the general election.

    Sept 11, 2017

    Madam Halimah finds out that she is the only one declared eligible to stand in the presidential election.

The woman who now occupies the highest office in the land started her life on the margins herself - poor and struggling, but determined to make good.

Her watchman father died of a heart attack when she was eight, leaving behind a family who struggled daily to survive.

They would sleep on mats in the living rooms of relatives. Madam Halimah spent the next decade waking at the break of dawn to help her mother prepare and peddle nasi padang.

Her school fees would go unpaid and she skipped classes often, nearly getting booted out.

But she pressed on, eventually obtaining a law degree. She chose to join the National Trades Union Congress as a legal officer after graduation, and spent more than three decades there representing workers and fighting for their rights.

Politics came calling in 2001. When she was made minister of state in 2011, she enhanced support for the disabled by setting up what is now known as SG Enable, and improved childcare services to lend working mothers a hand.

Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong said President Halimah has brought to her new office her dedication to building a caring and inclusive society where the vulnerable and those with special needs and disabilities are "truly integrated into the community".

"We are happy to see her jumping into action so early on in her term as president, visiting the various social service organisations and wasting no time in reaching out to the ground," said Ms Chia, the president of SPD, previously known as the Society for the Physically Disabled. She was also a key member of Madam Halimah's campaign team.

She looks forward to President Halimah championing social issues and inclusion, and placing them higher on the national agenda.

Madam Halimah had highlighted the president's ability to draw attention to issues when she set out her vision for the presidency last month. "The president has a tremendous capacity to do good. The president plays an important role in setting the tone for our society, to influence society," she had said then.

She was prepared for a contest, armed with campaign plans, a team of diverse supporters and a slogan, Do Good Do Together.

But her campaign was brought to a halt on Sept 11 when it emerged that there would be no presidential contest.

That date has brought highs and lows for Madam Halimah.

On the afternoon of Sept 11 in 2015, she buried her mother - the woman who raised her and her four siblings single-handedly. Hours later, she put on a stoic face, a neatly pressed set of white shirt and pants, and set off for Jurong West Stadium.

Jubilation set in there: Madam Halimah and her People's Action Party teammates won Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC in the general election.

But the triumph was tinged with tears. Said Madam Halimah, wearing a wan smile and a pile of garlands around her neck: "I'm, of course, feeling happy but very, very sad as well. I was hoping (my mother) could at least make it until today, but she didn't."

Exactly two years on, she received news about being the only one of three hopefuls declared eligible to stand in the presidential election - meaning she would be elected unopposed.

She was inaugurated last Thursday as Singapore's first woman head of state and its second Malay president after 47 years.

But discontent over her being elected unopposed in an election set aside for members of the Malay community cast a pall over the historic moment.

She told reporters who asked about the brewing disquiet: "I promise to do the best that I can to serve the people of Singapore and that doesn't change whether there is an election or no election. My passion and commitment to serve the people of Singapore remain the same."

Madam Halimah's presidential term will be an exercise in uniting a nation divided over the circumstances of her walkover victory.

Since she was declared President-elect last Wednesday, she has swiftly got down to the business of proving herself up to the task.

In her acceptance speech, she pledged to be a president for all Singaporeans. "Although this is a reserved election, I am not a 'reserved' president," she said. "I am a president for everyone, regardless of race, language, religion or creed."

Thursday morning saw Madam Halimah touring the Istana grounds, mulling over plans to make the compound more accessible to the public.

At her inauguration, she noted: "In my previous roles, I have seen how much we can achieve by working together. Now, as President, my duty is to unite the people, to overcome the many challenges ahead of us together."

MP Denise Phua, who is president of the Autism Resource Centre and co-founder of Pathlight School, noted President Halimah's track record of supporting initiatives in the social service sector.

"She had never said 'no' to me when I asked her for help in my advocacy for this sector," she said. "I am certain that under her charge, she will do more than the President's Challenge in raising funds for needed services."

Dr Felix Tan, associate lecturer at SIM Global Education, said President Halimah's long years in public service have shown that "she has the heart and the capabilities in managing and engaging in community development projects".

"Her heart has always been with the people - that is certain," said Dr Tan. "However, given the circumstances involving her rise to the presidential office, she will probably have to work harder now to ensure that all communities are represented and taken care of."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 17, 2017, with the headline 'Reaching out'. Print Edition | Subscribe