SINGAPORE: “You did very well, young lady. Although you had a lot of setbacks, life was really tough and difficult, but you made it. That’s not too bad!”
That is what 63-year-old Halimah Yacob said she would tell her secondary school self if she had the chance.
Not too bad at all for the self-professed “ponteng queen” who went on to become a Member of Parliament, a labour leader and Singapore's Speaker of Parliament before she stepped down in August to run for President.
Looking back at her school days, Mdm Halimah recalled how, in Secondary Two, she was nearly kicked out of Singapore Chinese Girls’ School for missing too many classes.
The reason for her absence - to help her mother at a relative’s food stall to support the family.
Her father died when she was just eight.
“I never turned up for school for long periods and finally I had to be marched to the principal’s office where she told me, ‘Girl, if you keep not coming to school, I have to kick you out of school.’ That was the final ultimatum,” said Mdm Halimah with a chuckle.
“That was one of the worst moments of my life. But I told myself, ‘Stop wallowing in self-pity, pick yourself up and move on.’”
That thinking soon became a motto for Mdm Halimah, who says she has experienced many other “bumps in the road” and “failures in life”.
Never did she expect to enter politics back in 2001, let alone contest the upcoming Presidential Election.
“My desires then were very simple. Let me finish school and get a job, then I can support myself, my mother. I don’t have the luxury of time,” said Mdm Halimah, who was speaking to Channel NewsAsia at the NTUC Centre.
Looking back, it is this experience of hardship growing up, that Mdm Halimah said has helped her to empathise and understand the difficulties the needy in Singapore face.
“Hardship should never be a deterrent. I think probably if my life had been a lot easier, I would not be where I am,” said Mdm Halimah. “But because my life was tough, that's why I learnt so many things, I learnt to survive.”
MAKING THE DECISION
While she could not pinpoint exactly when she started seriously thinking about running for President, Mdm Halimah said many had encouraged her to consider taking up the post.
But deciding to run for the highest office of the land did not come easy.
Besides considering her responsibilities as Speaker and Member of Parliament, the mother of five said she also had her family to think about.
“I spoke to my husband first because I really had to get his understanding - most important part of the family. So after some discussion, he said he would support me,” said Mdm Halimah.
She and her university sweetheart Mohamed Abdullah married in 1980.
“Then I went to my children and talked to them and they said, ‘Are you sure you want to do it? Are you really, really sure?’” Mdm Halimah recalled.
She revealed her children initially had reservations about the exposure and being in the public eye a lot more.
Already, Mdm Halimah joked that she has probably given the most media interviews in her life so far, since announcing her intent to run for President.
“So, we talked about it. They thought about it and it came to a point where they said, ‘We know where your heart is, we know that you want to serve and we will support you and pray for you’,” said Mdm Halimah, adding she is grateful for her children’s full support.
SERVING SINGAPORE AND SINGAPOREANS THE ONLY OBJECTIVE: HALIMAH
When asked what her main reason is for contesting the coming election, Mdm Halimah didn’t hesitate in her reply: “I want to serve the people of Singapore and Singapore. That’s my only objective and nothing else."
Pressed further on how she had also been serving in her capacity as MP, Speaker of Parliament or through her work in the labour movement, Mdm Halimah stressed that the consideration is the same as when she was approached to stand as candidate by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in the 2001 General Election.
“I said, ‘Prime Minister, I’m already in the public service serving in NTUC, serving the workers.’ But he said, ‘Remember, you can perform a bigger role, in a different capacity, if you’re elected as a Member of Parliament.’ So I went back and I mulled over it.” Mdm Halimah recalled.
“So it’s a repeat of that, honestly. Can I perform, can I contribute more, not just to my constituency, to speakership, but to the whole of Singapore in a different capacity.”
Mdm Halimah noted that if elected, her experience in politics will help “tremendously” in her role as President.
She had been appointed Minister of State for what was then the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports in 2011.
“You need to understand policy-making, to understand how to exercise that function as Elected President, if I am elected to that post,” said Mdm Halimah.
She also refuted any doubts about her ability to act independently, having previously been a part of the ruling People's Action Party.
“Frankly, the Elected President owes a duty only to Singapore and Singaporeans and to no political party and to no one else. I think that’s very clear,” Mdm Halimah stressed.
“So I’m very clear in my mind I owe an obligation, duty, to Singapore and Singaporeans. If I ever find myself in a position of conflict, or think I would and I would be hard put, then I should not take part in the election.”
Mdm Halimah added that even if this was not a reserved election set aside for candidates from the Malay community, she would still consider running for President.
“It’s not a question of you go ahead and then you ‘gostan’ (backpedal), go ahead - that kind of situation. No. Whatever it is, I’ve offered myself. Whether it’s an open election, or a closed election, a reserved election, it’s the same process and the same considerations go into it. So it makes no difference to me,” she said.
It’s hard to ignore that fact that Mdm Halimah would become Singapore’s first female president if elected at the September polls. She was also Singapore's first female Speaker of Parliament when she took up the position in 2013.
“When I became Speaker, a lot of people were very delighted - a lot of women, women’s groups. They were very happy that we now have the first female speaker,” she said.
“If the unintended consequence is that it helps to inspire, motivate women, particularly young women, then I’d be very grateful. Even now I get a lot of very young girls come up to me, schoolgirls even, to take photos. They say they feel very inspired. So I feel if that is one of the aspects of having a female as a President, then that’s really something good. But as I said, people should look at not the gender, but the person and see what the person can contribute.”
Mdm Halimah added that despite this being a reserved election for the candidates from the Malay community, people should also look past race.
She noted that was the experience when she served for 12 years at the International Labour Organisation based in Geneva, as the first Singaporean to be elected to the governing body.
When asked if she considers herself to be one who's breaking boundaries, Mdm Halimah laughed.
“People say that of me but I do not deliberately set out to do that,” she said with a shrug. “My motto has always been very simple. That is, I do my best, I work really hard and I see how I can add value and contribute.”
As for her definition of success, Mdm Halimah said it is important to lead a life that’s responsible and fulfilling.
“It does not mean just being responsible to yourself and fulfilling your own goals in life only. I think it’s how to contribute to others, it’s also how to fulfil other’s aspirations and needs,” said Mdm Halimah, who said in some ways she feels she has achieved that.
Being elected as President, she added, may be the next step.
She said: “I think that would be great if I could help other people. Really tremendous.”