SINGAPORE: In her long career in the public sector, presidential hopeful Halimah Yacob has contributed to the trade union, as Member of Parliament, Minister of State and most recently, Speaker of Parliament.
And in all those roles, Mdm Halimah said the enduring question she would ask, and is still asking herself is: “Who are we serving?”
“I have asked myself that question and I know my loyalty lies with Singapore and Singaporeans and nothing else,” she said at a media conference at NTUC Centre at Marina Bay on Tuesday (Aug 29), unveiling her slogan and naming her key campaign members.
Among them were Sheng Siong chief executive Lim Hock Chee, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Chia Yong Yong, former NMP Mary Liew and Singapore Institute of International Affairs chairman Simon Tay.
“Whatever I have done has always been in putting the interests of people first, rather than looking at the party colours," Mdm Halimah said.
"It is a gross disservice ... even (among) those who continue to hold party colours, if they put the interest of people behind party colours (first) - they are doing a gross disservice.”
Since she announced her intention to contest the Presidential Election earlier this month, Mdm Halimah’s close ties to the People’s Action Party raised concerns over a perceived lack of independence, should she be elected and be asked to make a decision regarding the unlocking of the nation’s financial reserves.
To that end, Mdm Halimah said that, had she any doubts about her ability to act independently, she would not have come forward to contest.
"When I was a trade unionist ... (there were times when) I disagreed with them ... and not just publicly in Parliament, but in Committees - I (have) disagreed saying: ‘This is not in the interest of workers’,” she said.
“As a Member of Parliament, there was one occasion where the (party) whip was lifted and I did not support the Government’s motion to amend a law. In fact, I abstained in the voting. I was the Government Parliamentary Committee chair for that particular ministry, and I abstained.”
To those citing her lack of independence, Mdm Halimah highlighted the late Mr Ong Teng Cheong’s presidency, saying he had been a deputy prime minister and a senior party member.
“Are we in doubt that he was independent? So I think we ought not to look at the person’s affiliations in the past but look at the individual and ask the question of whether the person can do the job independently or not.”
AN ADVOCATE FOR SOCIAL CAUSES
At the media conference, Mdm Halimah unveiled her campaign slogan, "Do Good Do Together", and she urged Singaporeans to join her in the journey to produce a community of excellence, and a society that serves everyone.
She said the President sets the tone for society, and said if elected, she would continue to be a strong advocate for social causes. This was something Nominated MP Chia Yong Yong also attested to at the press conference.
“She was one of the early proponents of inclusivity in Singapore. She cares for the vulnerable and the disadvantage. Beyond (supporting) persons with disabilities, she has spoken up for women with caregiving duties, for the poor, and for the workers,” said Ms Chia, who will be one of Mdm Halimah’s nominators come Nomination Day on Sep 13.
“To me, Mdm (Halimah) is someone who has the heart at the municipal level, perspectives at an international level and motivation at the national level.”
Mr Simon Tay, who is another of her nominators and a campaign member, also spoke about her experience on the international stage. She served at the Geneva-based International Labour Organization for 12 years.
“She has a golden heart, but people must not underestimate her brains. She knows her issues very well,” Mr Tay said.
“When we went to a conference on labour rights so long ago, she stood her ground. On differences, she would state her views without being harsh or too strident. And she would understand the other view and continue to engage. This is something that will stand her well as a President.”
RESERVED ELECTION A "WORK IN PROGRESS"
With changes to the Elected Presidency made last year reserving this election for members of the Malay community, Mdm Halimah reiterated that the principles of meritocracy, which the nation upholds, are not compromised.
“The process (of a reserved election) confines itself only to candidates of the Malay community, but within that process, it ensures that everyone must qualify regardless of whether you are in an open or reserved election.”
But she hoped that there would not be a need for a reserved election in future, with Singaporeans voting beyond racial lines.
“We are into 52 years of independence. By any count, that’s a very recent history that we have. At some point, I hope that in future, that we do not need a reserved election; that we can have an open election for everyone. But I think the process is still a work in progress, and I really hope that this is how we will look at this reserved election - still a work in progress and that does not undermine the principles of (meritocracy).”
If elected, Mdm Halimah would be Singapore’s first Malay president in almost 50 years, and also the country's first female president. Both, she said, are a heavy responsibility and come with expectations.
But she said this would be a good development for the nation. Still, she said that people should look beyond gender, race and religion, and come Polling Day, if the election is contested, she hopes people would vote by looking at the individual’s contributions and capabilities.
Mdm Halimah said she is in the process of completing her application and will submit the forms "in due course".