Key mo­ment in Sin­ga­pore’s his­tory

The sig­nif­i­cance of hav­ing the first woman pres­i­dent should be cel­e­brated de­spite the con­tro­versy.

The Star Malaysia - - Focus -

IN Au­gust 1954, a girl was born in her fam­ily home in Queen Street. She was named Hal­imah Ya­cob.

Months later, Sin­ga­pore held its first leg­isla­tive assem­bly elec­tion. Of the 75 can­di­dates who ran in 1955, only two were women. Both were Chi­nese, and both lost their con­tests. And of the 25 men elected, just three were Malay.

What were the odds, then, that a Malay girl, born in Au­gust 1954, could one day set foot in Par­lia­ment, become Speaker and ul­ti­mately be elected Sin­ga­pore’s pres­i­dent? Very long odds, in­deed.

When Hal­imah was sworn in as pres­i­dent last Thurs­day, his­tory was made.

The point is pre­sented starkly here be­cause there is a gen­uine dan­ger we might over­look the sig­nif­i­cance of this mo­ment given the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing the elec­tion.

It is im­por­tant to acknowledge the con­tro­versy: There is a size­able seg­ment for whom an elec­tion re­served for can­di­dates of one race is fun­da­men­tally flawed. The lack of a con­test com­pounded the is­sue for this group.

The changes to the elected pres­i­dency, and the tim­ing of the changes, have been de­bated. The Gov­ern­ment has ex­plained the need for the change. The de­bates will con­tinue for a while longer.

But none of this should take any­thing away from the mo­men­tous na­ture of Hal­imah’s elec­tion and her re­mark­able jour­ney.

Imag­ine a coun­try that makes it through the qual­i­fiers of the foot­ball World Cup for the first time in his­tory. De­fy­ing all pre­dic­tions, it then goes all the way to the fi­nal.

In the fi­nal, af­ter 90 min­utes of nail-bit­ing play with­out a goal, the ref­eree, in the games dy­ing sec­onds, awards that coun­try a penalty kick, in a 50-50 call that could have gone ei­ther way. The team scores. It lifts the World Cup in its maiden out­ing.

The con­tention over the penalty will not go away eas­ily. Pun­dits will ar­gue its mer­its, maybe for years. But such dis­cus­sions do not de­tract from the re­mark­able World Cup run achieved by that coun­try.

And so it is with Hal­imah’s his­toric elec­tion. The changes to the pres­i­dency were hotly de­bated, but they were also some­what be­yond her con­trol. In­deed, she knew of the risk to her own rep­u­ta­tion, given how some dis­agreed with the changes, but she chose to step for­ward any­way.

Hal­imah has faced for­mi­da­ble ob­sta­cles at ev­ery stage of her life. She worked hard to over­come them. Any num­ber of things could have led to a dif­fer­ent out­come. She could have dropped out of school to sup­ple­ment the in­come of her wid­owed mother, who sold nasi padang to raise five chil­dren on her own.

As a woman lawyer in a labour move­ment dom­i­nated by bluecol­lar men, she could have been taken less than se­ri­ously. As a head­scarf-don­ning Mus­lim politi­cian, she could have found it harder to con­nect with the non-Mus­lim ma­jor­ity. As Speaker of Par­lia­ment, she could have shunned the pub­lic scru­tiny of a pres­i­den­tial run.

At each stage, her unique qual­i­ties saw her through. These in­cluded her de­ter­mined na­ture, her per­sonal warmth, her gen­uine con­cern for the weak and her heart to serve the pub­lic.

In a par­al­lel uni­verse, Hal­imah could so eas­ily have not become pres­i­dent. But she has.

Not a long time ago as re­cently as 2012 there was no woman in Cab­i­net. To­day, there are two: Min­is­ter for Cul­ture, Com­mu­nity and Youth Grace Fu and Min­is­ter in the Prime Min­is­ter’s Of­fice Josephine Teo. Now, there is also Pres­i­dent Hal­imah Ya­cob.

As we pause to re­flect on the im­port of this mo­ment, we should, as a na­tion, chal­lenge our­selves fur­ther: How long do we have to wait for a woman to be prime min­is­ter, or for some­one from a mi­nor­ity race to be prime min­is­ter?

When that day comes, ev­ery child boy, girl, Malay, In­dian, Chi­nese, or of any race can grow up be­liev­ing that any­thing is pos­si­ble un­der the Sin­ga­pore sky.

Mean­while, the fight to shat­ter glass ceil­ings con­tin­ues.The fight in­volves in­di­vid­u­als wak­ing up each morn­ing and do­ing their best to re­alise their po­ten­tial. But the fight also in­volves en­sur­ing a level play­ing field.

The re­served elec­tion is at times framed as a com­pro­mise of mer­i­toc­racy in or­der to ad­vance mul­tira­cial­ism. But if one ac­cepts that the na­ture of Sin­ga­pore’s elec­tions is un­mer­i­to­cratic to be­gin with, be­cause vot­ers sys­tem­at­i­cally dis­crim­i­nate against mi­nor­ity can­di­dates, then af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion is not a com­pro­mise of mer­i­toc­racy. It is in fact a de­sir­able and nec­es­sary move to en­able a truer mer­i­toc­racy.

If a key role of the pres­i­dent is to be a uni­fy­ing sym­bol of the na­tion, Hal­imah per­son­i­fies it. For she rep­re­sents not just mul­tira­cial­ism, but also the progress of count­less Sin­ga­porean women since the 1950s.

Above all, her in­cred­i­ble jour­ney sym­bol­ises the jour­ney of a coun­try that it­self over­came im­pos­si­ble odds to make some­thing of its tiny ex­is­tence.

— AP

Mo­men­tous coup: Hal­imah sur­rounded by sup­port­ers af­ter she was named Sin­ga­pore’s eighth pres­i­dent with­out a vote.

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