Election reaffirms nation’s ‘regardless of race, language or religion’ pledge: PM
President Halimah Yacob’s ascent to the highest office in the land symbolises Singapore’s perseverance towards a dream first espoused by founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew more than five decades ago: A multiracial and multi-religious Singapore.
This was a point made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday at Mdm Halimah’s swearing-in ceremony, as he revealed how the Government had an eye on external developments when it decided to make Constitutional changes to the Elected Presidency scheme.
The Republic’s steadfastness to its founding principles has
become all the more urgent given the trends in the region and the rest of the world. “In an age when ethnic nationalism is rising, extremist terrorism sows distrust and fear, and exclusivist ideologies deepen communal and religious fault lines, here in Singapore we will resist this tide,” PM Lee said. “Here, the majority will make extra efforts to ensure that minorities enjoy equal rights. That is something special, precious and fragile.”
Held at the Istana, the ceremony in the State Room was attended by Cabinet Ministers, Members of Parliament, top civil servants and foreign dignitaries among others. After the national anthem was played, Mdm Halimah, 63, took the oath and was sworn in as the country’s first Malay President in 47 years.
In his speech, which was delivered before Mdm Halimah gave her address, PM Lee noted that the need to ensure minority have equal rights drives the Government to make sure that Parliament always has representatives from all ethnic groups.
“Indeed, that was the compelling reason the Government amended the Constitution last year,” he said.
Following changes to the Elected Presidency scheme which were passed into law last November — these include a hiatus-triggered mechanism to ensure minority representation in the office of the president — Singapore will regularly have a Head of State, the symbol of the nation, from different races, PM Lee said.
He cited past Presidents Dr Benjamin Sheares who was Eurasian, S R Nathan who was Indian and Mdm Halimah’s predecessor Dr Tony Tan who is Chinese. With Mdm Halimah occupying the office, Singapore now has a President who is Malay and a woman, he added.
Mdm Halimah’s swearing-in a “significant moment in our history”, PM Lee pointed to how she is the first Malay to become Singapore’s President since the country’s first president Yusof Ishak, who died in office in 1970. “You are also the first Malay to be elected President since it became an elected office in 1991, and the first President elected since the major constitutional changes last year. You are also our first female President,” he added.
Harking back to the events of Aug 9, 1965, PM Lee said Mdm Halipress mah’s presidency reaffirmed a pledge made by the late Mr Lee in the first hours of the country’s independence: Singapore would not be a Malay nation, a Chinese nation or an Indian nation, and everybody would have his equal place regardless of language, culture and religion.
“When Mr Lee made this pledge, we had a Malay Head of State. President Yusof symbolised, visibly, that though we had been forced out of Malaysia primarily because we were a Chinese-majority city, independent Singapore would never in turn supDescribing its own non-Chinese minorities,” said PM Lee. “We chose the nobler dream: A multiracial, multireligious Singapore.”
The way that Mdm Halimah overcame hardship and achieved success, without forgetting the poverty of her childhood, “reflects the Singapore story”, said PM Lee, adding that she has gone out of her way to help those in need and enabled many others to succeed.
“Your life story symbolises the sort of society that we aspire to be, and reminds us that the Singapore Story is one of hope and opportunity,” he added.
The youngest of five children, Mdm Halimah lost her father, a watchman, when she was eight. At age 10, she helped out at her mother’s food stall, spending hours after school washing dishes, clearing tables and serving customers. She went on to study law at the University of Singapore, and spent more than 30 years as a unionist before entering politics in 2001. Her 16-year political career saw her becoming a Minister of State and subsequently Speaker of Parliament.
PM Lee said that Mdm Halimah brings to the Presidency “a heartfelt concern for your fellow citizens, a strong sense of duty, and a sterling record of public service”.
While her wealth of experience in public service has prepared her for her new duties as President, there is a “significant difference” between being President and her previous roles, PM Lee said.
“Hitherto, you have been fighting the good fight — in the unions, in the political arena, in the governing party. Now as President, you have to be nonpartisan and above the political fray.”
“As the President, you have to be the unifying figure of our nation and represent all Singaporeans. I am confident that you will adapt to this new role, and perform it with distinction.”
President Halimah Yacob with (front, from left) Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, as well as Cabinet Ministers, at the Istana after the swearing-in ceremony yesterday.