She grew up poor, with her mother struggling to put food on the table after her father died when she was eight, and went on to build a storied career in the labour movement, politics, women’s issues and more.
But Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, 61, said it would be harder for someone from a similarly poor background today to do the same. While most people started off “at a very low base” in the past, some families can now afford to give better access to opportunities and resources for their children, she said.
Singapore has to “keep an eye on things like making sure our inequality does not continue to widen” through important measures in education, healthcare and housing. “So our job is to make sure that all children are able to access these kinds of resources so they are not disadvantaged,” she said, adding that she was happy that the Government was now investing “upstream” in early childhood development.
The veteran politician was speaking during an interview with the media last week, ahead of her being conferred the Honorary Doctor of Laws by the National University of Singapore (NUS) in recognition of her distinguished career and service, particularly in the public sectors, where she has championed workers’ welfare, women’s issues, and family issues.
At the NUS Commencement main ceremony on Thursday (July 7), Mdm Halimah became the 26th person to be conferred the honour, which is NUS’ highest form of recognition for outstanding individuals who have had a significant impact on the community and NUS.
Other luminaries who have been similarly honoured include former Prime Ministers Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, and Mdm Halimah, who holds a Bachelor and Master of Laws from NUS, said she was “deeply honoured and also very humbled” by the conferment.
NUS president, Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, said: “An NUS Law alumna, Mdm Halimah has made her mark through her commitment and dedication to the labour movement, and her strong advocacy of women’s rights and the Malay community.”
Mdm Halimah worked for three decades in the labour movement, and became the first Malay woman elected into Parliament in 2001, and later the first female Speaker of Parliament in 2013.
As a woman from a minority background, she has been lauded for breaking glass ceilings in Singapore, but Mdm Halimah said this was not something she deliberately set out to do; her focus was on doing her work well.
“Sometimes we worry too much about disadvantages, hurdles, whether you’re a woman or come from a certain family background. Frankly speaking, my life has not been easy … but I never believed that hurdles and obstacles are problems or disadvantages that should be viewed negatively … they help to spur and motivate me,” said Mdm Halimah, who added that adversities help “develop capabilities, resilience and abilities”.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged the “deep-seated prejudices against women” that still prevail in many places, during her speech at the ceremony yesterday. Noting that women politicians in other countries have been criticised on the basis of their gender, such as a woman who was deemed “emotional” because she was unmarried, Mdm Halimah said: “By all means disagree with her policies if you wish to, but don’t try to diminish her by trivialising her role because she is a woman.” The lesson she had learnt, she added, is “never to let anyone or anything define you as that means ceding your choices to others and limiting yourself”.
She also urged graduates to remember to give back to society.
“Remember that we are where we are today because we have the support of so many people along the way,” she said. “Let’s have the humility to accept that not everything that happened to us was because of how smart or how good we are, but because we had a lot of help.”
This year, 10,395 students graduate from NUS, among them 6,491 who will receive bachelor’s degrees. A total of 23 commencement ceremonies will be held at the NUS University Cultural Centre over eight days, from Thursday till July 14.