SEPTEMBER 17 — My first encounter with Singaporean politician Halimah Yacob was during one of her meet-the-people sessions in her constituency of Marsiling, a suburb of Woodlands in the northern part of Singapore.
As part of a journalist visit programme, we had the chance to observe the politician from the ruling PAP party in action at her service centre, located on the ground floor of a Housing and Development Board public estate.
One of the first things we noticed was the weird decoration inside the centre, as we were ushered inside. We were informed later that the centre is not a dedicated service centre, but rather doubles as a kindergarten by day.
The other thing we noticed was the long queue by the time we arrived sometime after sunset — constituents ready to petition for something, air their grouse, and request help from their MP. Halimah’s handlers later disclosed that some of them had even come from other constituencies.
In Singapore, candidates contest for a four-member Group Representation Constituency (GRC) instead of just one seat, with at least one candidate from the minority ethnic group.
Halimah was the sole minority for the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC which also includes the Woodgrove and Limbang area.
Those who came to see her had also came from the other constituencies besides her own in the same GRC, which spoke of her popularity with the locals.
For a 63-year-old woman, she was lively. After addressing us and telling how much family time is also important for her despite her busy schedule, she continued making the rounds — a handshake here, listening and chatting there, a photo op with a man in a wheelchair, and then off inside her office as students interview her for their school project.
Back then, she was the first woman Speaker of Parliament in Singapore.
This week, she became the first woman president of the republic.
It is easy to simply attribute her victory to a triumph for the minorities.
Some in the Muslim world chose her as an example of Muslim exceptionalism, using it as a pushback against so-called mistrust against Muslims elsewhere. But Halimah has reiterated that she is “a president for everyone”, rather than just Muslims.
As for being a Malay, that was a sore point too, and not just because she had won in a walkover after her two opponents, Mohamed Salleh Marican and Farid Khan, failed to fulfil the qualification criteria.
For the two candidates who had come from the private sector, they had to show that they headed a company with at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, or possess comparable experience and ability.
Not to mention that Halimah won in a race reserved solely for the Malays this time around, following a new Constitution amendment that ensures minorities be elected president from time to time.
The issue of race in Singapore is no less amusing than that in our country. For one to be qualified as a “Malay” there, one simply needs to belong and be accepted in the Malay community. This is unlike the Constitutional definition here that requires a “Malay” to speak Malay and follow the Malay culture.
Most importantly, in Malaysia a Malay must also be a Muslim. This requirement has never been around in Singapore, and especially not for the purpose of elections.
Subsequently, a five-man panel was set up to determine whether the three candidates can qualify as Malays.
After all, Salleh has Indian lineage. Farid has openly admitted his Pakistani ethnicity. And Halimah? There was a claim that her late father was Indian.
During the journalist visit, we also had the pleasure of meeting Dr Mohamad Maliki Osman, a senior minister of state — a title for junior ministers there — in charge of foreign affairs and defence.
Inevitably, the question of his ethnicity came up. Maliki was not really surprised with some Malaysian Malays’ accusation that the community has been marginalised in Singapore, but more shocked with the extent of the belief here.
When we asked whether there is any truth at all in the allegation, Maliki simply smiled and asked back: “What do you think?”
It remains to be seen if Halimah’s easy win would tarnish her legacy of “Do Good, Do Together.” There was already a backlash in social media through the #NotMyPresident hashtag — repurposed from the one used in the US to protest Donald Trump.
But there is no reason why Halimah’s appointment cannot be an inspiration to Malaysian women, especially after a group of them in purple marched down KL streets last weekend to protest against “toxic politics.”
The subsequent backlash against the march demonstrates how many men are uncomfortable with the idea of women expressing themselves and telling the public what really matters to them.
Many took issue with protesters who were angry against sexist, homophobic and transphobic politicians. Protesters who supported equality in marriage were also lambasted.
Unscrupulous supporters from ruling party Umno and Islamist party PAS had used separate, unrelated photos of an inflammatory pro-lesbian poster with ones that showed Opposition political party leaders joining the march as so-called “proof” the latter are pro-LGBT.
No matter what their stance is on LGBT, the move was an apparent attempt to slander and smear the march which was also publicly supported by Dr Siti Hasmah Mohamad Ali, whose husband now chairs a party that is part of Pakatan Harapan.
“I can see that many of our sisters are delighted... Every woman can aspire to the highest office in the land if you have the courage, the determination and the will to work hard,” Halimah reportedly said after she was sworn in.
Of course, that is in Singapore. Whether a woman can actually get to the highest office in this land is still far on the horizon.
But with time, it can happen. And when we finally have a woman leading us, it opens the door towards a more progressive future for our country.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.