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Thursday, 10 January 2013

Halimah Yacob to be nominated as next Speaker of Parliament

Duty calls for Halimah as new Speaker
By Tessa Wong, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2013

IN HER storied career in the public sector, Madam Halimah Yacob has enjoyed wearing many hats: unionist legal eagle, vocal parliamentarian, junior minister working to help families. But the only hat she is set to wear soon is that of Speaker of Parliament.

Yesterday, in a closed-door meeting with People's Action Party MPs, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the tough decision he had to make in nominating her for the post vacated by former MP Michael Palmer.

"He acknowledged Halimah's contributions, and said it was a tough call," deputy Speaker Seah Kian Peng told The Straits Times.

PM Lee knew that on the one hand, Madam Halimah would make a good Speaker. But on the other hand, she is an "important member" of his ministerial team, and it was "unfortunate" that she could not do both, said Mr Seah.


Madam Halimah, 58, is the Minister of State for Social and Family Development. But the Constitution states that the Speaker cannot be a minister nor a parliamentary secretary.

Her decision to accept the nomination did not come easy.

"I love what I'm doing now. But at the same time, duty calls. We must be prepared to accept new responsibilities when we are requested to do so," she told The Straits Times after the party caucus, at which MPs unanimously agreed to elect her Speaker when Parliament sits next Monday.

Madam Halimah will leave her ministerial post a day earlier.

Yesterday, Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing said he felt "both joy and sadness" when he heard of her nomination.

"She has been a wonderful partner at (the ministry), and I have always benefited from her frank counsel," he said, adding that she is a "torch bearer" in their work.

Her election would mark the pinnacle of a steady rise through the ranks for the Jurong GRC MP, who joined as a backbencher in 2001 and crossed to the frontbench in 2011.

PM Lee, in his statement, noted her many contributions and said she would continue her work in social issues and pre-school education, "in a suitable capacity that is compatible with her role as Speaker".

Since becoming minister of state in the former Community Development, Youth and Sports Ministry, she had worked hard in helping the elderly, the poor, and women, he said.

"She is passionate about these issues, and threw her heart and soul into the work, as she had done during her time in NTUC, tirelessly championing the cause of low-wage workers."

He added: "In Cabinet, Halimah spoke up with a practical, compassionate voice, helping us to shape effective policies with a human touch."

She was earmarked early. She said PM Lee approached her in mid-December, a few days after Mr Palmer resigned because of an extramarital affair.

Yesterday she said she was "deeply honoured" to be appointed. On being the first woman Speaker, she said a person's qualities are most important, not gender. "That is good for Singapore as a whole and for women."

She expects her life to remain much the same. Not for her a security guard post outside her home, a Yishun five-room HDB flat she shares with her husband and two of their five children.

"No, I won't be moving out. The flat has been my home for almost 30 years. I feel secure enough where I am living."





Sadness and joy at choice of Halimah
Activists hail move but will miss her Cabinet presence
By Jessica Cheam & Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 9 Jan 2013

BITTERSWEET. That word summed up the sentiments of women activists at the upcoming election of Madam Halimah Yacob as Singapore's first woman Speaker of Parliament.

While they lauded it as a momentous and inspiring move, they are sad that the Minister of State for Social and Family Development is leaving the Cabinet where many see her playing a significant role in championing their cause.

Said the executive director of women's rights group Aware, Ms Corinna Lim: "We are happy she has been appointed as she is a very capable, fair and well-respected person." But, she added: "We have mixed feelings as Madam Halimah has been a vocal advocate of women's rights and gender equality, so there is a sense of loss."

Many observers, unionists and prominent social workers feel the same way about her contributions to their respective causes, including Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing. He said in a statement yesterday that "it is with both joy and sadness" that he received the news. "She has been a torch bearer in our work with her passionate and tireless style. My colleagues and I will certainly miss her."

In the Malay-Muslim community, however, her impending appointment was loudly cheered. MP Zainudin Nordin spoke for many when he said: "It is a proud moment for the Malay-Muslim community."

Agreeing, women's rights advocate Saleemah Ismail, who was the president of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, pointed to Madam Halimah's inspiring life story. A child of a poor, hawker family, her rise "shows that people from similar backgrounds can aspire to high office".

Mr Azmoon Ahmad, chairman of self-help group Association of Muslim Professionals, while praising her "significant achievement", is nursing the hope that she will return to the Cabinet one day.

"I personally hope Madam Halimah will be considered as the second Malay minister in the Cabinet instead in the near future, where she can contribute even further to the development of Singapore."

In acclaiming her elevation, many highlighted her professional abilities and personal qualities.

Said the chief executive of self-help group Mendaki, Madam Moliah Hashim: "Our experience with her shows how she is a principled person, inclusive and meritocratic in handling issues."

Mrs Joni Ong, president of voluntary welfare organisation I Love Children (ILC), said: "She is an amiable, patient person, yet assertive in a nice way." Recalling a recent dialogue on marriage and babies organised by ILC, she said Madam Halimah made significant contributions in sharing inspirational stories and listening patiently to parents' concerns. "I hope she can continue to contribute to social issues, especially on matters relating to family and children."

Madam Halimah said yesterday she would like to continue her work in social causes and pre-school education. Details had yet to be worked out, she added, but these "must be compatible with the position of the Speaker once I'm elected". MPs will elect the Speaker when Parliament sits on Monday.

The chairman of the Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society, Mr Lee Kim Siang, hopes that as an MP, she will continue to champion the cause of the elderly.

Mr Lee, who has frequent interactions with her in elder-care work, said: "She takes a personal interest in issues she is involved with. She's not a minister who sits in the office. She goes to our homes to find out what needs to be improved and clarified."

Deputy Speaker Seah Kian Peng, recalling his work with her in the 1990s when she was an NTUC leader and he was assistant director of its research and planning unit, said: "Unionists can be a tough crowd, if they feel you are not competent or sincere... but she managed to gain the respect of the unionists. They said she has empathy."

He added: "She really is quite a super woman. She has five children but... you catch her at 8am and you catch her again at 8pm. She would still be working hard without so much as a frown."

She is famed for her forthright ways, unafraid to express her opinions, "even if it's not the same as her bosses", said Mr Seah. "They liked that she was not a yes-woman."

Unionist N. Silva noted her contributions in supporting and urging women to return to work.

Said the president of the Union of Security Employees: "She's a mother figure, who will command respect from all members. I'm sure she will do a fine job without fear or favour.

"It's a good choice."




HALIMAH:
I love what I'm doing now. But at the same time, duty calls. And we must be prepared to accept new responsibilities when we are requested to do so.


PM LEE:
In Cabinet, Halimah spoke up with a practical, compassionate voice, helping us to shape effective policies with a human touch.


MR AZMOON AHMAD, chairman, Association of Muslim Professionals:
Her nomination as Speaker speaks volumes of her capability and capacity to contribute to the parliamentary process and we, from the Malay/Muslim community, are proud of this significant achievement.


MS DIANA CHIA, NTUC president:
Madam Halimah is a good choice for the position given her background and experience. Many of my fellow unionists and me are very happy for her to be selected. She deserves to be nominated.


DR AMY KHOR, Minister of State for Health and Manpower:
She is eminently capable and I believe she will be fair and firm in enforcing order in the House, regulating debate and in upholding the dignity of Parliament and its proceedings. Her appointment as the first female Speaker in the Parliament of Singapore does women proud and shows that merit rather than gender is what counts, as it should.





Halimah's appointment as Speaker brings "bonus" political attributes: ESM Goh
Channel NewsAsia, 9 Jan 2013

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said Minister of State Halimah Yacob, who is set to become Singapore's first woman Speaker of Parliament, will be appointed strictly on merit and not because of her gender or that she is from a minority race.

He described the fact that she's a woman and a Malay as "bonus" political attributes.

He said Mdm Halimah has distinguished herself in the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), as a backbencher, office-holder, leader of her community and in her constituency as well.

Mr Goh shared his thoughts in a post on his MParader Facebook page on Wednesday, a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that he will nominate Mdm Halimah to be elected as Speaker when Parliament sits on January 14.

Mr Goh said the Speaker's job will not over stretch her capacity to contribute to Singapore. He added that it is good that PM Lee intends to ask her to contribute in an appropriate capacity to social issues.





A strong advocate for workers, women and minorities
By Jessica Cheam, The Straits Times, 8 Jan 2013

MADAM Halimah Yacob studied law at the National University of Singapore on a bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Her Indian-Muslim father was a watchman who died when she was eight years old.

Before school every day, she helped her mother prepare Malay food for sale, to support herself and her four siblings.

When she graduated in 1978, she grabbed the first job offer that came her way and became a legal officer at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

In her 30 years in the labour movement, she earned a reputation for being a unionist with heart. She cemented her reputation with her performance in Parliament after she joined politics in 2001.

She stood out as a brave advocate for workers, women and minorities, impressing with her passion and persistence.

In 2011, she was promoted to the frontbench and is currently Minister of State for Social and Family Development.

Now, the 58-year-old former labour lawyer looks set to make history as the country's first woman Speaker of Parliament.

The role would mean, in terms of state protocol, she sits at the same level as the Chief Justice.

The elevation comes to a woman who once said she never dreamt she would one day work in the NTUC as a labour leader.

From legal officer, the mother of five rose to become NTUC assistant secretary-general.

In 2001, she entered politics as an MP for Jurong GRC.

She was billed as a crowd favourite then, known for her grassroots appeal, unflappable mien, high emotional quotient and independent streak.

Colleagues dubbed her a "walking labour law dictionary".

As the only MP to wear a tudung, she also shrugged off initial concerns about how that might colour people's perceptions of her.

In a previous interview, she indicated that her appearance, race and gender had not been obstacles in her career and public life.

"I think they (residents) see beyond what's covering my head. I think what's important is what's in here (she points to her heart)."

Asked what made her tick, she pointed to a "natural inclination to try and help people in need" and "always striving to be fair to all".

There were seven in her batch of women MPs - a record number to enter the House at one go.

Even back then, she was all too aware of her duty to help show the way and encourage more women to take on leadership roles.

She said then: "Because we are from this record batch, we all are aware that, in a way, we have to be trailblazers, to pave the way for more women in Parliament."






Madam Speaker's staying put in Yishun
Halimah's happy in her HDB home, so stop asking her if a new job means it is time to upgrade
By Radha Basu, The Straits Times, 13 Jan 2013

Madam Halimah Yacob has lived in the same five-room Housing Board flat in Yishun for 30 years.

It has been the only home for three of her five children and it is where her two sons got married. A daughter may follow suit next year.

Like most homes, it has seen sadness too: Her mother-in-law, who lived with the family, died there in 1999.

But ask her if she is planning on moving any time soon, especially now that she is about to become Speaker of Parliament, and the answer is a firm "No".

"I have been asked so often why I am still living in an HDB flat that I now ask those who ask me that question, 'Why not?' After all, more than 80 per cent of our population live in HDB flats and if it is good enough for them, it is good enough for me," she told The Sunday Times.

The 58-year-old unionist- turned-politician, a tireless champion of workers, women and the poor, will be elected Singapore's first woman Speaker when Parliament sits tomorrow.

In a nation of eager home upgraders, Madam Halimah acknowledges the weight of societal expectation that "when you hold a certain position, you must live in a certain type of property".

"When I became an MP, everyone expected me to move to a private property. But I did not," she said. "The same thing happened when I became Minister of State, and now that I have been nominated to be Speaker of Parliament, people expect me to move."

Yet, to her, a home is not merely a piece of property to be flipped for profit. It is, instead, a priceless repository of a lifetime of memories.

"To me, a house is not just a place that we live in, but it is a home and a life that we build together as a family. It is a place where we bring up our children, share happy and sad moments, and where we seek solace and comfort after a long day at work," she said.

The youngest of five children of a watchman and a food-seller, she grew up in a one-room home on Hindoo Road, and settled on Yishun by accident.

After marrying businessman Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, 58, she wanted to live next to her mother, Madam Maimun Abdullah.

When she heard that two sisters living in adjacent Yishun flats wanted to sell their units at the same time, she jumped at the chance.

In the early 1980s, Yishun was nothing like the bustling township it is today. Madam Halimah recalled the days when, as a young union officer, she would buy groceries near her workplace to take home.

"Things have changed so much. Yishun is now a mature estate." Her home is accessible to shops, the family doctor's clinic is nearby, public transport is convenient and the Khoo Teck Puat Hospital is a short distance away.

All of this is important now that her mother, who is 88 and still lives next door, has dementia. When Madam Halimah's children were young, Madam Maimun helped look after them. Now the roles have reversed.

"It is the children's turn to show her love and affection," said Madam Halimah. "So they take turns to take her for her medical appointments, and it is really convenient when the GP and hospital are both near our home.

"When emergencies happen, like when my mother had a fall and I was at my Meet-the-People Session at 11pm, the children could quickly take her to the hospital."

Home also involves forming and fostering relationships in the community.

The woman who runs the local provision shop, for example, still asks about Madam Halimah every time a family member stops by her store. "Occasionally, I visit her shop and she shares with me her woes about the rental costs and how hard she has to work."

The general practitioner who has treated the family for three decades also knows them well. "He has all my medical records although thankfully I don't have to visit him often," said Madam Halimah.

She has had good neighbours too over the years, though some have left and others have arrived. "I had a neighbour who was a very good cook and we used to get very nice dishes from her but she has since moved away. She is like a part of our family and I still make an effort to visit her once a year during the Hari Raya Puasa period."

The veteran unionist, who spent 33 years at the National Trades Union Congress, holds a master's degree in law from the National University of Singapore. She became a People's Action Party MP in 2001 and a Minister of State in 2011. Her nomination to be Speaker followed the resignation of Mr Michael Palmer in the wake of an extramarital affair last month.

Madam Halimah said that living in public housing has given her a keen sense of what bothers people and the daily frustrations they face if their estate is not well taken care of.

"I know what they are talking about because there are times when I experience some of these frustrations too, such as when the lift breaks down frequently or the place is dirty."

But overall, her experience of living in public housing has been a positive one. "It is convenient, safe and generally well maintained."

Those who know Madam Halimah well, like Ms Molly Too, 56, are not at all surprised that she has no plans to leave her home now that she is being elevated to Speaker.

The chairman of the PAP women's wing at Bukit Batok East constituency first met Madam Halimah more than two decades ago. "In our society, there is always a pressure to upgrade your flat to show off your station in life. But Halimah has always been her own person," she said.

Mr G. Muthukumar, 62, a union associate who has known Madam Halimah for three decades, says living in public housing has kept her "close to the ground".

"Her constituents, her neighbours, her community are all like her children. She cannot move away," he said.

Meanwhile, as Madam Halimah begins a new chapter in public life, she holds out new hopes on the home front too.

She is looking forward to a daughter's wedding next year, and to new additions to the family.

She once carried her children in their Yishun home when they were babies. "I hope that I will be able to carry my grandchildren there too," she said.


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