Singapore will swear in its first female president, but not without widespread furor and controversy

Photo: Halimah Yacob / Facebook

Although the path towards it was more than rocky, Singapore made double history today by electing instituting its first female and first Malay president in 47 years: Halimah Yacob.

The 63-year-old was declared president-elect today after successfully filing her nomination papers — the only individual who did so — making her the sole candidate in a presidential election limited to the Malay community.

In November, Parliament passed a constitutional change, reserving elections for candidates of a particular racial group if none have been president for five continuous terms, in a bid to ensure multi-racial representation in Singapore.

The announcement of Yacob’s “election” was made today at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue.

“Even though this is a reserved election, I am not a reserved president,” she addressed the cheering supporters that gathered.

“I am a president for everyone,” she says, pledging that she would serve without “hesitation or doubt”.


Halimah Yacob: Origins

halimah yacob
Photo: Halimah Yacob / Facebook

Her path to the highest office in the land started in 2001, when she entered politics and was elected as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Jurong Group Representation Constituency (GRC).

Before that, her childhood was described as a “terrible struggle”, as she was forced to work alongside her mother selling food on a pushcart after her father died. Halimah went on to study at the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girl’s School before reading law at the University of Singapore.

Her first job after graduating with a law degree was with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), where she rose to positions including deputy secretary-general of NTUC and director of the NTUC Legal Department, as well as the Women’s Development Secretariat.

Other achievements throughout her career include being a member of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), where she was elected vice-chairwoman of the standards committee.

In 2001, she ran for the People’s Action Party (PAP) and became the first female Malay MP when she was elected MP in Jurong GRC, where she made workers’ rights and helping the needy her political focus.

Ten years later, she was appointed minister of state at the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. In 2013, she became the first female to hold the post of speaker of Parliament, and was co-opted into the PAP’s Central Executive Committee — the party’s highest decision-making body. In 2015, she became an MP for the Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC.

The rocky road to presidency

Halimah’s path towards the presidency, however, was fraught with controversy. On Aug. 6, the PAP stalwart announced she would run for president in an already controversial election in which only those of Malay descent were allowed to run.

Having the blessing of her party members and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, she stepped down from her other posts and entered the race, competing alongside Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific chairman Farid Khan and Second Chance Properties founder and CEO Mohamed Salleh Marican.

Turns out, there wasn’t any competition at all. The Elections Department certified her as the only qualified candidate to run as president, as she fulfilled the public sector requirement of having served at least three years in office.

Meanwhile, Farid and Salleh, neither of whom have previously held public office, were deemed ineligible as they didn’t meet the private sector candidate requirement of helming a company with at least $500 million in shareholder equity.

Thus, today’s “vote” was a foregone conclusion. Halimah, who many deemed to be the ruling political party’s informal candidate of choice all along, was destined to win.

The news, unsurprisingly, didn’t sit well with Singaporeans, many of whom believed that going through the motions was nothing more than a charade and that it was always the government’s plan to install a close ally in the position. Citizens felt robbed of the ability to take part in a legitimate democratic process and actually choose Singapore’s next head of state.

Those feelings only compounded frustration created by the popular presumption that PAP had changed the playing ground less to ensure racial diversity than to prevent former presidential candidate Dr. Tan Cheng Bock from running again, especially since he very nearly beat PAP stalwart Dr. Tony Tan in 2011.

The hashtag #NotMyPresident started trending quickly on social media, and a silent sit-in protest at Hong Lim Park has been planned for this Saturday.

We highly doubt the protest will do anything much to change things. President-elect Halimah Yacob will be sworn in at the Istana tomorrow at 6pm, when she will officially kick off her term as the eighth president of Singapore.

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