Singapore

Could a President live next door? Why not, say Halimah’s HDB neighbours

Could a President live next door? Why not, say Halimah’s HDB neighbours
Shopkeeper Lee Swee Seng, whose 17-year-old provision shop is frequented by Mdm Halimah’s family members. Photo: Raj Nadarajan/TODAY
Published: 4:00 AM, August 10, 2017
Updated: 6:34 PM, August 10, 2017

SINGAPORE — Tucked away in a quiet corner of Yishun is an unassuming public housing flat that could possibly enter Singapore political history.

The Housing and Development Board (HDB) flat, built in 1987, is home to Madam Halimah Yacob, who on Sunday threw her hat into the ring for next month’s Presidential Election.

The former Speaker of Parliament, widely considered the front-runner, told reporters she was very comfortable in her HDB home and hopes to continue living there with her family, as they have done for over two decades, even if she is elected to the top office in the land.

Traditionally, the Istana serves as the official presidential residence and office. “I don’t see why I can’t continue (living in a HDB flat) unless there are other considerations like security, for instance, because I know it can be quite a nightmare to ensure security in public housing,” the 62-year-old presidential hopeful told reporters on Sunday night. “Other than that, I see no reason why I cannot continue.”

A number of her neighbours and shopkeepers in her neighbourhood agree. “This is public housing. She’s a public servant. There’s nothing unsuitable about her staying here,” said shopkeeper Lee Swee Seng, 53, whose 17-year-old provision shop is frequented by Mdm Halimah’s family members for household items such as bread or detergent.

Madam Susan Ho, 63, who lives two doors down from Mdm Halimah’s family, agrees.

“If she wins, I would be excited because my neighbour in this HDB block would be the President,” said Mdm Ho, who stays with her daughter and son-in-law on weekdays, helping to care for her grandson.

“She’s very humble to stay in such a house. Most presidents would stay in the official residence,” Mdm Ho added.

Not everyone, however, is convinced that it would be practical for a President to live in a HDB flat.

“For security reasons, I don’t think she can continue staying here if she becomes President,” said a 46-year-old taxi driver who lives one floor above Mdm Halimah.

He declined to give his name, adding that he felt it would be more appropriate for her to live in a private house.

Mdm Halimah and her family currently live in two adjacent HDB units in Yishun that they bought on the resale market.

The presidential candidate is most often seen waiting for her chauffeur at the void deck in the morning.

At other times, she can be seen lugging groceries home from Mr Lee’s provision shop or the neighbourhood supermarket.

“During Hari Raya this year, she came over personally to share pastries such as pineapple tarts and cookies,” said Madam Chris Toh, 50, Mdm Halimah’s next-door neighbour. “When we see her, we just treat her as a neighbour. She’s truly a person with no airs ... (if she wins), I won’t think of her as President,” added Mdm Toh.

Mr Lee, the shopkeeper, said he has seen Mdm Halimah’s five children grow up over the years. “They’re very well-mannered and will always ask after us while buying things at our shop,” he added.

The Presidential Election is due to be held next month. The two other potential candidates so far are Mr Mohamed Salleh Marican, chief executive of Second Chance Properties, and Mr Farid Khan Kaim Khan, chairman of marine service provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific.

Mdm Halimah would meet the eligibility criteria for the elected presidency — having spent at least three years in a key public office — but Mr Farid and Mr Marican may not.

Among other things, the two men’s respective companies do not have at least S$500 million in shareholders’ equity, which is required for private-sector candidates. The Presidential Elections Committee has the discretion to certify that a candidate who does not automatically meet the criteria can stand for election.

The coming election has been reserved for the Malay community after changes to the Elected Presidency scheme was passed in Parliament last November. It was to ensure that a reserved election will be triggered when a particular race has not had an elected representative for five consecutive terms. For now, the buzz of presidential politics has yet to descend on this sleepy neighbourhood, where familiar daily routines and habits continue uninterrupted.

Mdm Toh said: “I’ll see (Mdm Halimah) climbing the stairs as I take the lift up. So I asked her, ‘Mdm, are you exercising?’ And she said, ‘Yes, must exercise’.”