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Mom’s the inspiration for former Speaker

SINGAPORE – Like many typical households here, Madam Halimah Yacob keeps a bottle of medicated oil in her Yishun flat all the time.

Mdm Halimah could make history again, if she is elected to the highest office in the land next month. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Mdm Halimah could make history again, if she is elected to the highest office in the land next month. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

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SINGAPORE – Like many typical households here, Madam Halimah Yacob keeps a bottle of medicated oil in her Yishun flat all the time.

But to her, it holds a special meaning: It serves as a constant reminder of how her late mother overcame adversity and single-handedly raised five children by selling food on a pushcart outside Singapore Polytechnic, which was then located at Prince Edward Road.

“She was very hard working, never gives up, very resilient, seldom falls sick and whenever she’s sick, she’ll make use of the Axe Brand oil. My mom was famous for her Axe Brand Oil, she carries it everywhere she goes,” said Mdm Halimah, who would lapse into present tense when talking about her mother — a person whom she described as having had a “tremendous” influence on her. “Because of the hardship she had to go through ... her motto in life was ‘never say die, never give up’. So that, I think, rubs off (on me) quite a lot.”

Madam Maimun Abdullah, died at the age of 90 on Sept 11, 2015 — the same day that Singaporeans went to the polls for the General Election.

The date is etched in Mdm Halimah’s mind for a different reason. She had previously described her mother’s death as the “saddest moment” of her life, and it was evident from her interview with TODAY - which was held earlier this week at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) Centre in Marina Boulevard - that the presidential hopeful was still deeply affected by her loss.

Her mother had spent a week in the hospital, and she could not eat for a few days before “finally, her heart gave way”, said Mdm Halimah, 62.

She described her mother as a pillar of strength for her and four older siblings, after their father died when she was 8 years old. Her childhood was a “terrible struggle”, as was the case for many families in the old days, Mdm Halimah noted.

“My mom was stoic … She never complains, never breaks down,” she said. “She does not wallow in self pity, she does not, frankly, exhibit much weakness. She was a very strong woman.”

She also strives to live by her mother’s values, and applies it to her work in public service. “My mom’s approach is that if somebody asks for help, you cannot turn them away ... when I serve, I think about the people first. In public service, (if) you don’t like people, you can't get into it, no way,” said Mdm Halimah, who has so far spent two-thirds of her life in public service.

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A BITTERSWEET CHILDHOOD

Reminiscing about her childhood, Mdm Halimah recounted the bittersweet memories, like how she wore threadbare uniforms and had no money to even buy second-hand textbooks. “One day I was at the assembly and my uniform looked as though it was going to fall apart because it was so worn out,” she said. “A teacher told me, ‘It’s about time you change your school uniform.’ I just kept quiet. I wanted to tell her if I could change my uniform I would have changed it long time ago.” She had worn the particular set of uniform for a week, washing it everyday and putting it back on the next day. It was sewn by her sister who bought the cloth with a “little bit of money”, she recalled.

There was also the time when she was cheated of her money as a little girl. Living in a kampong at Palmer Road, she had participated in a tontine – an informal savings scheme which was rampant in the old days in Singapore - managed by a woman living in the area. Everyday, she contributed five cents and over time, her kitty swelled to S$10. “A huge sum then”, Mdm Halimah recalled. But one day, out of the blue, the woman told her that the money is gone.

“I cannot forget about it because it’s such a lot of money to me,” she said. “I dare not tell my mom about it. My mom would have scolded me.”

Nevertheless, negative experiences such as this had made her street smart in order to “navigate all those difficult loops to straighten out your life”, she said.

Mdm Halimah would help out at her mother’s pushcart after school and during holidays. It was during these instances seeing the poly students going for lessons that she was inspired to do well in school. “I look at the polytechnic kids and said to myself, ‘Wah not bad, they are all studying in polytechnic’. Perhaps one day, I will also go to this polytechnic, get a diploma and (then) get a good job, take care of myself and my mother,” she added.

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MAKING MOM PROUD

Mdm Halimah did not end up with a diploma. After she went to Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School, she applied successfully to read law at the then University of Singapore.

She did not have a specific ambition when she was growing up, all she aimed for was to finish her studies and find work. This was why she almost chose a different path. She could have taken up teaching as a trainee teacher, which would have immediately provided her with an allowance which would go a long way to help with her family’s expenses.

“But I asked myself whether I want to be a teacher... actually, I didn’t want to be teacher. I didn’t want to shortchange the students by doing something that I was completely not passionate about,” she said.

She “took a leap of faith” and accepted the university’s offer. “I had only S$5 in my pocket for the first day (in university). I didn’t know how I could pay my fees. But I got financial help from the Islamic Religious Council (Muis),” she said. The S$1,000 annual bursary from Muis was insufficient to pay for her fees and living expenses. Her elder brother, who was then working as a prison officer, gave her S$50 a month as pocket money. She also scrimped and saved, and worked part-time as a library assistant during her three-month semester breaks, cutting out newspaper articles and sorting them into different categories.

It was tough getting through law school, she said. But her efforts paid off, and no one was prouder than her mother. “There were very few lawyers in the Malay community (at the time). My mom was very proud, she was very happy,” Mdm Halimah recounted.

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UNION WORK ‘MOST SIGNIFICANT’

After graduating with a law degree in 1978, Mdm Halimah joined the labour movement as a legal officer, and over more than three decades, she rose up the ranks to become NTUC’s deputy secretary-general.

With the bulk of her public service rendered during her time with NTUC, this period was “the most significant” to her. “I cut my teeth in the labour movement… That’s where I learnt skills in dealing and engaging with people,” she said.

She added: “People think NTUC is like a department, no, it’s not like that. You want to get the unions to support you, you need to go down to meet each and every one of them.”

For example, in 2008, when the Ministry of Manpower was seeking feedback on proposed changes to the Employment Act, she met union leaders and the rank-and-file to explain the changes and listen to their concerns.

Mdm Halimah first entered politics in 2001 at the second time of asking. She revealed that she had previously declined an opportunity to stand as a People’s Action Party candidate in the elections, preferring to focus on serving the public through her work in the labour movement. She agreed to enter the political fray, after then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong persuaded her that she could serve more Singaporeans by being a Member of Parliament (MP). “I thought about it and said (to myself), you know, if you don’t want to take the responsibility, you can’t say other people must do it,” she said.

It turned out that she found great satisfaction in her work as an MP. She recounted helping a widow who was working as a school canteen operator and needed financial assistance. Mdm Halimah provided her with financial support and helped raise funds for her daughter so that she could enrol in a private university.

In 2011, Mdm Halimah was appointed a Minister of State. Following the abrupt resignation of former Speaker of Parliament Michael Palmer due to an extramarital affair, she took over the position in January 2013, becoming the Republic’s first woman Speaker.

She recalled that when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first asked her to take over from Mr Palmer, she told him that she was enjoying her work at the Ministry of Social and Family Development. “But PM said, ‘yeah but I need someone to take over. Can you go over?’ So, I thought about it (and agreed)... You see, as public servants, when call upon to do a duty, we just do it,” she said.

Duty has called again, as she bids to become Singapore’s seventh President.

Driven by a desire to “serve Singapore and Singaporeans”, Mdm Halimah reiterated that being the President would be a heavy responsibility. “You have to think carefully, and then you must have that strong desire to serve. You have to have a strong heart,” she said.

Mdm Halimah, who took some time to decide to stand for office, said her decision was fully supported by her husband, retired businessman Mohammed Abdullah Alhabshee, 63. Her five children – aged between 27 and 36 – had initially reacted with “shock” and apprehension, but they eventually gave their backing as they understood her sense of duty. “The blessings from my husband and children are really crucial. If they didn’t give their blessings, I will not (stand in the Presidential Election),” she added.

Mdm Halimah could make history again, if she is elected to the highest office in the land next month. While she acknowledged that some women in the Malay-Muslim community see her as a role model, she was keen to stress that an individual should assessed solely on his or her abilities. “I always want to say, let’s look beyond the tudung, let’s look beyond the gender… We look at people solely based on their capability, and that’s how people should be evaluated,” she said.

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