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HomesingaporePresident Halimah a powerful symbol of unity who has been an inspiration...

President Halimah a powerful symbol of unity who has been an inspiration to all S’poreans: PM Lee

SINGAPORE – On President Halimah Yacob’s last day in office on Wednesday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid a heartfelt tribute to her for bringing Singaporeans together, being a conscientious custodian of the country’s reserves, and building a more inclusive society.

In a speech at a farewell reception at the Istana to thank her for her “illustrious service” to Singapore, PM Lee called Madam Halimah “a powerful symbol of unity for all Singaporeans”.

He said it was not just because of what the office represents, but also how she carried out her duties and led Singapore as its eighth president.

“Throughout your tenure, you showed the way with grounded leadership and a warm heart for the people,” said PM Lee.

“Your ability to empathise and resonate with Singaporeans from all walks of life has brought our nation closer together, and reminded us that we all have a role to play to make Singapore a better home.”

PM Lee said Madam Halimah had led the way in crucial times, citing how she was among the first to take the Covid-19 vaccine and visited front-line workers on the ground during the pandemic.

She later hosted them at the Istana to thank them and recognise their sacrifices.

“Your presence and your concern lifted spirits, and made all the difference,” said PM Lee.

He added: “Seeing our President with us gave everyone hope, showed that every contribution was appreciated, and inspired us to soldier on despite the difficulties and personal sacrifices.”

Being a woman from a minority community, and coming from a humble family background, Madam Halimah proves that Singapore’s meritocratic system works, said PM Lee.

Her father, a watchman, died when she was eight. Madam Halimah, who is the youngest of five children, helped her mother who sold nasi padang, doing the cleaning, washing, clearing of tables and serving customers.

The Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School alumna later graduated from the University of Singapore with a law degree.

In 1978, she joined the National Trades Union Congress as a legal officer.

She later joined politics, and in 2011, became minister of state at the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports. Two years later, she became Singapore’s first female Speaker of Parliament.

In 2017, she become Singapore’s first female president, occupying the highest office in the country.

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PM Lee said Madam Halimah’s lived experience had to be a major reason why she strongly believed in building a more egalitarian and inclusive society.

During her time in office, he said she worked hard to strengthen mutual understanding, trust and respect across diverse community groups.

She also took an interest in many worthy causes, especially those focused on helping the less privileged, so that they would feel valued and recognised in society, added PM Lee.

He highlighted four areas she particularly championed: gender equality, disability inclusion, mental health issues, especially among the young, and workers’ interests.

On elevating women, PM Lee said Madam Halimah’s efforts “challenged gender stereotypes and heightened awareness of the biases still faced by women”.

He noted that she paid particular attention to those with disabilities. Under the President’s Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge, she advocated for more inclusive and accessible workplaces and employment policies.

To understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities and to encourage employers and Singaporeans to be more accepting and understanding, Madam Halimah frequently visited social welfare agencies, said PM Lee.

Concerned about mental health issues among young people, Madam Halimah launched the Supporting Youth in Community programme to provide this group with psychosocial support.

PM Lee said: “This programme has helped many young people to overcome their mental struggles and emerge from dark moments in their lives.”

He also praised her for always looking out for workers’ interests, in particular lower-wage workers, given her close ties with the labour movement.

PM Lee noted that she launched the Empowering for Life Fund in 2018 to offer tailored support for skills upgrading and employment assistance to vulnerable individuals.

In 2022, she focused the President’s Challenge’s fund-raising efforts on “Supporting Lower-Income Families” – the group hardest hit by the pandemic – raising a record $17.3 million.

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Beyond her ceremonial and symbolic roles, PM Lee noted that Madam Halimah also carried out her duties as the custodian of Singapore’s reserves thoroughly.

Holding the “second key” to the nation’s reserves, she “had to exercise this important duty on an unprecedented scale” because of the pandemic, said PM Lee.

Over three years, the Government sought Madam Halimah’s approval to draw on the reserves repeatedly.

PM Lee said Madam Halimah, who was advised by the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA), worked closely with the Government to understand the rapidly developing situation and to assess its proposed responses and requests.

She also had to ensure the requested draws on reserves were necessary and justified, he said.

He added that he was glad the officials were able to deal fully with her “searching” queries and clarifications, and address the reservations and concerns that she and the CPA raised.

PM Lee said: “As the officials involved will attest, you participated actively in a thorough process. Rigorous, but not antagonistic.”

Eventually, Madam Halimah approved a cumulative $69 billion draw on the reserves over three years, though only about $40 billion was used, said PM Lee.

He noted that this was the largest amount ever drawn since the system of the “second key” was created.

Doing so enabled the Government to move swiftly and confidently to tackle the crisis, without having to take on a heavy debt burden and encumbering future generations, he added.

On Madam Halimah’s decision to approve the requests,PM Lee said: “With your support, the Government was able to save lives, stabilise the economy, preserve jobs, and ensure that Singapore emerged more resilient and stronger after Covid-19.”

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He also paid homage to her efforts in representing Singapore on the world stage and strengthening relations and friendships with other countries, despite the pandemic’s limitations on travel.

Madam Halimah had hosted many foreign leaders in Singapore and made impactful state and official visits, including to several Asean countries, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, Japan and Europe, said PM Lee.

In doing so, he said she helped other countries understand Singapore better, and opened new opportunities, such as through the numerous bilateral agreements concluded during her trips.

He also mentioned that she always took special care to engage overseas Singaporeans and keep them in touch with home.

Calling her “Singapore’s top diplomat”, PM Lee said she fulfilled these duties with dignity and grace.

PM Lee also expressed appreciation for Madam Halimah’s husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, who he said played a “critical role” in supporting her during her time in office.

“He was constantly by your side as you carried out your official duties, be it engaging foreign dignitaries or meeting Singaporeans,” said PM Lee. “His calm and informal nature complemented well your own warmth and approachability.”

As he closed his tribute to Madam Halimah, PM Lee recalled what she said when she was first elected six years ago: “I’m a President for everyone.”

Through her leadership and heart for the people, PM Lee said she had “certainly fulfilled (her) promise”.

He said that her efforts to expand opportunities for all have made for a more united and inclusive Singapore, where everyone belongs and has a part to play.

“Your commitment to improving our society and concern for every Singaporean will continue to inspire and guide Singaporeans as we refresh our social compact and press forward together.”

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