Exclusive: Face to Face with Singapore President Halimah Yacob

Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob is someone who has had extensive experience working with the unions for over 30 years. A considerable part of those years was spent to better the conditions for women at the workplace.

She’s also someone who has had a say in policy making for women in her time with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF).

And now, she occupies the highest public office in the land – the first woman president in Singapore’s history.

Who else would be in a better position to relate to us the challenges women face, both on a public and personal level?

President Halimah recently agreed to speak with us about women-worker issues. Here’s how the interview went:

Mdm President, thank you for the interview. You’ve been a strong advocate for women for years in your time in the Labour Movement, in the Ministry of Social and Family Development and even now, as the President. Where does this passion come from?

President Halimah Yacob: As a woman, I’m fully aware of the issues and challenges that we face, and my many years of working with women in the Labour Movement also gave me valuable insights and exposure. Years ago, I recall raising about the difficulties that women face in balancing work and family and the need for policies and programmes to address them. However, the problem was not so obvious nor pervasive at that time, so not much was done. We lost valuable time before addressing the issues, but it’s not so easy now because priorities and perceptions have already been shaped and are entrenched, so women are not so easily persuaded that it is possible to have both career and children at the same time.

For women, these issues are quite intuitive because we have to deal with them every day as working mothers struggling to take care of our children even before clear, discernible patterns begin to appear for policymakers to take action. It is therefore important, in my view, for women to be at the table when decisions are made so that we can help contribute to better and more sustainable outcomes affecting society.

I believe in the ideal of a just, equal and inclusive society where everyone is valued as an individual regardless of gender. If we believe in this goal, then we need to ask ourselves what we can do to contribute towards its fulfilment. It’s easy to pass the buck, but we know that the buck has to stop with us. If we don’t take the initiative or make the effort to support other women, then we cannot blame others for our own lack of progress.

In the context of opportunities, how do you think women leaders and workers fare as compared to other first world nations?

Overall, women have made significant progress in all areas be it in education, at work or in the community. Almost 66 per cent of women aged 15 to 64 years are in the workforce, quite comparable to developed countries. There are women professionals in all fields including in engineering, science and mathematics. There are also more women managers and executives now although it is still very difficult to find women in top leadership positions such as CEOs.

Also, only a small percentage of women are represented on the boards of public listed companies, not because of lack of skills or experience but because of lack of opportunities. This is slowly changing, which is a good sign, but the pace can be accelerated if more public companies consider women as part of their talent pool to be tapped for their company’s benefit. ComfortDelGro’s decision recently to appoint three women directors to their board, the first in their history, is indeed a big breakthrough and I hope that it will spur more public companies to do so.

There are more women entrepreneurs too jostling comfortably with their male counterparts to try out new ideas and leveraging on technology which has become a powerful enabler for women. The internet has liberated many women who can now sell their products online without having to worry about hefty start-up costs and overheads. So, the situation is looking up for women.

What more can we do to support women?

I believe that it is important to strengthen women’s leadership at all levels and in all areas. This is the key to ensure that women’s voices are heard and there is a sustainable momentum for their growth and development. The challenge as always is how to ensure this steady pipeline of women leaders. This requires not just action from everyone else, but we ourselves must be prepared to serve and to take up the leadership mantle when there is the opportunity to do so, although I fully understand the challenges that women face in wearing multiple hats.

Sometimes we need more active intervention such as the MSF’s “Seeds of Change”, a seed funding to enable women organisations to pilot or scale up women’s development programmes. Through such programmes, younger women can acquire leadership skills and benefit from mentors and role models.

What women want is to be given the choice to decide on what they want on marriage, parenthood or career. But we also need to be realistic because sometimes we cannot have it all. There are trade-offs that have to be made. Having more children and wanting to spend more time with them mean that we will have less time to develop our career. Despite all the talk about sharing of responsibilities at home, women continue to be the main caregiver and shoulder most of the responsibilities at home. This is slowly changing, but most women find that they have to factor this reality into whatever decision they make.

In your speech at the Labour Movement’s International Women’s Day celebrations, you said that unions have played an essential role in advancing the interests of women at the workplace. What more can unions do?

Trade unions have to reflect the needs and aspirations of the people that they serve. With a huge presence of women in employment as well as in its membership, unions will have a hard time persuading women that they are progressive and inclusive organisations if they do not build a strong core of women leaders with a strong narrative to attract women workers. NTUC recently announced a programme to develop more women leaders. That’s a good start.

In my view, unions will continue to play a significant role in shaping and scrutinising policies relevant to women, particularly those related to work. Most of these, such as pay or health and safety, cut across both genders but there are areas where women are more affected, such as the low retirement incomes of older women because they have little CPF or child care needs or back to work programmes for mothers wishing to return to work after a break to take care of their children.

Unions could also focus more on how work-life programmes are implemented as the lack of or weak implementation of such programmes have been frequently cited by women as obstacles that they face at work. As unions have the most extensive outreach network involving companies, they are best placed to promote such work-life programmes. I hope to see unionised companies leading in this area.

To end on a personal note, could you tell us how you balance family and work?

It’s not easy, and when the children were young, it was a real struggle. But I was fortunate to have my mother’s help and a supportive husband, which made a tremendous difference. Women today are better supported with more generous maternity and childcare leave and greater access to childcare services. In the old days, such support was much weaker. I have simple pleasures in life and whatever free time I have are spent with the family. My family has been my greatest pillar of support throughout my journey, and I am grateful for their patience, love and care.

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