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From Student to Speaker

Madam Halimah Yacob '78 became Singapore's first female Speaker of Parliament when she assumed the position in January this year. However, another fact that makes her special is
that she is an alumna of NUS Law, having graduated from the Class of 1978. She speaks to LawLink about her experiences in her new post so far. While the well-known advocate of workers' interests has no fear negotiating out of tight spots in the labour field, she also reveals a little-known fact: her fear of enclosed spaces. By Alessa Pang '13
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LawLink: It's been a while since you assumed the position of Speaker of Parliament. How have you found your new role as Speaker thus far?

Mdm Halimah: I have assumed the role of Speaker of Parliament for only four months, so it is a relatively short period. The experience has been both unique and enriching. It has been challenging too because within a short period after assuming the role of Speaker, I have had to preside over the "Debate on the Population White Paper" and the "Committee of Supply Debate".

It was also odd at first not to be able to take part in the debates as I was a very active backbencher and never failed to file questions at every parliament sitting.  The transition from the Ministry of Social and Family Development to the Parliament Office has been relatively smooth. I was given a warm farewell by MSF. So many staff attended the farewell lunch that the hall was really full. I was so touched.  I was actually rather sad to leave as there were several projects that we had started for the elderly, those with special needs and families that I was hoping to see through.

In my new post, I have also had to receive many ambassadors and visiting parliamentarians from other countries. Many countries hold Singapore in high regard and want to emulate us although they know that not everything that is implemented here is practicable in their own countries.

LawLink: What else, in terms of commitments and interests, keeps you busy apart from your role as Speaker?

Mdm Halimah: Other than my usual work as Speaker, I have also been appointed as Chairman of the Community Leaders’ Forum Advisory Committee and advisor to the National Council of Social Services and International Relations, NTUC.

These additional roles also keep me busy, particularly as the Chairman of the newly appointed CLF Advisory Committee, there is a lot of work cut out for us. In these capacities, I have also been officiating at many functions in the social services sector, which keeps me connected to the various social causes that are close to my heart.

LawLink: Describe a memorable episode in your new role so far.

Mdm Halimah: To me the most memorable episode in my first six months of office was the ability to conduct my first Budget Debate smoothly. The sessions were really long though, starting from 11.30 am and ending at 7.30 to 8pm. I am proud to preside over a parliament where the honorable members take their work seriously and cooperate fully to uphold the integrity of our parliament.

LawLink: Why did you decide to study law?

Mdm Halimah: Maybe because of my own background, my primary attraction to law was because it provided an avenue to seek justice for the downtrodden and defenseless, although we know that in the real world this can sometimes be too idealistic.

However, I believe that in life idealism is important as it helps us to keep on pushing for the impossible and to create more space for causes that we strongly believe in. The poor often feel powerless and may not stand up for their rights. For that reason, law attracted me.

LawLink: How was Law School like for you?

Mdm Halimah: I was an ordinary student in Law School but I enjoyed the discipline in thinking and reasoning things that the subject taught me.  We had some good and inspiring teachers but we had some pretty awful ones too. At least now there is a feedback system which is useful.

University life then was quite different and the students had so many diversions. When I was in the first year, students joined in all kinds of protests. There was one time when the lecture rooms were all empty because the students were in the field, although the lecturers were told to continue teaching even if there was only one student attending the class. If that situation had continued for too long, I could imagine parents getting quite distraught because their children’s studies would be disrupted. I was an active student leader myself, although I was active in the University of Singapore Muslim Society.

LawLink: Why did you decide to join NTUC after leaving Law School, instead of going to a private firm?

Mdm Halimah: NTUC was a natural stop for me as what NTUC stood for was consistent with my own values and beliefs. Workers need a voice to balance against the stronger bargaining position of employers. Sometimes people do not appreciate the role of NTUC and its unions. The unionists really work very hard to represent the workers’ interest in a very competitive global situation.

I remember when we had the recession in 2008 and I was representing the workers in the electronic industry, we had to be at the factory at 7am to talk to and render help to the workers who were being retrenched. It involved a lot of work negotiating retrenchment benefits for the workers, persuading them to go for reskilling and placing them in jobs, but it was worth it.

Meeting residents at a floor party, BBE Nature View.

LawLink: Could you have imagined yourself getting to where you are today while you were still in Law School?

Mdm Halimah: No, not at all. I was not even interested in politics then. I was focused on getting a degree, then working and taking care of myself and my family.

LawLink: How do you think law students/lawyers today can make a difference to society?

Mdm Halimah: One of my biggest concern about the practice of law today is that legal representation may have become unaffordable and thus inaccessible to the ordinary people. It will be a travesty of justice if people plead guilty or do not defend themselves simply because they cannot afford the fees.

This is something that the legal fraternity should be concerned about and I am glad that the Chief Justice had also alluded to this and there are moves to make pro bono services more accessible to those who need them. I really hope that this will work. I also think that the law is too complicated for ordinary people. We should do more to make law more easily understood by common folks.

LawLink: Tell us one thing that few people would know about yourself.

Mdm Halimah: I suffer from claustrophobia. I really fear restricted spaces.

LawLink: Do you have a philosophy/motto in your daily life?

Mdm Halimah: I believe in thinking positive, doing the best that I can and living life in moderation. After all, life is but a journey and there is no need to carry too much baggage as we journey through this life. The more we carry, the more burdensome it becomes.

LawLink: If there was one thing you could change about society, what would it be?

Mdm Halimah: I really wish that we will have a kinder and more tolerant society. I do not know whether I have become more sensitive or more observant, but I am not always happy with what I see. If we expect a lot from others, we should start by expecting even more from ourselves.

Mdm Halimah has also been officiating many functions in the social services sector, keeping her connected to various social causes.

 

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I believe that in life idealism is important as it helps us to keep on pushing for the impossible and to create more space for causes that we strongly believe in. The poor often feel powerless and may not stand up for their rights. For that reason, law attracted me.