SINGAPORE — Some 20 months after changes to the Elected Presidency scheme were set in motion to ensure the political institution remains robust and effective, Madam Halimah Yacob was yesterday declared the President-elect after running unopposed in Singapore’s inaugural reserved polls.
Mdm Halimah, 63, who was the sole qualified candidate after two other applicants from the private sector were not granted a Certificate of Eligibility by the Presidential Elections Committee on Monday, will be sworn in as the Republic’s eighth President at the Istana today, after she successfully filed her nomination papers — under the watchful eyes of Returning Officer Ng Wai Choong — at the People’s Association headquarters along King George’s Avenue.
Even though the outcome of the election was known two days earlier, several hundreds of supporters — most of whom were clad in orange, Mdm Halimah’s campaign colour — turned up at the Nomination Centre.
Whistles and cheers of “Halimah, Halimah!” broke out as the former Speaker of Parliament took to the stage to address her supporters, after Mr Ng declared her the President-elect.
“I want to tell you that as your President-elect, I promise to work with everyone. I’m President for everyone and I intend to serve all without any hesitation or doubt,” said Mdm Halimah, as she urged Singaporeans to work together in the face of domestic and external challenges.
“I also want to tell you that although this is a reserved election, I’m not a ‘reserved’ President. I’m a President for everyone, regardless of race, language, religion or creed ... Although there is no election, my commitment to serve you remains the same. There is no diminution even one bit of my desire, passion and commitment to serve you.”
She added: “I also stand before you as the second Malay President in 47 years of our history. I believe this is a very proud moment for Singapore. This is a proud moment for multiculturalism, multiracialism in our society.”
Before Mdm Halimah, Mr Yusof Ishak was Singapore’s first President and the only Malay to have held the office till he died in 1970.
Mdm Halimah, who has spent four decades in the public sector in various capacities, such as a unionist and Member of Parliament, will also be Singapore’s first woman President.
Writing on Facebook after congratulating Mdm Halimah on the phone, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said she would “bring to the Presidency her long experience working with Singaporeans from all walks of life, and championing workers and disadvantaged groups”.
“The President is the apex of our political system and the symbol of our multiracial, multi-religious nation. I am confident that Mdm Halimah will fulfil her role with distinction,” said Mr Lee.
He added: “I hope all of us will support her as our next President. I look forward to working with her to serve Singaporeans and the nation.”
Mr Lee also thanked the unsuccessful candidates — Second Chance Properties chief executive Mohamed Salleh Marican, 67, and chairman of marine services provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific Farid Khan, 62 — for stepping forward and conducting themselves with “propriety and decorum”.
Various groups also sent her their congratulations. Youth voluntary organisation Taman Bacaan president Abdul Halim Kader, who was part of Mr Marican’s campaign team, said Mdm Halimah has what it takes to unify Singaporeans and perform her Presidential duties “with excellence”.
The Singapore Federation of Chinese Clan Associations said the “breadth and depth” of her experience will “definitely be an advantage towards the building of our social capital for the nation’s development, as well as in championing for an inclusive and cohesive Singapore”.
As the country’s first woman President, Mdm Halimah will continue to be an inspiration for women in Singapore, “especially our future leaders, who will be encouraged to take on new challenges, embrace leadership roles and contribute to nation-building”, said the Singapore Muslim Women’s Association.
In her acceptance speech, Mdm Halimah said her ascent to the office was evidence that Singapore’s commitment to gender diversity is not mere tokenism and “every woman can aspire to the highest office of the land if you have the courage, determination and will to work hard”.
“This shows that multiracialism is not just a slogan, something good for us to say or hear. It means it really works in our society, that everyone has the chance to reach the highest office of the land,” she reiterated. “And this is not just good for now, but it’s also good for generations to come.”
In January last year, Mr Lee announced that the Government would be making changes to the Elected Presidency, among other moves — such as raising the minimum number of opposition Members of Parliament guaranteed by the Constitution — to ensure that Singapore’s political system works in the longer term.
The bar would be raised for prospective presidential candidates, with a Constitutional Commission headed by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon looking at reviewing the eligibility criteria.
The comission would also look at granting greater powers to the Council of Presidential Advisers and ensuring that Singapore would have a President from a minority race periodically.
The commission, which called for submissions and conducted several public hearings, completed its work in September last year. The report was handed in to the Government, and released publicly.
Subsequently, the Government issued a White Paper on the commission’s recommendations. After three days of debate involving 39 MPs, changes to the Elected Presidency were passed into law in November last year, tightening the criteria for presidential aspirants and putting in place a mechanism to ensure Singapore has a minority President from time to time.
The Constitution amendment Bill was voted through 77-6, with all six elected MPs from the opposition Workers’ Party objecting. Non-constituency and Nominated MPs were among those who had weighed in, but they cannot vote on such Bills.
With the public clamouring for a contest, Mdm Halimah had faced public disquiet over the walkover election. Acknowledging this, she reiterated her promise to “serve everyone”.
“And I will serve with great vigour, with a lot of hard work, with the same passion and commitment that I have served people for the last four decades,” she told reporters.
With the election now over, she called on Singaporeans to look ahead. “We have a lot of challenges — domestic and international. So those should be our priorities and we need to work together,” she said.