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A strong advocate for workers, women and minorities

Madam Halimah Yacob earned a reputation for being a unionist with heart and cemented her reputation in Parliament. -ST
Jessica Cheam

Thu, Jan 10, 2013
The Straits Times

Minister of State for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Madam Halimah Yacob with three-month-old Giselle Kong during the "Maybe Baby?" dialogue session held by I Love Children (ILC) on 5 October 2012. Giselle is the daughter of dialogue participant Gillian Neo.

SINGAPORE - Madam Halimah Yacob studied law at the National University of Singapore on a bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

Her Indian-Muslim father was a watchman who died when she was eight years old.

Before school every day, she helped her mother prepare Malay food for sale, to support herself and her four siblings.

When she graduated in 1978, she grabbed the first job offer that came her way and became a legal officer at the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC).

In her 30 years in the labour movement, she earned a reputation for being a unionist with heart. She cemented her reputation with her performance in Parliament after she joined politics in 2001.

She stood out as a brave advocate for workers, women and minorities, impressing with her passion and persistence.

In 2011, she was promoted to the frontbench and is currently Minister of State for Social and Family Development.

Now, the 58-year-old former labour lawyer looks set to make history as the country's first woman Speaker of Parliament.

The role would mean, in terms of state protocol, she sits at the same level as the Chief Justice.

The elevation comes to a woman who once said she never dreamt she would one day work in the NTUC as a labour leader.

From legal officer, the mother of five rose to become NTUC assistant secretary-general.

In 2001, she entered politics as an MP for Jurong GRC.

She was billed as a crowd favourite then, known for her grassroots appeal, unflappable mien, high emotional quotient and independent streak.

Colleagues dubbed her a "walking labour law dictionary".

As the only MP to wear a tudung, she also shrugged off initial concerns about how that might colour people's perceptions of her.

In a previous interview, she indicated that her appearance, race and gender had not been obstacles in her career and public life.

"I think they (residents) see beyond what's covering my head. I think what's important is what's in here (she points to her heart)."

Asked what made her tick, she pointed to a "natural inclination to try and help people in need" and "always striving to be fair to all".

There were seven in her batch of women MPs - a record number to enter the House at one go.

Even back then, she was all too aware of her duty to help show the way and encourage more women to take on leadership roles.

She said then: "Because we are from this record batch, we all are aware that, in a way, we have to be trailblazers, to pave the way for more women in Parliament."

jcheam@sph.com.sg


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