As a champion for workers’ rights, MP Madam Halimah Yacob has been lobbying the cause for 26 years. Her World finds out how she does it
When you’ve just clocked a 12-hour day in the office, you just want to head home and chill. But for Halimah Yacob, the night has just begun. The MP is about to start a Meet-the-People session at the PAP Bukit Batok East Branch.
Every Monday evening, the kindergarten at Block 241 transforms into a counselling clinic. The reception area is filled with residents waiting to air their grievances to Halimah. Betraying no sign of Monday blues, the MP for Jurong lends a listening ear to the residents.
A woman in her mid-30s enters the office with her two kids and asks for food vouchers. “Boy, what’s your name? Which school are you in?” Halimah asks the son before turning to his little sister. “Why so skinny? Never eat?” After assessing the family’s financial situation, she authorises the vouchers. She also offers to write a letter to their school to seek help with their fees. The mother walks away with a look of disbelief.
Three hours later, Halimah has seen about 25 residents and has another 15-odd more to go. The requests range from asking for job placements to extensions of social visit passes; family disputes to grandmas with housing problems. Some enter her room hopeful, others disgruntled by the “injustice” they’ve suffered—all leave with a thankful smile.
As the first Malay woman MP in 45 years, Halimah’s empathy for the downtrodden goes beyond the confines of her constituency. The Assistant Secretary-General of the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) is also the first Singaporean to be elected into the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and speaks up for workers’ rights in Singapore and abroad.
Says the winner of Her World’s Woman of the Year award: “If they have a problem, I want to hear it.”
At one of the ILO conferences, a German member went up to Halimah and remarked: “I must congratulate you because you’re the first Southeast Asian woman to become the spokesperson for workers. And most definitely the first Muslim woman.”
VOICE OF THE PEOPLE
Since joining NTUC in 1978 as a legal officer, Halimah has been in the labour movement for more than two decades. Today, she still talks to workers in factories and offices alike to get a sense of the issues that bug them.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said she had the grassroots touch at the 2001 elections, while colleagues call her “a unionist with a caring heart”. The papers said her grassroots appeal belies a keen intellect and she has an “unflappable mien, high EQ and is independent”.
Says Halimah of her work: “It may not be very glamorous but it is very satisfying. People come to me because they need help. If they don’t need me, then I might as well pack up and go home.”
In the last two years, testing times have landed Halimah and the other NTUC leaders in the unenviable process of steering the economy by implementing wage and Central Provident Fund (CPF) cuts—policies that didn’t go down well with the masses. They were accused of “being not quite pro-worker”.
Says the trade union leader, “Getting them to understand the rationale behind our policies like the CPF cuts wasn’t easy. And yes, we did get scolded. When I met the workers, they went: “It’s easy for you to say. We are the ones suffering.”
But the petite unionist took the flak in her stride. “It’s only natural that their immediate response to change is negative. But give them time to reflect and they’ll appreciate the policies.
“Once they know you’re not there because of personal interest, they will trust you.”
JUST ONE OF US
Part of the reason why the MP gains that trust is perhaps because she shows she’s one of us. Before her interview with Her World at her NTUC office, Halimah offers us a drink: “Would you like coffee or tea? I would like a drink!” Her friendly offer put us instantly at ease.
Allan Koh, a volunteer at the Meet-the-People session, says her gift lies in her ability to listen. “People in trouble need an ear and she does just that. That’s why the residents like to approach her so much.”
Halimah, on the other hand, reckons sincerity is the key. “People ask me who’s the real person behind the MP. I don’t know. I’m just myself,” she says. “Sincerity is something that you can’t window-dress whether you speak simply or intellectually, English or Afrikaans. People look beyond that to see if you are someone they can connect with and trust.”
The community leader’s rapport with the masses could also stem from the fact that she’s every bit a heartlander. Born in a shophouse in Queen Street, she grew up in a “very poor family” and later moved to Hindu Road and Selegie Road.
She recalls having to share communal toilets and drinking tap water instead of buying syrup water “so I could buy pencils and books”. And the days when, as an eight-year-old, she helped her widowed mother sell nasi padang in Shenton Way from an illegal pushcart.
“I even remember my civics teacher pulling me out during assembly and saying: ‘Girl, your uniform is falling apart.’ I had been using it for a few years and it was becoming quite threadbare,” she laughs in recollection. “There was one period when I only had one uniform and had to use it for a whole week before washing it over the weekend.”
“When life is really a struggle, you begin to understand the struggles of other people,” she continues. She thinks her education in Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and Tanjong Katong Girls’ School could have also shaped her moderate approach when dealing with touchy issues such as the tudung and organ donation debate. “Growing up in a Chinese school where I mixed with girls of all races could have allowed me to see things from different perspectives.”
These days, so fervent is she about bettering the lot of workers, she even shared their grouses with her children so they get their “dose of reality”. “I tell them, ‘A university degree isn’t a certificate to the top. It’s only entry level qualification. There are many others with the same qualification. So what makes you different from the other guy?”
A WOMAN’S WOMAN
While she’s been likened to “a walking labour law dictionary”, her passion lies in seeking empowerment for women. Perhaps it’s because the 49-year-old mother of five is a wonder woman in her own right.
While holding down her duties at NTUC, she found time to start a family of five children and pursue her Masters in Law, which she completed in 2001.
“It was really hectic and stressful. But getting my Masters was one of the things I really wanted, so I put in a lot of grit and determination. I had to cut my time very finely. My eldest boy was doing his A levels at the time and we used to study together. We spurred each other on. Going back to study was really good,” beams Halimah, who’s married to a businessman.
She believes there’s a time for everything. The PAP courted her several times in past elections, but Halimah put her family first during her children’s formative years. Her kids are between 13 and 23 years old now.
Finally in 2001, despite the bad economy making it not the best time for a labour campaigner to run for election, she did and became an MP for Jurong GRC.
“My job in NTUC is to encourage people to come forward. It became a little more of a contradiction when I kept trying to persuade others, but didn’t set an example. Finally, I figured if it’s making a good contribution and raising the profile of women, why not?”
“I knew there was going to be a tremendous sacrifice in time. I still do set aside time on weekends for my family. But I’m always saying I wish I had 40 hours in a day,” she laughs.
Still, she does it day after day. She’s up at 6am every morning and by 7.30am, she’s at work and packs in a day of meetings and events. On a good day, she gets to bed at midnight. “I don’t need much sleep, even on weekends.”
It could be a habit from young, when she would wake up daily at dawn to help her mother.
Halimah attributes her drive to the inspiration from the women in her life, especially her mother.
“My mum is very hardworking, even now at the age of 80. She doesn’t do housework but she does a lot of knitting. I said: ‘Ma, I can just buy them. You don’t have to knit.’ And she replied: ‘Then what am I going to do?’ My hands will go stiff if I don’t use them,’” she smiles.
In the same way, Halimah has inspired other women. Although she admits her mother and maid help out with caring for her children, she is proof that women can take time out to start a family and return to the workforce. And still make time for self-improvement.
“We tell union leaders and workers, go and get yourselves re-trained. And they go: ‘You know Madam Halimah, it’s so difficult—I’ve got family and work.’ I have family and work too, but if I can do it, you can do it. There’s no excuse,” says Halimah who’s also the secretary of the NTUC Women’s Committee.
HALIMAH, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
These days, even when she’s not working, she gets recognised in the streets—something that has taken years to get used to. “I miss my privacy. I always try desperately to blend into the background. But people still recognise me, maybe because I’m the only woman MP with the scarf.”
From coffee shops to shopping centres, she is now used to people approaching her. “I was shopping at John Little when the cashier asked my daughter: ‘MP ah?’”
“There was once I finished my lunch at a coffee shop and a man approached me saying he has been waiting for me. He said he had a problem finding a job. I’m quite a reticent person so it took some getting used to,” she adds.
For someone who clearly wishes the attention wasn’t upon her, Halimah could have picked an easier route to practice law, but she says her foray into the labour cause was a job that turned into a calling.
“When I started work in NTUC, it was just a job. I did think about practising law. But as time went by, I began to identify with what the labour movement stands for. The satisfaction comes from seeing a suggestion or scheme I’ve introduced make a meaningful difference to people,” says Halimah. “I’m a kaypoh lah.”
Relentless in any cause she believes in, there’s no telling when Halimah would slow down or even entertain the idea of retiring. “I can’t imagine life where I’m not doing anything. My children joke and say they can’t see me retiring because even if I’m free, I’ll find something to do. I find it hard not to do anything.” HW
1978: Graduated from the National University of Singapore with an honours degree in Law. Grabbed her first job offer as a legal officer with NTUC
1992: Director of NTUC’s legal services department
1999: Made the Director of the Singapore Institute of Labour Studies (SILS), now known as the OTC (Ong Teng Cheong) Institute, Assistant Secretary-General of NTUC and was the first Singaporean to be elected into the International Labour Organisation. As deputy member, she represented its Workers’ group. Also started taking her Masters in Law degree
2000: Became Worker’s Vice Chairperson of the Standards Committee of the ILO, representing workers around the world to ensure that employers and governments follow labour standards
2001: Received her Masters in Law. Named the first woman Achiever of the Year by Berita Harian. The award is given to individuals who have contributed significantly to the Malay/Muslim community. She was the first Malay woman member of Parliament in 45 years
2003: Became Workers’ Spokesperson for the ILO Tripartite Committee on Human Resource Development
THE UNIONIST WITH A HEART
Ever since she joined the NTUC in 1978, Halimah has been an integral part of the Labour movement. The petite 1.55m-tall workers’ welfare activist has spoken out on topics ranging from retirement to retrenchment.
She sits on various boards such as the HDB Board, the Nanyang Polytechnic Board and the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Ageing. Besides dispensing advice on Labour Laws and industrial disputes and gathering policy feedback, Halimah is also passionate about women’s welfare.
As the first Singaporean to be in the International Labour Organisation, Halimah was
also the Vice-Chairperson the Standards Committee at the ILO conference from the year 2000 to 2002. The committee acts as a watchdog to ensure its 180 member states comply with the ILO convention.
Last year, she was also elected as the Workers’ Spokesperson for the ILO Tripartite Committee on Human Resource Development.
“I’m always conscious of the fact that we project Singapore and NTUC when we go overseas to represent in the ILO,” she says. “People tend to gauge our country, our organisation by their assessment of us.”
“She has shown that women can lead without losing their femininity.” – Nooraini Noordin, President of the Singapore Malay Chamber of Commerce and Industry
“No matter how busy my mother is at work, she will make time for us. I admire her spirit. She never, never gives up.” – Syed Ali Mohammed, Halimah’s elder son