“Hello, Madam President.”
I was a very proud American expat today when I got to say these three words to Mdm Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s first Head of State, at a reception at a residential treatment centre for abused teen girls.
As long-time volunteers and supporters of the Highpoint Community Service Association (HSCA) DaySpring organization, my husband and I were invited to attend the reception celebrating DaySpring’s 8th year of operation and Mdm Halimah as the 8th President of Singapore.
It’s no big secret that I’m just a little disappointed that I couldn’t say these words to my own president in my own country, but as I move on from the U.S. elections, I am happy to follow the political careers of other powerful women, such as Prime Ministers Angel Merkel of Germany and Theresa May of UK, among others. I may not always agree with their political stances but it’s so important for women and girls to see other women attain positions of power so that they know they may also make a difference in the world.
Indian-Muslim Mdm Halima champions women’s issues, mental health and senior citizens. No stranger to poverty and struggle, she lost her father at age 8 and had to help her mother at a food stall to make ends meet for her family of six. She also made some mistakes in her youth, almost getting chucked out of high school for missing classes.
But, she told herself to stop feeling sorry for herself and “move on.” She then went on to earn a law degree, work with the National Trades Union Congress and entered politics in 2001.
Not unlike other women who run for office, she was heavily criticized during her run for President. The veteran politician and speaker of Singapore Parliament was called unqualified by some because she hadn’t run the high financial reserves needed for the top office, and she was closely tied to the PAP close to the election.
And her ideas, too. Not unlike Hillary Clinton’s campaign, Mdm Halimah’s campaign slogan of “Do Good Do Together” also was picked on as “ungrammatical”.
Meanwhile, she won what was called the “Walkover” election, as the two other (male) candidates did not receive Certificates of Eligibility. So, no one ran against her.
Because of this, I noticed some Singaporeans here that I’ve spoken with did not even know she had been named President in mid-September. My Uber driver said no, there was not a woman President. I’m not a raucous feminist, but after all that… You go, girl!
Things that impressed me when I met her today were that she had a pantsuit on, which for us American ladies, was a supposed ‘controversial’ issue that came up with Clinton during her campaign because her supporters started using it as an empowerment prop for women.
(For that, Beyonce and her backup dancers wore the pantsuit for a rally performance and there was at least one pantsuit flash mob in the run up to the election. Cool!)
Personally, I wore pantsuits for almost my entire journalism career in New York, London and Chicago. It’s what serious women wore when you wanted to be taken seriously. That’s what I remember the most about it.
And yes, I got made fun of at times. But, again, you go, girl!
Another thing worth noting of my meeting today was that Mdm President had a female bodyguard and mostly female security detail. I loved this! I’m not sure if it was just me seeing only the women officers or if it was set up this way. Either way, I thought it was awesome and I was so proud to see girl power in action.
Overall, it certainly was a privilege to meet the first female President of Singapore and I look forward to seeing her bring the nation together in harmony and lead by example, as she says she will do. She seems like a strong woman who can show everyone how it’s done.
So, ladies (and gents), when you face problems, criticism and setbacks, “stop wallowing in self-pity, pick yourself up, and move on.” You may even end up President.
About Andrea McKenna
image: E. Chiau
Andrea McKenna Brankin is journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the DaySpring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.