Halimah Yacob on empathy for jobless: 'I cannot forget the recession'
Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob on her empathy for the jobless
It is daunting to move to an entirely different sector, but this is the new normal.
That was Madam Halimah Yacob's wake-up call to those who have lost their jobs amid the economic uncertainties.
"I know it's really very challenging, if you've been an engineer for years, to try to move to another sector.
"But you will have to do that. Because this sector is producing fewer jobs, and manufacturing has become more automated," said the 62-year-old Speaker of Parliament.
In a wide-ranging interview, the unionist-turned-politician, spoke to The New Paper on Tuesday about jobs and the economy, and her thoughts about the changes to the elected presidency.
The number of layoffs this year is expected to top last year's, when 13,440 workers lost their jobs, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say told Parliament last month.
The reasons have been well-documented - disruptions in several industries and jobs evolving faster than workers can be retrained for them.
Against this backdrop, concern over job security is starting to creep in among her constituents at Marsiling-Yew Tee, Madam Halimah said.
"I've seen cases of people losing their jobs, retrenchments... This is something we really need to monitor.
"Most, I find, are able to manage on their own in terms of getting an alternative job.
"What they do need is temporary support when they have no income to tide them over," she said.
In her 33 years in the labour movement, Madam Halimah has seen many cycles of retrenchment.
She said: "I cannot forget those years, especially the crisis we had in 2008 and 2009.
"I really understand where they are coming from. I really empathise with them.
"They are not just a digit because retrenchments, loss of jobs, affect them personally, very poignantly."
The silver lining in the gloomy economic outlook is that there are jobs available, and Singapore has proactive labour market policies to help those who are retrenched.
They include job-matching through Workforce Singapore, looking for jobs through the revised Jobs Bank, and reskilling under the SkillsFuture initiative.
Madam Halimah said: "This form of technological disruption has been going on for a while, except the pace will hasten and it will continue."
First female president? No comment for now
She has been touted as someone who could make history by becoming Singapore's first female president. But Madam Halimah Yacob, 62, simply laughed when the topic was brought up.
"I think it is still a long way off," she said, referring to the next presidential election (PE), which is expected to be held by next August. She is now focused on her two roles: Speaker of Parliament and Member of Parliament for Marsiling-Yew Tee.
The next PE will be reserved for Malay candidates - a mechanism triggered when a candidate of a certain race has not been a president for five consecutive terms. This has been criticised by some as tokenism. But Madam Halimah disagreed.
"When you say it is tokenism, it means that it is symbolic, it is perfunctory. The point is, all candidates, regardless of an open or reserved election, will have to qualify."
In a time when multi-racialism is being tested around the world, she urged sceptics to look at the changes in the context of preserving multi-racialism, one of Singapore's strengths.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said the Government has no specific candidate in mind. He told Malaysian news agency Bernama on Monday: "There is no shortlist. It depends who comes forward. It is not for the Government to arrange. It is for the candidates to come forward."
Madam Halimah ticks all the boxes of the eligibility criteria for public sector candidates.
Political pundits see her as the front runner partly due to her popularity on the ground.
She became the first Malay female MP in 2001, then minister of state in 2011. Two years later, she became the first female Speaker. As a veteran unionist, volunteer and politician, she won over many with her dedication to single mothers, low-income families, the elderly and the disabled.
But when asked if she has considered running in the PE, she said cautiously: "At this moment, I would not want to comment... To me, it doesn't matter what capacity you serve in.
"The most important thing is that you're serving from your heart, and that you're also serving the people and Singapore."
Halimah Yacob on her mum
In a wide-ranging interview with the Speaker, she shared snippets from her school days, and memories of her mother.
She has missed many family moments because of her job.
Before she knew it, her five children - aged 25 to 34 - were grown up.
On Polling Day last year, her mother died while she was doing her rounds.
"I wanted to go see her after I had made my rounds, but I couldn't even complete the rounds and she left. I was fortunate that the day before was Cooling Day, so I got to spend the whole day with her...
"There were times when I felt like I should have spent a lot more time with her, especially when she had dementia," said Madam Halimah, quietly.
Time is a big trade-off that a politician has to be prepared for.
"Those moments are things you can never recover, but you accept that it's part and parcel of your responsibility," she said.
LESSONS FROM MUM
It has been slightly over a year since her mother's death, but memories still bring tears to her eyes, Madam Halimah said.
"Especially when you're in quiet moments, when you confront the reality. She lived with me for so many years. I remember her sitting on a particular sofa. She would be watching TV... Then there are moments like Hari Raya, and you know she's not there.
"You cannot forget someone who's had a tremendous influence on you, but I think life has to go on."
The most enduring advice Madam Halimah got from her mother was never to borrow, and to live within your own means.
When the Speaker moved into a flat with her husband, it took the couple eight months of scrimping and saving before they could afford their first sofa set.
Madam Halimah also lives by her mother's motto: if you don't get up before the sun rises, then you're lazy.
It is partly why the 62-year-old starts her day at 5am every day.
"I think I've grown up never sleeping very late into the day. I can never sleep when the sun is already out and when it's bright and shining into your face," she said.
As a student, Madam Halimah Yacob was guilty of falling asleep in class, and not completing her homework.
Shuttling between school and her mother's food stall to help out took a toll on her, and she struggled to stay awake in class.
"I was sitting at the back so I could look out of the window, daydream, and sleep," she said with a chuckle.
It took a teacher who told her she could do much better in class to wake her up.
"I supposed I bucked up then, but I think I also felt I owed my mother something.
"She worked so hard, the last thing she wanted to see is another failure. She deserved better," said Madam Halimah.
If there is a line Madam Halimah says frequently in her role as Speaker of Parliament, it has to be: "Please keep your follow-up questions crisp and short."
"I have to do it," she said with a laugh before explaining that she had make sure the 1 ½-hour question time is used efficiently.
"If I can't even clear 15 parliamentary questions (PQ)... Not that I must clear 15, but the point is, I'm denying other MPs whose questions come later of a chance for their questions to be asked if we are bogged down by just a few PQs.
"It's a sad thing (if) those members do not get a chance to ask their questions."
To this end, she watches the timer like a hawk and interrupts once the MP's time to speak is up.
"By and large, I must say members have been extremely cooperative and supportive, so we can get a lot of business done on sitting days. I'm really grateful for that," she said.