September 14, 2023
SINGAPORE – In the final hours of her presidency, Madam Halimah Yacob said she was humbled that the people of Singapore had placed their trust and faith in her as their President.
It was this unwavering support that fuelled her determination to serve every day of her six years in office, President Halimah, 69, said in her farewell speech at the Istana on Wednesday night.
Noting that Covid-19 was the most severe and unprecedented crisis during her presidency, Madam Halimah reflected on how it required her and the Government to make very difficult decisions concerning the Republic’s past reserves.
“It was an excruciating balance between saving for the future and immediate withdrawals to protect jobs and livelihoods,” she said.
Yet, it also gave Singapore the opportunity to once again test the workings of the two-key system, where, as the holder of the second key, the president assesses the need and gravity of the Government’s request to unlock the country’s past reserves, she said.
The pandemic saw the Government seek Madam Halimah’s approval to withdraw up to $69 billion from the reserves over three years, with about $40 billion used eventually.
This was the largest amount drawn from the nation’s past savings since the two-key system was created. In 2009, then President S R Nathan approved the withdrawal of past reserves to counter the global financial crisis.
The Government drew $4 billion then, which it returned to the pot in 2011.
The greatest lesson from the pandemic period is how the past reserves, built up so painstakingly over the years by successive governments, enabled the Republic to act decisively without having to face the burden of crippling debt, she added.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is a memory of the past now, but it would be a mistake to let the memory fade with time,” she said.
Madam Halimah said her task as custodian of the second key was to ensure that the threat facing Singapore was so severe that it warranted an exceptional response from the Government.
Giving insight into how she decided to consent to the withdrawal, Madam Halimah said she was briefed by the Government and that she had very extensive, robust and thorough discussions with the Council of Presidential Advisers (CPA) before she gave her consent.
“The severity of the pandemic necessitated five withdrawals as the infection spread with great speed and intensity, and the Government had to respond quickly with support measures,” she said.
As laid out in the Constitution, the President’s Office is “not meant to operate as a parallel ministry of finance or investment advisory body of our past reserves”, she emphasised.
Instead, her office worked closely with public officers dealing with matters related to finance and past reserves.
These officers were always open and accessible, and performed their duties with great professionalism, she said.
Looking back, Madam Halimah said she had a good working relationship with the Government that was based on mutual trust, respect and a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities.
“The relationship was always at arm’s length and conducted with great propriety and decorum,” she said. “My queries and requests for information were taken seriously, and I was always able to carry out my duties properly and independently.”
In her role of uniting Singaporeans, Madam Halimah said she endeavoured to create a more caring, compassionate, and just society.
The strong support of donors to the President’s Challenge not only aided communities in need, but also allowed for an important shift where help could go towards empowering the less well-off, and to include caregivers.
For instance, the Empowering for Life Fund she launched has programmes that promote skills upgrading, capacity-building, and employment for beneficiaries from disadvantaged families.
Madam Halimah also spent many hours on the ground during her tenure, officiating at more than 1,400 community events.
She made the Istana more accessible, particularly to Singaporeans who would otherwise have no chance to visit, such as hospice care patients and those suffering from motor neuron disease.
The Istana Gardens were also enhanced to be made more wheelchair-friendly.
Madam Halimah said she also reached out to different communities, including persons with disabilities and those suffering from mental health issues, and was proud of Supporting Youth in Community, a collaboration with the Institute of Mental Health and four social service agencies to offer mental health support services to young people.
Madam Halimah thanked the Presidential Councils, the CPA and the many social service agencies and business organisations that supported and worked with her over the last six years to uplift the underprivileged in the society.
As Singapore’s top diplomat, she flew the flag on the international stage with 21 overseas visits, including 12 state visits, even amid the pandemic.
As Singapore’s first female president, Madam Halimah said she had the unique opportunity to inspire other women and girls.
“Many have shared with me about how uplifting it was for them to see a female head of state and its strong message about women’s place in our society,” she said.
She added: “If I have been able to empower women in Singapore, to push the boundaries and reach their fullest potential, I am most grateful for the chance to do so.”
Being the first female head of state and coming from a minority community, Madam Halimah said her presidency let the outside world see that in Singapore, meritocracy and diversity are real and not mere slogans.
She ended her farewell speech by thanking her husband, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee, and her family for supporting her through her term.
Addressing the people of Singapore, Madam Halimah said: “I am humbled by your trust and faith in me as your President. It has been a privilege to be your voice, to listen to your concerns, and to work tirelessly on your behalf.
“I carried your aspirations in my heart, and it is your unwavering support that has fuelled my determination to serve, every day and every step of the way.”