Champion of Singapore
President Halimah Yacob is on a mission to build Singaporeans into a cohesive, inclusive society, while continuing to engender trust and goodwill with regional and international partners.
BY LOW SHI PING
PHOTO VEE CHIN
he may need no introduction as the President of Singapore, but long before her presidential turn, Halimah Yacob spent 33 years championing the rights of workers at the National Trades Union Congress, representing Singapore in the Geneva-based International Labour Organisation for 12 years.
In 2011, she was appointed Minister of State for the Ministry of Community Development and Sports (MCYS).
Since becoming the country’s first female President, she has won hearts for her empathetic approach, from advocating for disadvantaged communities to encouraging youth volunteerism.
Aside from her state visits with foreign dignitaries, Madam Halimah, who is Singapore International Foundation’s (SIF) Patron, has stressed the important role that ordinary Singaporeans play in establishing networks with the international community.
Constructive dialogue across nations is high on the President’s agenda, and in 2018, she mooted the idea of hosting an international conference on social cohesion and interfaith harmony in Singapore. The event is slated to take place this year.
1. SIF’s stated mission is bringing world communities together to do good. How relevant is this mission in today’s world and why?
SIF’s mission remains relevant, now more so than ever because of global uncertainties. No single country has a monopoly on resources or wisdom to address transnational issues such as climate change, pandemics, cybersecurity and extremism on its own. The involvement of communities across the world in addressing these issues is therefore important. In particular, young people, with their dynamism and drive, can take the lead to collaborate on joint projects with their regional counterparts to do good.
This is also the reason why Singapore recently renewed the Singapore-ASEAN Youth Fund and added S$5million to the Fund, as one of our ASEAN Chairmanship deliverables. The Fund aims to support ground-up initiatives by ASEAN youths to exchange ideas, work together and initiate meaningful projects in the region.
2. What do you consider to be the “heart and soul” of Singapore? How can we better define our values, beliefs and culture to resonate with the international community?
Our people are the heart and soul of Singapore. They are our greatest asset. They are also the face of Singapore to the world. It is their conviction and enthusiasm that will carry us from strength to strength.
Singaporeans have a shared aspiration of creating better lives for ourselves and our families. This single aspiration is underpinned by our openness and willingness to build bridges across different communities to forge common ground. We must never take this common understanding for granted, as it is always a work in progress to strengthen our social fabric.
Our values, beliefs and culture are encapsulated in our identity. They define who we are as a people. At its core, this identity is expressed through our encounters and relationships with one another. And as the global landscape evolves, it is also important that we constantly work at enlarging our common space both at home and overseas. It is only by taking the effort to know those around us that we can begin to understand, respect and trust each other.
3. What do you think is the most common misunderstanding about Singapore/ Singaporeans by the international community? Why and what can we do to correct such misperceptions?
A common misunderstanding about Singapore is that we are too “businesslike”.
It is true that Singapore has a high regard for all important principles governing agreements and various multilateral systems. It has to be the case, because compliance with agreed rules by all states is not only essential for global stability and for governing of global commons, it also crucial for a fair international order that protects small city states like Singapore.
The principle that agreements will be respected and will be implemented is fundamental for our very survival as a nation. At a time of increasing inter-connectedness and interdependence, now more so than ever, a multilateral approach where all states engage one another as equals is essential to build consensus and to strengthen respect for the rule of law.
4. It was reported in The Straits Times in September that you said Singaporeans abroad play a crucial role as “ambassadors” in other countries. What is the role of ordinary citizens in the management of relations between nations?
There is a growing number of Singaporeans living and travelling overseas. In today’s globalised and digitalised environment, foreign affairs are no longer the privileged purview of professional diplomats alone. Increasingly, Singaporeans, especially those living abroad, play an important role too.
When overseas, Singaporeans live and work alongside the locals. Through daily interactions, these overseas friends will form an impression of what Singapore is like, probably more strongly than a diplomatic report or a news article about what Singapore can achieve. These overseas friends may also be curious about Singapore, our culture and the way we live, so Singaporeans can help share this information with them.
In some cases, Singaporeans may also be asked to explain Singapore’s policies and actions. To do so effectively, an open mind and a friendly disposition can help to bridge opinion gaps. We do not seek to impose our views on others. By the same token, we must be conscious of who we are and defend what we stand for as an independent, sovereign, multi-racial country in Southeast Asia.
“We should also aim to be a friend to all, especially in our immediate neighbourhood, where peace and stability are absolutely essential. Always remember that there is much we can learn from one another.”
5. What does being a good global citizen mean to you? In your interaction with international leaders, what has been their perception of Singapore or Singaporeans as a responsible global citizen?
Singapore is happy to do our part in supporting international endeavours to promote lasting peace and stability. As a global citizen, we should actively keep abreast of current affairs and stay attuned to the changing trends. We should also aim to be a friend to all, especially in our immediate neighbourhood, where peace and stability are absolutely essential. Always remember that there is much we can learn from one another.
With the advent of fake news, we, too, have a role to play as global citizens to ensure we discern the truth from fiction and influence others positively
6. What in your mind are the most pressing cross- border social challenges that global communities can come together to share ideas and develop solutions?
Across the world, societies are facing increasing xenophobia and intolerance. Many countries are seeing the onset of culture wars and identity politics. These views are gaining cross-border traction and resonance quickly due to the Internet.
As a global community, we need to share best practices, such as community engagement efforts, since each country has unique perspectives on how to manage diversity.
Beyond immediate threats, global communities need to work together on cross-border challenges such as sustainable development and climate change. I am pleased to see that Singaporeans are taking this cause seriously. Since designating 2018 as the Year of Climate Action, more than 300,000 individuals and organisations have made pledges to do something to fight climate change.
7. How important is it for Singapore as a small nation to build strong international relations, trust and friendships with other countries?
Singapore is a credible and consistent partner. Our views are taken seriously because countries know that we always take a long-term constructive view of issues.
We are honest brokers. We deal fairly and openly with all parties. There is a sense of strategic predictability, which has enabled Singapore to build up trust and goodwill with our partners over the decades.
And because we are credible, Singapore has been able to play a constructive role in international affairs, at ASEAN, at the UN, and, most recently, during the US-DPRK Summit.
8. In your view, how well has Singapore done to make as many friends and as few enemies as possible?
Singapore aims to be a friend to all and an enemy of none. This is especially so for our immediate neighbourhood.
Singapore was a founding member of ASEAN, and we remain a strong advocate of ASEAN unity and centrality. With the superpowers and other regional powers, our aim is to expand our relationships, both politically and economically, so that we will be relevant to them and they will find our success to be in their own interest.
The scale and transboundary nature of the challenges we face today demand more cohesion and more cooperation, not less. There is a strong case to be made for doubling down on multilateralism, rather than retreating from it.
9. What do you think are Singapore’s soft-power assets?
Other than Singapore’s reputation as an honest, impartial and reliable broker, we have a successful and vibrant economy. We have stable politics and a united society. If we were not united and if we were not stable, we would not be able to punch above our weight in terms of regional and global affairs, and we would be completely irrelevant.
10. It is said that a country’s leader has an immense impact on how a country is viewed globally. Any thoughts or plans for how you might exercise your soft power?
I am honoured by the opportunity to serve as Singapore’s President. It is a great responsibility, and I hope to do good by Singaporeans first and foremost, especially for the vulnerable groups in society.
I hope I will be able to positively influence others to also do the same. During my term, I see it as a mission to unify Singaporeans to build a cohesive, caring and inclusive society. I want to be able to build bridges among communities, and strengthen our Singapore Identity so that together we build a better home for everyone.
Although this seems to be a primarily domestic focus, it does have implications on our global impact and foreign relations. When we are united as a community domestically, we are stronger as a nation internationally. The political stability and security of our nation rest heavily on our ability to build a cohesive society.
The same goes for our region.
And in the current context of increasing xenophobia and intolerance, our role in moderating extreme positions taken in diverse societies can be an important contribution on the global platform.
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