Last week, Singapore saw the election of its first woman Speaker of Parliament, Halimah Yacob. Halimah started her political career by joining the governing party since independence, the People’s Action Party (PAP), in 2001. She represented the electoral division of Jurong as a Member of Parliament and was later appointed a Minister of State for the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (now the Ministry of Social and Family Development) in 2011. However, barely a year after being a Minister of State in a portfolio where she would be able to influence the government on issues that she felt strongly about, she resigned and was nominated by the current prime minister for her new position as Speaker a few days later.
I noticed a few interesting aspects of the news coverage of her new position as Speaker of Parliament. First, while the local, mainstream, and largely government-controlled media mentioned her gender as newsworthy (here, here, and here), there was no mention at all of her ethnicity, her religion or the fact that she wears a hijab, even though all the accompanying photos show these elements clearly. While Halimah is not the first Malay to hold this position, she is the first Malay woman, and certainly the first hijabi to do so. (Compare this lack of attention to Amra Babic, the first hijabi mayor of Bosnia, also the first hijab-wearing mayor in Europe). This is possibly due to the legislative restrictions on free speech, which prevent open discussion on issues related to ethnicity and religion.
However, the lack of attention to her ethnicity and religion is uncharacteristic of Singaporean politics. The electoral division that Halimah represents is known as a Group Representation Constituency, which makes obligatory the inclusion of at least one politician from a minority ethnic group (designed by the PAP, no less). Other policies that demonstrate the salience of race is the ethnic quota for public housing (but not private housing) and the existence of ethnicity-based ‘self-help’ welfare groups that deal with education subsidies and social assistance (one each for the Malays and any Muslims, Indians, Chinese, and Eurasians). Race-based policies are also found in education, employment, and immigration, and are popularly found to be increasingly irrelevant in a country where 20 percent of marriages is inter-ethnic.
Second, most articles mention her predecessor, Michael Palmer, a man of Eurasian descent (a political category denoting third-generation intermarriage between ‘Europeans’ and ‘Asians’), who resigned after his extramarital affair broke out. The juxtaposition of the immoral actions of her predecessor when announcing Halimah’s new position (here, here, here, and here) seems to imply that she — whether as a woman or a Muslim — would be less likely to engage in such activities.
Third, these articles focus on Halimah’s legal training and related work championing the rights of those who are socially marginalised, such as migrant domestic workers, the poor and the aged. As a result of Halimah’s new position, some members of the public were concerned that she could not longer advocate for them in Parliament, because she would have to remain neutral as the moderator of parliamentary debate. Throughout her career, she has been steadily highlighting social issues in Singapore such as the treatment of migrant domestic workers, lack of female corporate leadership, poverty among the elderly and minorities, and the lack of adequate childcare. Would it make the PAP government relieved to not have their failures of social engineering highlighted constantly?
Fourth, the media finds it worth highlighting that Halimah lives and plans to continue living in public housing, despite her promotion. This gives her an aura of humility; she is passionately dedicated to serving the people. This helps to soften the image of the ruling party, and at the same time temporarily obscure the fact that Singapore’s ministers are the highest paid in the world. Even after a dramatic pay cut, the prime minister still earns the most out of all political leaders in the world, with an annual salary of USD1.7 million.
For now, Halimah is the poster girl for meritocracy and multiracialism, values pushed by the governing party for the sake of ‘racial harmony’. Whatever the reasons that the PAP government has for nominating and electing her as the Speaker, the fact remains that the government still implements legislation that restricts freedom of expression and assembly. Halimah’s previous work in pushing for social change within this restricted system was possibly a thorn in the government’s side, but by promoting her to a ‘silent’ position, the government was able to kill two birds with one stone: show to Singaporeans that meritocracy applies to a middle-class Malay Muslim woman, while taking care of the more unsettling aspects of her previous political role.
By not mentioning her ethnicity or religion, while focusing on her gender and class, the mainstream media has framed Halimah as a successful product of a meritocratic Singapore. However, highlighting her political achievements has only served to raise suspicions about the motivations behind her promotion to Speaker. Ultimately, Halimah is still part of a restrictive government, and any policy changes that she could pursue in her new position can only take place by challenging the very structure that she is part of.