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. [Read more...]