On Wednesday, June 27, President Halimah Jacob told the students at Tanjong Katong Girls’ School (TKGS) that while Singapore has become much more progressive on gender issues, she still undergoes more scrutiny for her clothing choices because she’s a woman. Conversely, male leaders do not have deal with such scrutiny, but she said she has learned to live with it.
In a dialogue with 55 upper secondary students at TKGS, she nevertheless encouraged the young women not to think of the limitations of being female, but to lead with confidence and certainty. The dialogue, which involved young leaders at the school, is an advanced celebration for TKGS’s 65th anniversary in July.
The President recounted that in 2001, when she was elected as a Member of Parliament, she was often asked who would take care of her children. She would reply that she has a husband, and the two of them share equal household duties.
Today, she said, women MPs no longer get asked that question, which signifies that Singaporeans do not look at gender anymore when it comes to electing their leaders, but whether or not any candidate performs their functions well.
But she still gets comments on her fashion choices.
“Because I am a female, I suspect,” Madam Halimah said.
She told the young women not to be limited by being female. “Tell yourself that I can do as well as anybody else, I can contribute, I have something to contribute and I want to contribute.”
Madam Halimah told the students that TKGS built strong leadership skills in her, and that because it was an all-girls school, she could concentrate on academics and not be distracted.
Among the lessons on leadership that she imparted to the young women, she told them that leadership is about prioritizing the interests of those you serve, rather than a title, status or position.
“People care when they know you care about them, that’s the most important thing. They trust you because they have seen over time. They have interactions with you, they start trusting and have confidence that you can help, and that’s very important. Always be humble, always build trust. That’s very critical. Never break that trust.
She told them about her experiences with the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC), where she learned to be humble. Two months after starting at the NTUC, as a newly-minted lawyer, she was asked to advise twenty senior union leaders about labour laws.
Her boss told her that it was not about what she could teach them, but her attitude towards them was what mattered. She was told, “They are testing you, so they want to see what value you can add to them…… They may not have qualifications and a degree, but they have the experience of talking to the workers, of dealing with the management.”