By Foo Jie Ying, firstname.lastname@example.org, Reporter, The New Paper, 01 December 2016, 06:00 am
It is daunting to move to an entirely different sector, but this is the new normal.
TNP PHOTO: PHYLLICIA WANG - Speaker of Parliament Madam Halimah Yacob
That was Madam Halimah Yacob's wake-up call to those who have lost their jobs amid the economic uncertainties.
"I know it's really very challenging, if you've been an engineer for years, to try to move to another sector.
"But you will have to do that. Because this sector is producing fewer jobs, and manufacturing has become more automated," said the 62-year-old Speaker of Parliament.
In a wide-ranging interview, the unionist-turned-politician, spoke to The New Paper on Tuesday about jobs and the economy, and her thoughts about the changes to the elected presidency.
The number of layoffs this year is expected to top last year's, when 13,440 workers lost their jobs, Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say told Parliament last month.
The reasons have been well-documented - disruptions in several industries and jobs evolving faster than workers can be retrained for them.
Against this backdrop, concern over job security is starting to creep in among her constituents at Marsiling-Yew Tee, Madam Halimah said.
"I've seen cases of people losing their jobs, retrenchments... This is something we really need to monitor.
"Most, I find, are able to manage on their own in terms of getting an alternative job.
"What they do need is temporary support when they have no income to tide them over," she said.
In her 33 years in the labour movement, Madam Halimah has seen many cycles of retrenchment.
ST FILE PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN
Picture posted by The Straits Times on 25 November 2013 at 7:16 pm SGT
She said: "I cannot forget those years, especially the crisis we had in 2008 and 2009.
"I really understand where they are coming from. I really empathise with them.
"They are not just a digit because retrenchments, loss of jobs, affect them personally, very poignantly (causing or having a very sharp feeling of sadness)."
The silver lining in the gloomy economic outlook is that there are jobs available, and Singapore has proactive labour market policies to help those who are retrenched.
They include job-matching through Workforce Singapore, looking for jobs through the revised Jobs Bank, and reskilling under the SkillsFuture initiative.
Madam Halimah said: "This form of technological disruption has been going on for a while, except the pace will hasten and it will continue."
Picture posted by Sing Geok Shan, Channel NewsAsia on Wednesday, 31 October 2012 - Four receive awards for outstanding contributions to social works
Could one of them be our next President? First female president? No comment for now
She has been touted as someone who could make history by becoming Singapore's first female president. But Madam Halimah Yacob, 62, simply laughed when the topic was brought up.
"I think it is still a long way off," she said, referring to the next presidential election (PE), which is expected to be held by next August. She is now focused on her two roles: Speaker of Parliament and Member of Parliament for Marsiling-Yew Tee.
The next PE will be reserved for Malay candidates - a mechanism triggered when a candidate of a certain race has not been a president for five consecutive terms. This has been criticised by some as tokenism. But Madam Halimah disagreed.
"When you say it is tokenism, it means that it is symbolic, it is perfunctory. The point is, all candidates, regardless of an open or reserved election, will have to qualify."
In a time when multi-racialism is being tested around the world, she urged sceptics to look at the changes in the context of preserving multi-racialism, one of Singapore's strengths.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said the Government has no specific candidate in mind. He told Malaysian news agency Bernama on Monday: "There is no shortlist. It depends who comes forward. It is not for the Government to arrange. It is for the candidates to come forward."
Madam Halimah ticks all the boxes of the eligibility criteria for public sector candidates.
Political pundits see her as the front runner partly due to her popularity on the ground.
She became the first Malay female MP in 2001, then minister of state in 2011. Two years later, she became the first female Speaker. As a veteran unionist, volunteer and politician, she won over many with her dedication to single mothers, low-income families, the elderly and the disabled.
But when asked if she has considered running in the PE, she said cautiously: "At this moment, I would not want to comment... To me, it doesn't matter what capacity you serve in.
"The most important thing is that you're serving from your heart, and that you're also serving the people and Singapore."
TNP PHOTO: PHYLLICIA WANG - Speaker of Parliament Madam Halimah Yacob
Halimah Yacob on her mum
She has missed many family moments because of her job.
Before she knew it, her five children - aged 25 to 34 - were grown up.
On Polling Day last year, her mother died while she was doing her rounds.
"I wanted to go see her after I had made my rounds, but I couldn't even complete the rounds and she left. I was fortunate that the day before was Cooling Day, so I got to spend the whole day with her...
"There were times when I felt like I should have spent a lot more time with her, especially when she had dementia," said Madam Halimah, quietly.
Time is a big trade-off that a politician has to be prepared for.
"Those moments are things you can never recover, but you accept that it's part and parcel of your responsibility," she said.
MP, Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC, People's Action Party
On Polling Day last year, her mother died while she was doing her rounds. "I wanted to go see her after I had made my rounds, but I couldn't even complete the rounds and she left. I was fortunate that the day before was Cooling Day, so I got to spend the whole day with her... There were times when I felt like I should have spent a lot more time with her, especially when she had dementia," said Madam Halimah, quietly.
Picture posted by CHANNEL NEWSASIA - Singapore Parliament
LESSONS FROM MUM
It has been slightly over a year since her mother's death, but memories still bring tears to her eyes, Madam Halimah said.
"Especially when you're in quiet moments, when you confront the reality. She lived with me for so many years. I remember her sitting on a particular sofa. She would be watching TV... Then there are moments like Hari Raya, and you know she's not there.
"You cannot forget someone who's had a tremendous influence on you, but I think life has to go on."
The most enduring advice Madam Halimah got from her mother was never to borrow, and to live within your own means.
When the Speaker moved into a flat with her husband, it took the couple eight months of scrimping and saving before they could afford their first sofa set.
Madam Halimah also lives by her mother's motto: if you don't get up before the sun rises, then you're lazy.
It is partly why the 62-year-old starts her day at 5am every day.
"I think I've grown up never sleeping very late into the day. I can never sleep when the sun is already out and when it's bright and shining into your face," she said.
As a student, Madam Halimah Yacob was guilty of falling asleep in class, and not completing her homework.
Shuttling between school and her mother's food stall to help out took a toll on her, and she struggled to stay awake in class.
"I was sitting at the back so I could look out of the window, daydream, and sleep," she said with a chuckle.
It took a teacher who told her she could do much better in class to wake her up.
"I supposed I bucked up then, but I think I also felt I owed my mother something.
"She worked so hard, the last thing she wanted to see is another failure. She deserved better," said Madam Halimah.
If there is a line Madam Halimah says frequently in her role as Speaker of Parliament, it has to be: "Please keep your follow-up questions crisp and short."
"I have to do it," she said with a laugh before explaining that she had make sure the 1½-hour question time is used efficiently.
"If I can't even clear 15 parliamentary questions (PQ)... Not that I must clear 15, but the point is, I'm denying other MPs whose questions come later of a chance for their questions to be asked if we are bogged down by just a few PQs.
Moulmein-Kallang GRC MP Denise Phua nominated her, while Holland-Bukit Timah GRC MP Chris de Souza seconded the nomination.
After Madam Halimah then took her place in the Speakers' chair, Leader of the House Ng Eng Hen rose to speak, beginning with "Madam Speaker" - a phrase, he noted, that was being uttered for the first time in the House.
He praised her as an "active and ardent backbencher" who spoke up for low-wage workers, women and children and said that the former Minister of State for Social and Family Development would be missed in Government.
Picture posted by Rachel Chang on 17 January 2013 at 13:59 - SINGAPORE: Halimah Yacob elected Speaker of Parliament by MPs
"It's a sad thing (if) those members do not get a chance to ask their questions."
To this end, she watches the timer like a hawk and interrupts once the MP's time to speak is up.
"By and large, I must say members have been extremely cooperative and supportive, so we can get a lot of business done on sitting days. I'm really grateful for that," she said.
Madam Speaker, Halimah Yacob, had seen all of them in parliament.
". . . Let me first recount a performance that my company Drama Box staged in 2001. That was the year when there was the financial crisis caused by the default of subprime mortgage.
The performance, in the form of Forum Theatre, was about a husband who was retrenched and was taking out his frustration on his wife. Forum Theatre is a form of theatre where the protagonist is facing a problem within a scene. After the scene is performed, the audience is invited to replace the protagonist to try out different ways of dealing with the problem. In this particular story, both the husband and the wife could not find ways to handle the crisis and affect change.
In one performance, many people replaced the role of the wife, speaking to the husband about the need to accept the change, look out for government schemes, advising him, encouraging him. The husband understood all these, but he was still not placated. He was still frustrated.
Then a woman came up. She sat the husband down. Held his hand. The audience and myself were waiting for her to speak. But she did not. She just kept quiet.
Finally the husband asked her why did she not speak. She replied with a question: “Are you okay?” I could hear the husband letting out a sigh of relief.
When I, the facilitator, asked her why she did what she did, she said: 在这样一种情况,人需要一点点的时间,一点点的空间。In such difficult situation, people need some time and some space.
I share this anecdote to highlight the importance of time and space during a crisis or in face of change.
Government schemes can help Singaporeans prepare for structural changes in our economy, and to move into new jobs and responsibilities.
However, schemes will only help Singaporeans IF we also look at how our body, hearts and spirits are affected in these moments of change or crises.
“Small acts of repair. Calming the hands in a troubled world. Restoring damage to renewed use.”
. . . . Sometimes we do not have an answer immediately, but asking the right question is a step closer. It just takes time. And instead of saying there is no time, let us make time for it. And instead of saying no space, let us make space for it. . . ." - from budget speech for Parliament posted on facebook by Kok Heng Leun, on Wednesday, 6 April 2016, https://www.facebook.com/notes/kok-heng-leun/speech-for-parliament/10154026035762856
Picture posted by Annie Teh on 8 April 2016 - Budget 2016
- We hope for you to be patient when we are slow in entering the elevator. We don’t like to hold up others.
- We hope for you to be accommodating when we make strange, loud noises. We can’t control our muscles.
- We hope for you to give up your seats in the train. We feel bad for you not to have a seat, but our ankles are weak and we cannot stand for long.
- Please understand if I refuse to communicate. Sometimes I’m afraid and confused from the many voices I hear in my own head.
- Do not be offended if I do not respond to your greetings. I cannot hear you.
- Give us a chance to train and upgrade our skills so that we can work. We cherish our hope for a brighter future.
- Give us a chance to work, so that we can be less of a burden to our families.
- Let my son have flexible working schedules so he can accompany me for my medical and therapy sessions. I do not want him to sacrifice his career development or lose his job because he’s looking after me.
- Be kind to my parents when I throw tantrums. It is not because they did not teach me well. I simply cannot comprehend my external environment.
- Please play with me. My legs are weak, but I still have a sense of adventure.
- Thank you for accepting me.