Transcript of Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the Farewell Ceremony for President Halimah Yacob on 13 September 2023 at the Istana.
Mdm President, Mr Mohamed Abdullah Alhabshee,
Distinguished guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,
A very good evening to everybody
We gather today to mark the completion of President Halimah Yacob’s term, and to express our gratitude for her illustrious service to the nation.
A Unifying Symbol
Mdm President, you have been a powerful symbol of unity for all Singaporeans. This is not just because of what the Office of the President represents, but particularly because of how you performed your duties and led us as our President. Throughout your tenure, you showed the way with grounded leadership, and a warm heart for the people. Your ability to empathise and resonate with Singaporeans from all walks of life has brought our nation closer together, and reminded us that we all have a role to play to make Singapore a better home.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, you stepped forward amidst the uncertainty, to be amongst the first to take the vaccine, and lead by example. When we had to be safe-distanced, you kept spirits up by engaging Singaporeans virtually. Once the situation permitted, you visited frontline workers on the ground, and later hosted them at the Istana to thank them and recognise their sacrifices. Your presence and concern lifted spirits, and made all the difference. Seeing our President with us gave everyone hope, showed that every contribution was appreciated, and inspired us to soldier on despite the difficulties and personal sacrifices.
A More Inclusive Society
Mdm President, you have been an inspiration to all Singaporeans, young and old.
As a woman from a minority community, coming from a very humble family background, you pursued your education, graduated with a law degree, served in the labour movement and in politics, and eventually occupied the highest office in the land. You showed that our meritocratic system works: that every Singaporean can achieve his or her aspirations, regardless of race, language, or religion, and regardless of family background or station in life. This happens only in very few countries in the world, and is something that Singaporeans can justly be proud of.
Your own lived experience is surely a major reason you so strongly believe in building a more egalitarian and inclusive society. As President, you have worked hard to strengthen mutual understanding, trust, and respect across diverse community groups. You took an interest in many worthy causes, especially those focussed on helping the less privileged, so that they would feel valued and recognised in our society.
One of your passions has been gender equality. Every year, you inducted women who had made outstanding contributions into the Singapore Women’s Hall of Fame. As Patron of the Council for Board Diversity and the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, you shared your personal experiences in dialogues and encouraged women to push the limits. Your efforts challenged gender stereotypes and heightened awareness of the biases still faced by women.
You also paid particular attention to those with disabilities. Under the President’s Challenge Enabling Employment Pledge, you advocated for more inclusive and accessible workspaces and employment policies. You frequently visited social welfare agencies to understand the challenges faced by people with disabilities, and to encourage employers and Singaporeans to be more accepting and understanding towards them.
You were also concerned about mental health issues, especially amongst our youth. You launched the Supporting Youth in Community programme to provides youths with psychosocial support. This programme has helped many young people to overcome their mental struggles and emerge from dark moments in their lives.
And naturally, given your close ties with the labour movement, you always looked out for workers’ interests, especially for the lower-wage workers. You launched the Empowering for Life Fund to offer tailored support for skills upgrading and employment assistance to vulnerable individuals. Last year, you focused the President’s Challenge on “Supporting Lower-income Families” to help the group hit hardest by COVID-19, raising a record-setting $17.3m.
All these efforts made us more conscious of our less privileged brethren, and ameliorated their plight.
Custodian of our Reserves
But beyond your ceremonial and symbolic roles, you also held a custodial role, holding the second key to our nation’s reserves. During your term, you had to exercise this important duty on an unprecedented scale.
Previously, during the Global Financial Crisis, we had drawn $4.9b from the reserves to support the economy and jobs. Thankfully, our economy revived on that occasion more rapidly and vigorously than expected, and the Government was able to return the full amount into the reserves by the end of its term.
The COVID-19 pandemic was on a different scale altogether. Over a period of three years, the Government had to seek your approval repeatedly to draw upon the reserves. Advised by the Council of Presidential Advisors, you worked closely with the Government to understand the rapidly developing situation, to assess the Government’s proposed responses and requests, and to ensure that the requested draws on reserves were necessary and justified. As the officials involved will attest, you participated actively in a thorough process. Rigorous, but not antagonistic. I am glad the officials were able to deal fully with your searching queries and clarifications, and address the reservations and concerns that you and the CPA raised.
Cumulatively, you approved drawing up to $69b from the reserves over three years. In the end, we used only about $40b, but this was still the largest amount drawn since the system of the second key was created. This enabled the government to move swiftly and confidently to tackle the crisis, without having to take on a heavy debt burden and encumber future generations.
With your support, the government was able to save lives, stabilise the economy, preserve jobs, and ensure that Singapore emerged more resilient and stronger after COVID-19.
This system of “two keys” made all the difference during this crisis. The robust processes we had put in place, and the steady hands operating the system, allowed us to protect this unique resource, while retaining flexibility to draw what we truly needed in an extraordinary crisis. I am confident this system will continue to serve us well in the years to come.
Mdm President, internationally, you represented Singapore on the world stage, and strengthened our relations and friendship with many countries.
While the pandemic caused you to make fewer trips than you would otherwise have done, you made the most of the situation. You hosted many foreign leaders in Singapore, and made impactful State and official visits, including to several ASEAN countries, the Middle East, Central Asia, China, Japan and Europe.
You helped other countries understand Singapore better, and opened new opportunities for us, such as through the numerous bilateral agreements concluded during your trips. And you always took special care to engage overseas Singaporeans, and keep them in touch with home.
As Singapore’s top diplomat, you fulfilled all these duties with dignity and grace.
Appreciation for Mr Mohamed
Mdm President, your responsibilities as President have been numerous. But I am sure you will agree that your husband, Mr Mohamed, played a critical role supporting you throughout this journey. He was constantly by your side as you carried out your official duties, be it engaging foreign dignitaries or meeting Singaporeans. His calm and informal nature complemented well your own warmth and approachability.
As many of us know, Mr Mohamed has a passion for music, and is a skilled drummer. He also has a heart for charity, and used his musical talent to perform at charity events, including at a community concert in Marsiling Park in 2019, somewhere in your old constituency.
We thank Mr Mohamed for his invaluable contributions to the success of your Presidency.
Mdm President, as your term of office draws to a close, you can look back on a distinguished and remarkable career in public service, and as our President.
I still remember what you said when you were first elected six years ago: “I am a President for everyone”. Through your leadership and heart for the people, you have certainly fulfilled your promise. Your efforts to expand opportunities for all have made for a more united and inclusive Singapore, where all of us belong and everyone has a part to play. Your commitment to improving our society and your concern for every Singaporean will continue to inspire and guide us all as we refresh our social compact and press forward together.
On behalf of the Government and people of Singapore, I thank you for your service to our nation. We bid you and Mr Mohamed farewell, and wish you all the best in your future endeavours.
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