Right on the eve of the Punggol East election, the ST gave a long report card article on Halimah Yacob. The article was flattering to her to say the least. It has all the ingredients that would make someone from a minority group proud. She represented the woman, the working mother, the minority ethnic race, the woman with the tudung, the underprivileged, the non-elite, even the school ponteng queen who finally made it good.
Soft heart, strong will
Full republished article found in this link.
Madam Halimah believes one cannot live life fulfilling one's own needs only, that it is only when one helps to fulfil other people's needs and lives that one finds one's own fulfilment. She is grateful for her rough start in life for giving her hard-headedness, her soft heart and her values. -- ST PHOTO: NURIA LING
Halimah breaks down about every stereo-type, but does nothing to break down Islamophobia -
It appears that she has broken down all the stereotypes. But there lies the irony. While the ST report tries ever so hard to break down many stereotypes, it simply repeats what other rags-to-riches stereotype stories repeat. It is the same old Cinderella story, the same Beauty and the Beast story, where a poor girl made it good after starting her life as a pauper.
But the one and truly last bastion and fortification against Muslims, ie Islamophobia, that final brick wall remains. She tells us all about the facets of life as a schoolgirl, a filial daughter, a working mother, a politician and even as an "ambassador" for Singapore, holding titles at international level. Yet, she mentions nothing how she practises her religion. Hence, the same old stereotype that you can't mix religion with your secular life is left to be perpetuated.
To a Muslim, who is a minority in Singapore, isn't this last bastion the most important one that should abolished?
Repeating stereotype stories to break stereotypes -
Ah, the irony of the ST article! To break the stereotypes, the article simply repeats all the rags-to-riches stereotype stories. Here are the examples. Extracts from the above article I linked are in italics:
1. Poor Malay woman in tudung stereotype highlighted - AT ONE Marina Boulevard, a new security guard stopped Madam Halimah Yacob at the entrance one morning. He wanted to know what she was there for. She said she worked in the building. "Ah," he concluded. "You're the cleaner."
2. "Poor Malay woman" makes it big in international arena - In 1999, she became the first Singaporean elected to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) governing body, which sets labour standards for 174 member countries.
3. Poor Malay girl story again - HER starkest memory of childhood was when her father died of a heart attack when she was eight. An aunt told her and her four older siblings: "Your life will be tough. Remember, even if you have only five cents, learn to share it with one another." Soon after, they were thrown out of government quarters - her father was a government watchman - and rolled out mats nightly to sleep in the living rooms of relatives.
4. Poor Cinderella among rich step sisters allusion - She led a "stressful" double life - going from hawking to Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS), where children pulled up in fancy cars. She was only one of a few minority girls there. Her fees were often unpaid and her homework not done.
5. The school rebel - She scraped through primary school but almost got expelled during Secondary 2. It became "too trying" to cram homework into a long day of wiping tables and washing dishes that ended past 11pm. She became a "ponteng queen", cutting classes with impunity. Finally, the SCGS principal warned her that if she kept it up, she would be booted out.
6. Knight in shining armour comes by, sponsors uni fees - On matriculation day, with $5 in her pocket and unable to afford any joining fees, she "ran away" from all the society recruiters. Classified as an Indian-Muslim after her father, she had gone to university on a "leap of faith", not knowing where her fees would come from. At the last minute, a $1,000 annual bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore came through. Her brother, who had started work as a prison officer, chipped in with $50 a month. Every term break, she worked as a library clerk to make up the rest of her living expenses.
7. Halimah says a woman can have it all, but she doesn't include her religion? - SHE learnt that a woman can have it "all" - a demanding career, five children, volunteer work, three terms in politics and counting - but only with help from her mum, extended family and her businessman husband, who debunked gender roles and worked from home mostly at night. She also learnt that rallying a network of support is possible only if "we invest in our emotional bank accounts and develop relationships with family".
Isn't this the best time to mention how she practises her religion, to break the stereotype that successful women are always secular in their outlook?
8. Tries to break down stereotype by stating a family is more than about financial costs - What saddens her most is that young people today decide whether to marry or have children based on cost. Her richest comfort, she confides, is coming home to children who follow her example by going to the door, taking her bag, and asking her how her day went. "Can you imagine going home to a house with nothing in it but all the things you have bought, and there's nobody, no warmth, no affection?" she says with a shudder.
9. Repeats Maslow's Hierarchy top need as real success - If there is one thing she has learnt, it is that "you cannot live life fulfilling your own needs only". "It's only when you help to fulfil other people's needs and lives that you find your own fulfilment."
Isn't that concept a stereotype itself? Don't we always hear motivation gurus always saying that?
Here are the stereotypes that she breaks in summary form. Again taken from link above.
"People can hold all the stereotypes they want, it's basically how you live your life that's important. Don't be inhibited by constraints others put on you. Just continue to contribute and be taken seriously in your own right. People will assess you based on outcomes, with or without a tudung. Over time, they will just accept you for who you are."
"I find that sometimes it's not just a Malay-Muslim community thing but also gender. In meetings, when there are a lot of male voices, women tend to be quiet. I always tell my women union leaders: "Look, you have an opinion. Speak up, you have something to contribute, you can make a difference." I think it's the same with the Malay community, we need to feel comfortable in our own skin, confident of what we are, who we are, to begin with."
Whether a woman can 'have it all'
"I think you've got to prioritise what you want in life. For me, earlier in my career, we didn't have much money or even a home. But I wanted to have a family so of course my career took a slower track to develop and grow. Another thing: Set realistic goals. Whatever you do, keep it simple."
Yep, about every stereotype is broken - except for the one most important stereotype every Muslim should be concerned about, ie where is the mention she manages to practise her religion in a secular dominated dictated world?
My view -
For all the stereotypes that have been broken down by this petite feisty lady, she makes no attempt to clear the air in public, to educate the majority non-Muslims, that Islam is not as mystical as what the media and the world has been portraying for decades, maybe even centuries.
All she needs to do is to mention something about what she does as a Muslim. Her daily prayers. Her fasting. Perhaps even her religious classes when she was a girl. That would lift the veil separating "mystic" Islam from the public. That would break down the Islamophobia, the mystery of Islam, the fear of Islam the public has been harbouring for ages.
Unfortunately, save for her mention of the tudung (which also could be linked to Feminism which is secular), she never ventured further than that.
I feel that for Halimah, being the first woman, Muslim, mother and much more, to hold the Speaker position does break many stereotypes. Unfortunately, her story is all about using more stereo-type and Cinderella-like accounts to break those stereotypes!
Her biggest chance to truly break the one long standing stereotype, ie a Muslim woman who practises Islam religiously as part of her daily life is able to make it big in a dominantly secular world, is not mentioned at all.
Wasted opportunity. Islamophobia and ignorance about Islam is left to be perpetuated in the minds of the public. Quite disappointing, isn't it?
Halimah's story suddenly appears to be so ordinary and stereotypically Cinderella-like.
PS: note to Halimah and other Muslims who "made it big" - Shouldn't we as Muslims attribute our "success" to Allah swt, instead of bathing in the stories of "our own" success (which is from Allah swt anyway)? Or have such Muslims forgotten that all these success are from the Most High?
Then which of the blessings of thy Lord would you deny? - Surah Rahman.