In a Sea of Political Neutrality on Gaza, Halimah Yacob Stands Out
Top image: Betty Chua / MCI via Facebook

According to the authorities and our laws, there’s a right and wrong way to speak about what’s happening in Gaza right now. No matter how you spin it, Singapore dictates what is acceptable discourse. 

Public gatherings on the topic are off-limits. Online advocacy is permissible as long as it steers clear of inciting violence or promoting hate speech against any race or religion. But you’ve still got to watch for linguistic landmines—saying “from the river to the sea” could be considered an offence, according to the police. Encouraging people to attend protests overseas is a no-no, too, as it turns out. 

It’s a precarious path to tread. And few in the political sphere walk it with the finesse of former president Madam Halimah Yacob. 

Neutrality or Complicity?

As the death toll in Gaza climbs to over 30,000, protests have erupted globally. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) has ordered Israel to take steps to prevent acts of genocide. Despite international outcry, the bloodshed persists, with Israeli forces gearing up for an assault on Rafah, where 1.5 million Palestinians seek refuge.

It’s a sickening feeling watching all this unfold from the safety of our homes—especially so for the Malay-Muslim community who’ve long aligned with Palestinian solidarity.

We’ve tried to help. Singapore provided humanitarian aid to Gaza and voted in favour of a United Nations resolution calling for a humanitarian truce, but we’ve also maintained a neutral ‘friend of all’ approach. (Neighbouring Malaysia, on the other hand, vowed to support Palestine and “bring Israel to justice”.)

Recent criticism aimed at the Ministry of Education’s Character and Citizenship Education (CCE) curriculum highlights the challenges of openly discussing the conflict here. Concerned parents cited the omission of crucial historical context and raised furious eyebrows at an activity segment prompting students to brainstorm ways to show care for both Palestine and Israel.

Save for the Parliamentary debate on the issue on November 7th, 2023, our political leaders haven’t exactly been the most vocal. They’ve also largely avoided taking sides. 

Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong mentioned in Parliament: “We are friends with both Israel and the Palestinians. But it doesn’t mean we support everything each side does. Instead, we consistently take a principled position, in line with international law and in support of global peace and security.”

Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh was one of the few to acknowledge that the cards are stacked against Palestine: “In the end, the story on the Palestinian side is always far more gruesome in scale—overwhelming casualties, with a large number of children among the dead.”

But even then, Mr Singh was pressed by fellow Parliamentarians to explicitly condemn Hamas’ October 7th attack as an act of terror. 

On Humanity or the Lack Thereof

Enter Madam Halimah. She’s one of the few people with political influence who has consistently spoken up about the issue and taken a real stand. 

Since the start of the Israeli siege on Gaza, her Facebook posts have served as a platform to spotlight the plight of Palestinians. She’s made at least 10 posts that touch on the catastrophe there.

Image: Facebook screengrab

Her frustration at the loss of civilian lives is evident in her poignant critiques of Israel’s indiscriminate bombings of civilian infrastructure, which includes hospitals, homes, schools, mosques, and churches.

“When will this end? If international laws designed to protect civilians are no longer valid or can be ignored with impunity, what rules do we follow to prevent a descent into chaos and inhumanity?”

Her words are measured but heartfelt. And her frustration at the world’s inaction as Palestinians are killed in huge numbers is obvious. 

Just two days ago, Madam Halimah lamented the mounting death toll of Palestinian civilians and condemned Israeli forces for bombing food trucks meant for Gaza. 

“The degradation of the human soul is obvious as the world dithers in ceasefire efforts. International laws and international bodies are rendered irrelevant. The consensus built after the horrors of [World War II] to protect the innocents during wars has been severely compromised. The world is forever changed.”

Image: Facebook screengrab

Why Madam Halimah’s Words Matter

Her advocacy carries weight for several reasons. First and most apparent, her words have sway as a former president. When she speaks, the public listens. 

Secondly, her continued engagement with decision-makers underscores her relevance in shaping national discourse.

Despite resigning from the People’s Action Party in 2017 to become President, she still appears to be on good terms with them. Petir, a blog run by the PAP, shared her recent statement—as did Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam

Image: Lee Hsien Loong / Facebook

It also helps that her statements are so carefully crafted. They deftly avoid topics of race or religion. Instead, she cites values everyone can relate to: humanity, justice, and common decency. She doesn’t shy away from pointing out the hypocrisy and flagrant violations of international law but does so without crossing the boundaries set by her former colleagues.

It’s undeniable that Madam Halimah’s political past lends her some power, privilege and credibility. And she’s using it for good. 

In a climate where advocating for Palestine draws scrutiny, Madam Halimah’s unwavering stance demonstrates that standing for humanity transcends political calculations—and that there’s nothing wrong with being pro-Palestine. That being on the side of humanity means taking a stand. 

Even during her presidency, Madam Halimah was known for her strong opinions. She questioned why rapists above age 50 were exempted from caning. She also slammed local podcast Okletsgo for making misogynistic comments.

Maybe the fact that Madam Halimah is no longer in office has given her more freedom to speak her mind even more boldly. It’s hard to imagine the layers of approval she’d have to weave through to speak on Palestine if she was still Singapore’s president.

She’s proven that she’s more than an extension of the establishment, as many view our presidents to be. Post-presidency, she’s carved out a space to exemplify how speaking truth to power is not only right but a moral imperative.

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