SINGAPORE: In a comprehensive interview with state media Channel News Asia, Mdm Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s 8th President, elaborated on the challenges and intense discussions surrounding the decision to draw on the nation’s reserves during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conversation, which will air on 12 September, pledges to offer an insightful window into the pressures and concerns of the presidency during a global crisis.
“We had many, many meetings. And those meetings actually don’t just (last) half an hour. They lasted a few hours because we need to ask questions, we need to be satisfied, we wanted more information,” Mdm Halimah detailed.
She reflected on the gravity of the situation, as Singapore was poised to make its most significant withdrawal from its reserves since the 2009 global financial crisis.
Back then, Singapore extracted S$4.9 billion (US$3.6 billion) to support the economy. Fast forward to the pandemic years between 2020 and 2022, and Singapore had to tap into about S$40 billion from the reserves to combat the unprecedented crisis.
The COVID-19 pandemic posed unique challenges, making even discussions a logistical challenge.
“The discussions on the reserves took place when social distancing measures had to be observed. This meant that half of the Council of Presidential Advisers and ministry officials had to be in separate rooms, and they would join the meeting via Zoom,” shared Mdm Halimah. But, regardless of the physical arrangements, she underlined that the deliberations were “very thorough.”
“It was done in an atmosphere where we respect each other’s roles. We understand what we have to do and the government has its role to make sure it provides for the people during such a critical crisis,” she said.
Mdm Halimah stressed, “We have our role to protect the reserves and to make sure that the government’s request is reasonable.”
Serving as the President during the world’s worst health crisis in recent history, Mdm Halimah revealed one of her gravest concerns:
“The question is whether our health facilities, our economy, our people are able to go through … such a severe disruption and we are able to come out intact.”
Drawing a comparison, she mentioned that while Singapore had experience managing SARS, the daily developments around COVID-19 appeared increasingly grim.
“I’m very clear in my mind, I’m only authorized to release past reserves for very exceptional circumstances,” she emphasized. The responsibility weighed heavily on her, as she was tasked with evaluating the government’s request to use the reserves for pandemic support. Determining whether these were “exceptional circumstances” was paramount.
“This is a double whammy, both health and in economic crisis, and (we) clearly established that there is a need for us to pull down from the past reserves because the government’s current reserves (are) not sufficient to run the programs, build the facilities, buy the ART kits, support the vaccine program and so on,” Mdm Halimah elaborated.
She offered a glimpse into her decision-making process, describing it as a “very intense process.”
Mdm Halimah recalled the rigorous briefings with ministers and officials, where she would prod them with questions to justify the funds they requested. “If you say the health situation is critical, what do you mean by that? Hospitals, if you say it’s going to be overwhelmed, what do you mean by that?”
The meticulous process ensured the government presented a clear breakdown of their needs. “Once they provide that, then we understand better the situation, then we can talk about whether we want to support the government’s request to draw down the past reserves.”
Mdm Halimah also touched on the broader implications of their decisions, underscoring the need to ensure reserves for future generations. “That is definitely one of the main considerations, whether we are depleting our capital in allowing the drawdown,” she noted.
In the backdrop of her term, Mdm Halimah’s rapid transition from a prominent member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 2017 as both a Member of Parliament and Speaker of Parliament to her role as the non-partisan President in just over a month had garnered significant attention.
This is especially so given the amendments to the Presidential Election to make the 2017 election a reserved presidential election for Malays and Mr Chan Chun Sing referring to Mdm Halimah as “Madam President” even before she announced her intention to resign from PAP and stand as a candidate.
Questions arose about her ability to act independently from the PAP and serve as an effective check on the government. Her being the sole eligible candidate in the presidential race – after two potential candidates from the Malay community were disqualified – had left many Singaporeans shocked, feeling deprived of their political voice.
As President Halimah Yacob prepares to conclude her term on 13 September and hand over to her former PAP colleague, the newly-elected ninth president Tharman Shanmugaratnam, her tenure will be remembered not only for her leadership during a global crisis but also for the unique and debated circumstances under which she took office.