President Halimah encourages youths to adopt an interest in the world around them at the 2023 S. Rajaratnam Lecture

President Halimah touched on issues including misinformation and the impact of global issues on Singapore.

Fong Wai Kei

Enjoys writing in comic sans unironically.

Published: 19 June 2023, 11:13 AM

President Halimah Yacob hopes to see more women leaders and urges youths to take an interest in the world around them amid rising global challenges. 

She made the remarks at the 13th S. Rajaratnam Lecture held at ITE College Central on Friday (Jun 9) in front of 800 diplomats, researchers and students. 

Titled Strengthening Resilience In An Uncertain World, her speech and subsequent Question and Answer (QnA) segment explored different global challenges, its impacts on Singapore and actions that Singapore has taken to rise above. It was moderated by Ms Foo Chi Hsia, Deputy Secretary of Southeast Asia and ASEAN.

Notably, she narrowed down several issues that youths should take into consideration, touching on gender in politics, misinformation, as well as issues on mental health and special needs.

A stronger ecosystem to support women leaders

“I hope to see many more women leaders assuming top positions, either as Presidents or Prime Ministers but it’s not for me to say, it’s for the people to decide in their own respective countries,” said President Halimah.

As the first female speaker for this lecture’s 13th installation, there’s no one better than her to champion support for more women leaders. After all, Mdm Halimah was also the first female Speaker of the Parliament and the first female President of Singapore

She urged for a stronger and “conscious effort to encourage women, especially in the diplomatic areas, to be able to assume leadership positions”, as growing this ecosystem organically has proven to be insufficient.

Only about one-third of UN member states have ever had, be it currently or in the past, a women leader at the head of state or government level. Some countries have never had women leaders at all, added Mdm Halimah, citing a survey.


That same survey highlighted that women political leaders also tend to hold office for a much shorter period than men. PHOTO CREDIT: MAGDA EHLERS VIA PEXELS


Apart from greater scrutiny and negativity, women leaders are subject to unproductive remarks too. 

“For instance, sometimes, people ask about how a female leader is dressed.  But how important is that to her work and performance?” she said. “Male leaders don’t get those questions. I’m not being frivolous, but it is a fact.”

“…we have to educate people that you do not look at the gender of the person, you look at the ability, the competence of the person. We’ve said that so many times that I think it’s becoming such a cliché all over the world.”

Dangers of misinformation persist

Social media and instantaneous messaging applications have exacerbated the speed at which information, and hence misinformation, spreads and this can lead to serious ruptures within the community, warned President Halimah. 

Furthermore, she said that the evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI), through platforms such as ChatGPT, has the potential to create false narratives that may present itself as credible.


Keeping misinformation at bay is particularly important in a very multi-religious, multi-racial and diverse society such as Singapore, in order to preserve our social cohesion. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/FONG WAI KEI


“We must be vigilant, discerning citizens, so we can play our part in ensuring that we are able to stay cohesive,” she said. 

She added that “the most effective way”  to counter falsehoods is to check the sources, be sceptical of what we read and reflect on parties who might stand to benefit from it.

To supplement this, the government has taken measures to raise awareness. She brought up a current programme by the National Library Board that aids Singaporeans in recognising what is true and false so that they avoid making wrong conclusions. 

The Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) was also addressed. President Halimah reiterated that the role of POFMA is not intended “to stop free discussion, free dialogues, or people giving their opinion.” Rather, it is meant to deal with inaccuracies.

Be it on policies or programmes, she reassured youths that they need not worry about expressing their opinions and suggestions, as long as they are based on facts.

Cultivate an interest in global and local issues around them

President Halimah highlighted Singapore’s “vulnerability as a small nation with the challenges posed by the external environment, in the form of rising geopolitical tensions, increasing polarisation in many societies, and technological disruptions”.

This includes US-China tensions as well as conflicts in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

READ MORE: What is geopolitics and how it will affect youths in the long-term

In a response to what her most memorable moment was as President, she raised COVID-19, further unpacking how unpredictable the world can be and how youths must start being in tune with current affairs.

“Therefore, for young people, you have to remember, you have to have a keen interest in what’s happening around you, in the global world, geopolitics,” she said.

“Although it may appear to be distant, but it doesn’t mean that there must be always someone else worrying for you,” she added. “You need to look out, or you need to find out, what is the national interest, Singapore’s national interest, and how to protect it.”


Some issues that she discussed included US-China tensions, COVID-19, the rise of AI and issues in ASEAN. PHOTO CREDIT: MIKHAIL NILOV VIA PEXELS


She expanded on the COVID-19 issue by recounting the decision to use a second key to tap into past reserves. It was unexpected and “cost [her] sleepless nights”, being torn between saving these reserves for future generations and helping the current generation in need.

Moreover, she raised the potential risks of ChatGPT and questioned: “Will it result in more people losing their jobs? Will it result in some of the jobs that you’re doing, that you think of doing, becoming obsolete? By the time you graduate, you finish your schooling.”

ASEAN was also another issue brought in. Although she perceived the future of ASEAN as “very positive”, challenges remain. Myanmar was one example. 

She highlighted two key areas about ASEAN. Firstly, ASEAN should deal with conflicts in a manner that “can bring about stability and peace in the region”, not aggression. Secondly, people should bear in mind the value that ASEAN can bring to its own people, to different countries in the region and the rest of the world.

Playing their part in helping the special needs and mental health community

President Halimah said both of these issues have “always been something that’s close to [her] heart”, highlighted through her past years of President’s Challenges (PC). In 2018, 2020 and 2021, there was a focus on people with special needs and disabilities. 

The government also rolled out the Enabling Masterplan (EMP), a framework that covers the needs of people with special needs, like transport, education and employment. 

Mental health was in focus in the 2019 PC and the 2022 PC saw the launch of a new community-based programme where youths can seek additional help for their mental health. In particular, this aimed to supplement youth’s journey to recovery while waiting in between their appointments at the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) or other hospitals.

“And it is important, because young people sometimes don’t want to also be seen as if they have serious mental health issues,” she said. “But if they go to a centre near their home, on the ground, that makes them feel a lot as if they are just seeking some support and not necessarily because of their mental health issues.”

While there are more awareness, programmes and policies, President Halimah emphasised that the people play an imperative part too, by not stigmatising people in these communities.


Exercising empathy and extending support is something that each and every individual must be prepared to do, said President Halimah. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/TIANA QUEK


“More can be done, yes certainly, I agree,” she said. 

“What is even more important is that we must have a society where people have the empathy and understanding for those with special needs as well as those with mental health issues.”

“Confident that our future will be bright”

President Halimah is optimistic that Singapore will continue to prosper, already taking “steps in the right direction.”

“Despite the sharpening of geopolitical rivalries, and temptation to turn inward in an increasingly uncertain world, we must continue to cast our gaze wide, working together to face current global challenges for the sake of our future generations,” she said.

“We must continue to equip our youth with the knowledge and skills to facilitate conversations on sensitive issues in a constructive manner.”

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