The Big Read: Having come a long way in life, the road to Istana beckons for them

The Big Read: Having come a long way in life, the road to Istana beckons for them
Presidential hopefuls (from left) Mr Farid Khan, Madam Halimah Yacob and Mr Salleh Marican. Photos: Nuria Ling/TODAY
Published: 9:15 PM, August 18, 2017
Updated: 5:12 PM, August 21, 2017

SINGAPORE — One has been in public service for two-thirds of her life so far, while the other two have spent decades in the corporate world.

For now, all three — having achieved success in their respective fields — have set their sights on the same objective: To assume the highest office in the land, by becoming Singapore’s eighth President in the inaugural reserved election next month.

Madam Halimah Yacob, Mr Salleh Marican and Mr Farid Khan, who are all in their 60s, may end up vying against one another — should Mr Marican and Mr Farid be deemed eligible by the Presidential Elections Committee. But they share more things in common than not.

Dealt a bad hand in life, all three had a difficult childhood after their fathers died when they were still very young — leaving their mothers to raise them and their siblings singlehandedly.

In separate indepth interviews conducted recently, they told TODAY the tough times have helped to mould them into the persons they are, instilling in them grit and tenacity to overcome the odds and a sense of duty to give back to society.

Mdm Halimah’s father died when she was 8 years old. Her late mother raised her five children by selling food on a pushcart. “My mom was stoic … She never complains, never breaks down... She does not wallow in self-pity, she does not, frankly, exhibit much weakness. She was a very strong woman,” said Mdm Halimah, who resigned as a Member of Parliament and Speaker of the House less than two weeks ago.

Mr Marican, who is the chief executive of Second Chance Properties, lost his father when he was 15. While his father — who was a textile merchant — left behind a subtantial inheritance, his mother had to worry about family finances given the sudden change of circumstances.

She sold her jewellery, moved the family from their bungalow to a smaller terrace house and told the children to save what they could.

For Mr Farid, he had to drop out of school when he was 14 years old to support his family of five, after his father died from a sudden heart attack a year earlier. His father, who was the family’s sole breadwinner, had worked as a timekeeper at a bus company.

Although his mother wanted him to stay in school, he went against her wishes. “I saw my mother struggling alone and couldn’t take it,” said Mr Farid, who is currently the chairman of marine service provider Bourbon Offshore Asia Pacific.

Although life was harsh, they refused to yield to adversity. Mr Farid recalled how he just found whatever opportunities there were to make some money — cutting grass, cleaning toilets, and working in the same plywood factory as his mother.

Without having to worry about making ends meet, Mr Marican was more fortunate. But he also had to deal with the ups and downs. His business folded — not once but twice. Yet he persisted, and in 1997, he listed his firm on the Singapore Exchange in 1997 — the first Malay-owned company to do so.

Mdm Halimah could still remember the days when she had no money to even buy second-hand textbooks, and had to wear the same set of uniform to school for a week. She did well enough to enter university, and turned up to the campus on the first day with only S$5 in her pocket. While she had an annual bursary from the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore and pocket money from her brother, she had to scrimp and save, and work part-time as a library assistant in order to pay her fees.

Looking back, Mdm Halimah was grateful that her difficult childhood equipped her with the street smarts to overcome life’s challenges. But she learnt life’s most important lessons from her mother, who died in 2015. “Because of the hardship she had to go through ... her motto in life was ‘never say die, never give up’. So that, I think, rubs off (on me) quite a lot,” said Mdm Halimah, who has so far spent about 40 years in public service.

She added: “My mom’s approach is that, if somebody asks for help, you cannot turn them away ... when I serve, I think about the people first. In public service, (if) you don’t like people, you can’t get into it, no way.”

Mr Marican was also inspired by his mother — her experience made him aware of the plight of single mothers, most of whom could be less fortunate than her. For more than two decades, Mr Marican has been donating S$22,222 every year to the Tabung Amal Aidilfitri Trust Fund to help the needy.

On their part, Mr Farid and his wife, Madam Naeemah Shaik, hope to pass on the right values to their children. When their family was living in Jakarta from 1995 to 2004, his children sometimes spent their birthdays with kids at orphanages. At other times, they would invite their friends and disadvantaged children to birthday parties thrown at home, as well as share their gifts with the guests. “We have brought up both our kids to be caring persons and aware of the unfortunate … I remember the times when the (less fortunate) children receive their gifts from my daughter. It was really touching to see their happy faces,” he said.

As Singapore looks forward to the Presidential Election next month, TODAY speaks to the three potential candidates in this week’s Big Read about their life journey, values and what they could bring to the office.

CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, we said Madam Halimah, Mr Marican and Mr Farid are aiming to become Singapore’s seventh President. This is incorrect. The winner of next month's inaugural reserved election will be the Republic's eighth President. We are sorry for the error.