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Women, Leadership and Public Health

October 04, 2017
by Jeannette Ickovics

Madam Halimah Yacob was sworn in as the eighth President of Singapore on the 14th of September, becoming its first female head of state. Many people with whom I spoke, both Singaporeans and ex-pats, discounted this recognition because of the “reserved election” and lack of other candidates.1 I acknowledge the controversy and recognize that this role is largely ceremonial here (the Prime Minister leads the government). Nonetheless, as an American and a feminist, I was excited to witness this historical moment of an extraordinary woman taking the oath of Presidential office.

President Halimah is the daughter of a widowed mother who sold nasi padang (fragrant rice with meat and vegetables), and was the only member of her family to go to college. She is Malay and Muslim. President Halimah has devoted her life to public service. As a lawyer and unionist, she advocated for workers’ rights. She served as a member and then as the Speaker of Parliament. In her inaugural address, the President addressed cornerstone values: multiculturalism, meritocracy and stewardship to unify the nation. She reaffirmed her commitment to public service and invited all Singaporeans to contribute, declaring “We must measure our success not just by how well we do for ourselves, but by whether we enable the next generation to do even better.”

During the same week as the presidential inauguration, I had the privilege to attend the Milken Institute Women Leaders’ Summit and the Asia Summit 2017 – which brought together leaders from some of the world’s largest and most innovative companies in finance, technology, health and more. Former Vice President Al Gore participated in a conversation on How to Inspire a Movement, reflecting on his drive to reduce the determinants and consequences of climate change through community action. In his books and films, Gore argues that our ecological crisis is being driven largely by population growth, the power of technology and our short-range perspective. While the crises are profound (indeed existential), Gore contends that we do have evidence-based solutions that can be implemented today. For example, to reduce population growth, he argues that we must empower women, educate women and girls, manage fertility (i.e., provide contraception and safe abortion), and reduce child mortality.

These seemingly disparate events in September in Singapore are not so disparate after all. They can be bound by public health perspectives and a call to action. President Halimah indicated that to meet her vision for a more just society, she will prioritize health care, education and infrastructure. Vice President Gore argues that women’s reproductive health and education are essential to promote planetary health. The vision of these leaders offers a way forward to those of us committed to improving health outcomes and equity for all.

1Singapore Elections Board:


Jeannette Ickovics is the Samuel and Liselotte Herman Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the Yale School of Public Health and Professor of Psychology at Yale University. She is a Visiting Professor at Yale-NUS for the 2017-2018 academic year. This is her first trip to Singapore, and she will be writing a monthly blog about her experiences that will appear on Yale School of Public Health social media.

Submitted by Elisabeth Reitman on October 06, 2017