Singapore's First Woman President Nudges Diversity Needle

Sep 14, 2017 1:05 pm ET

(Bloomberg) -- Halimah Yacob, 63, will become Singapore’s first female president when she is sworn in Thursday as the city’s eighth head of state. She was named president-elect as the only eligible candidate this week, after two others were disqualified in an election reserved for minority ethnic Malay candidates.

The process sparked criticism on social media that Singaporeans were deprived of the opportunity to choose their president and that it diminished Halimah’s achievement. The government changed the presidential election process for this year to ensure the largely ceremonial role isn’t dominated by the majority Chinese group, and so that minorities like ethnic Malays and Indians will get a chance to be represented in some elections that are reserved for their groups.

Halimah’s no stranger to breaking diversity barriers: she’ll be the first ethnic Malay head of state in almost half a century but was also the first female Speaker of Parliament in 2013.

Singapore doesn’t have room to be complacent. Halimah, known to be an advocate for women’s rights, will be the figure head of a nation that’s lagging behind in putting women in corporate leadership positions.

A Deloitte study released earlier this year shows that Singapore is trailing Asian neighbors such as India, Malaysia, and Thailand in the percentage of board seats held by women. Women make up 10.7 percent of boards in the city-state, according to the report. That lags behind the 17.6 percent in Vietnam, the highest in Southeast Asia, and falls far short of the 42 percent in Norway.

©2017 Bloomberg L.P.