Speech by President Halimah Yacob at Canossian Girls' Leadership Symposium

Mr Gerard Ee, Chairman, Canossian Schools’ Boards of Management

Sister Theresa Seow, Lead Chaplain of the Canossian Educational Institutions in Singapore and Advisor to the Leadership Symposium

Canossian Sisters from Singapore, India, Malaysia and the Philippines 

Superintendents of Cluster Schools E4 and E5

Principals, Teachers and Girls


Good Afternoon.

            It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon at the Canossian Girls’ Leadership Symposium. I am happy to see so many young women, some as young as 10 years old, stepping up as a student leader in your respective schools. Your participation in this three-day symposium speaks of your courage and belief that women can and must be empowered to take up leadership roles in different facets of our society.

            To be an effective leader, there will be different qualities you will need to keep honing. Today, I would like to share some of my thoughts with you.

            One of the most important qualities is the sense of service. A good leader should be able to put yourselves in someone else’s shoes, and try to understand their perspective. When we are able to do that, we will naturally have the desire to help others, serve them and make lives better for them. A good leader is one who serves others. Leadership is not about position or wealth, but about helping others for the betterment of society. As Mother Theresa once said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love”.

            I recently met with a few Youth Corps Leaders who volunteer their time to build a more inclusive Singapore. One of them, Randall Teo, has been leading a group of youths to organise various projects advocating for persons with special needs. Through volunteering, they are able to appreciate what they have, develop empathy and compassion for the less fortunate. I hope young girls like yourselves can take inspiration from these examples to also step up to lead others in making a positive impact in our community.

           To lead well, one must also inspire others to follow; and the best way to do so is to lead by example. Leadership is a big responsibility and you have to practise the behaviour you want others to follow. It is easy to talk but it is harder to practise. Use your gifts and talents to influence your team members to help you fulfil your mission. And in this case, I dare say that women have an advantage! We tend to be more empathetic, collaborative and have higher emotional intelligence. So I encourage you to step forward and use these soft skills to work with others towards a greater purpose.

            A good leader must also be one who is prepared to make difficult choices and hard decisions. It is always easy to settle for the path of least resistance or one which appears the most palatable to many but may not be in their interest in the long term. Persuading, influencing and encouraging others to follow you in the difficult decisions that you have to make for the common good, is also the responsibility of a good leader.

            As you learn to work with others, you may make mistakes and fail along the way. Be humble about it. Embrace your mistakes. Reflect on it, and do better next time. We grow stronger, more confident and resilient when we overcome our challenges. The more you pick yourself up from each setback, the less fearful of failure you will become, and the more courage you have. I can speak from experience. My life was not an easy path, and I faced many failures. But I always remind myself to get back up after a failure. We learn to overcome these challenges and we grow stronger as a result. As someone once said, “Never let success go to your head. Never let failure get to your heart”. The biggest failure is not failing itself, but the fear of not trying at all. Some are so afraid of failure that they do not try at all. That is the biggest failure.

            Finally, a key hallmark to a good leader is the quest to learn. Keep learning and striving to be better. I hope that you continue to learn more about yourself, and the world around you throughout your lives. Over the next few days, you will be given opportunities to strengthen your leadership skills. You will get to learn more about being effective leaders in mission work, in community, sports, the arts, environment and in the cyber-world. You will also get an opportunity to find solutions to problems with other student leaders. I encourage you to listen intently, and be open to learning new skills. At the same time, be generous with your knowledge when you work together. Share what you know and accept different ideas and opinions. Remember, you have the power to make things better, to make things right.

            In closing, let me thank all the teachers for empowering these young student leaders, so that they can continue to learn from these safe platforms, find their voice, and form their values. Thank you for providing these opportunities and also for being an important role model for our students. To the Canossian Sisters, let me congratulate you for empowering so many girls to lead and serve in society since you established your first schools in Singapore. You have raised many inspiring women who have become leaders in their fields as well as dedicated mothers who have gone on to raise generation after generation of families with strong values and attitudes.

            To all participants of the symposium, I wish all of you a fruitful and joyful time of learning over the next three days.

            Thank you.