(Photo: Facebook/Halimah Yacob)

Some say a picture paints a thousand words But in truth does it? In many ways, pictures can be manipulated to send forth a message. It can create an impression, weave a narrative, mislead and misrepresent. Often times, it is a photograph of immense suffering that sparks in humanity some kind of collective responsibility for change. Other times, photographs have been used to promote an image of authority and power which couldn’t have been further from the truth. 

Looking at the photograph of Aung San Suu Kyi and Singapore’s President Halimah Yacob, I could not help but wonder what the reality behind that photo is. On image alone, it is the picture of two powerful women meeting on equal terms representing their respective countries. In reality though, one is a Prime Minister who is controlled by the military while the other is a ceremonial head of state with no political power whatsoever. The picture conveys 2 democratically elected leaders. In truth, Aung’s election win was and is hampered by caveats and limits while Halimah’s was a walkover. While the photograph is all civil with a semblance of control, both women have been heavily criticised. Aung has been criticised for her apparent lack of effort in the Rohingya Muslims crisis and Halimah has been labelled as #notmypresident.

To what extent have these women been pushed into this position of pseudo power and prestige?  To what extent were they complicit in accepting the terms of limited power which they had to have known would turn a segment of the public against them?

Aung must be a woman of strength. She must be to have withstood the number of years under house arrest. She gave up her family for the cause. Whatever her reasons might be, I find it impossible to see her as racist. The only explanation I have for her seeming lack of effort for the Rohingya Muslims is that she is powerless to do anything more. She is fighting a fine balance to stay in power and to unify her country. The Rohingyas becoming part of the collateral damage to staying in power. The price she has to pay. Is it worth it? Is it right? The photograph does not show.

As for Halimah, she can’t boast of martyrdom. She is well remunerated and treated with ostensible respect. That said, she can’t have climbed the ranks and not realise that the role of president is one without any power. Did she take it to elevate the prestige of the Malay community however artificially? Or is it an easy role to ease into retirement? Again, the picture does not explain.

These are musings perhaps but my conclusion is this – in the corridors of power, there is always more that meets the eye. The only way to ensure that the people get the best deal possible is to always ask questions, however uncomfortable.

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