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President Halimah hosts first Facebook Live Q&A session at Istana Deepavali virtual open house

SINGAPORE – President Halimah Yacob held her first Facebook Live session with the public on Saturday (Nov 14) as part of the Istana’s Deepavali virtual open house.

Madam Halimah answered questions about her favourite place in the Istana (the gardens) and whether she lives at the sprawling estate (she does not).

A question about what has changed about the residence since she became President prompted Madam Halimah to note that she took steps to make the Istana more accessible after hearing from many Singaporeans – especially the less privileged – that they have not had the chance to visit.

Her initiatives include programmes allowing people to volunteer as gardeners on the grounds and granting access to groups like hospice patients or seniors.

She added that the President’s Challenge has also evolved: “We focus a great deal on empowering people with disabilities and disadvantaged families – that’s very important for us, empowering people.”

Madam Halimah also commented on next year’s Challenge theme – “Building a digitally inclusive society”, noting that “we realised with Covid-19 (that) you need to leverage a lot on technology.

“And what we’re concerned about is that people who are disadvantaged may not be able to do so because of lack of resources, lack of skills, or ability. But we want them to remain economically and socially connected.”

The Istana is open to the public on Chinese New Year, Labour Day, National Day, Hari Raya Puasa and Deepavali.

The Deepavali event this year had to be undertaken virtually due to the pandemic, as it was for Hari Raya and National Day.

Saturday’s virtual audience was taken on a tour through the Istana by volunteer guide Tan Hui Kheng.

This was the first time 61-year-old Ms Tan, who has been giving such tours since they were launched in 2013, had to give a virtual one: “It’s a new experience talking to the camera instead of to visitors.”

She was initially uncomfortable with the presence of a camera but added that it does allow viewers to get a close-up view of spaces and items that onsite visitors could only see from a distance.

“It’s a fun experience too, as I learned another delivery mode of bringing the tour directly to participants,” Ms Tan said.

The tour was interspersed with plenty of colourful segments, including a virtual presentation by Wildlife Reserve Singapore on the various animals in its zoo and safaris while Admiralty Primary School students staged an Indian dance and community group Team Fusion put on a musical performance.

Audience members also had the chance to win Istana merchandise by answering questions about the home in a virtual quiz.

“I’m really glad that despite Covid-19 we’re still able, by leveraging on technology, to grant access to Singaporeans to the Istana,” said Madam Halimah.

She also thanked Singaporeans for supporting the Government in its efforts to curb Covid-19, noting that her own family had to split into three groups to visit her during Hari Raya.

“I understand the stress is tremendous on people, but people have done really well… So long as we continue to do our part, I hope we can overcome this period together, and hopefully we will see an even better situation next year. Let’s continue to support each other.”

She closed the session by wishing everyone a happy Deepavali.

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