Despite being questioned by the Workers’ Party (WP), the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament on Tuesday – but not before a heated debate took place between the WP and the Government.
The Bill had proposed a name change for the institute – from “ISEAS” to “ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute”, to honour Singapore’s first president.
“We are proud to have ISEAS bear Mr Yusof Ishak’s name,” Education Minister, Heng Swee Keat said. “Mr Yusof was one of Singapore’s pioneering leaders in his role as the Yang di Pertuan Negara and the first President of Singapore.”
“His convictions and life’s work resonate strongly with ISEAS’s foundational tenets, and it is befitting that his name will be borne by ISEAS,” Mr Heng added.
WP chairman, Sylvia Lim, welcomed the change in name.
“As the Minister mentioned in his second reading speech, President Yusof Ishak guided us through turbulent times and into independence. It is fitting to honour him in this year of our golden jubilee,” Ms Lim said.
While supporting the Bill’s intention to honour the late president, WP Members of Parliament (MP), however, questioned some of the changes, specifically clause 6 of the Bill.
The clause had sought to remove the President’s powers to appoint members to the board of trustees of the institution. This, Ms Lim said, would “change the structure of its Board of Trustees in a very fundamental way.”
With the change to the law, the powers to appoint the board members would now rest solely on the minister.
“Instead of the current structure that provides for the President and various organisations to nominate representatives to the Board, Clause 6 of the Bill proposes that the Minister be the sole person to nominate all the Board members,” Ms Lim told the House.
She said the change “appears to be a regression from its original statutory structure that guarantees representation of a diversity of interests, to one whose direction will be set by a Board consisting solely of a Cabinet Minister’s appointees.”
Before the changes were proposed, the Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Board were appointed by the President and 19 other members who are appointed by various bodies.
This was “to reflect the diverse stakeholders in the work done by ISEAS”, Ms Lim said.[youtube id=”Mt5lpTKFsZA” align=”center” mode=”normal”]
“The President appoints 7 of the 19 members, 3 of whom from professional bodies and organisations. The 4 chambers of commerce each appoint a member to reflect the international and multi-ethnic business ties Singapore has with the region. The Lee Foundation and Shaw Foundation each appoint a member, reflecting charitable organisations. The National University of Singapore appoints 6 members from academia.”
Ms Lim said the Bill removes or reduces this diversity in the composition of the Board by cutting down the Board from 21 members to 14 members and giving the Minister sole power to appoint the entire Board.
“I find it very ironic that this bill will rename ISEAS to honour the first President but will remove the office of President henceforth from its historical association with ISEAS altogether.”
Ms Lim noted that the role of ISEAS, as explained by the then minister, Ong Pang Boon, in 1968, was to engage in research activities which “would increase Singapore’s understanding of its neighbours and help us to play a more effective role in the region.”
Mr Ong had also emphasised that the Board was to represent a wide spectrum of interests: academic, professional, commercial, charitable and governmental.
“There thus appeared to be a conscious decision that ISEAS should not be seen by our neighbours as an arm of government, but as a research institute where the government was but one of many stakeholders,” Ms Lim said.
She asked if ISEAS could maintain its autonomy and independence “with all the powers concentrated in the Minister with this Amendment Bill.”
“More worryingly, is the concentration of powers to appoint the Board in the Minister a sign of things to come?” Ms Lim asked. “Are there plans to turn ISEAS into a body that simply churns out knowledge for the government bureaucracy?”
She said that removing the office of President, who is the Head of State, from his role in ISEAS and replacing him with a Minister, “will adversely affect ISEAS’ prestige and standing in the region and indeed, beyond.”
Unless clause 6 was removed, she said, the WP would not support the amendments.
In their response to Ms Lim’s remarks, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi said he felt “quite hurt” to hear Ms Lim’s comments, which he said “politicise[d] the issue”.
“I feel this is not the right time, while we’re giving the highest honour to an eminent Singaporean, to politicise the issue by questioning whether Iseas will become a body that will follow the instructions of the Government,” Mr Hawazi said.
Mr Masagos Zulkifli, Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs, said he too was “hurt” and said that Ms Lim had “tarnished” the honour with her questions.
WP secretary general, Low Thia Khiang, later lent his support to Ms Lim, saying, “We are wondering whether the Government is sincere in honouring Encik Yusof Ishak because, is it a disguise in honouring Encik Yusof Ishak by changing the name, for control of ISEAS by changing the appointment power of the Board?”[youtube id=”qj38iF5M4vk” align=”center” mode=”normal”]
This prompted a response from Education Minister, Heng Swee Keat.
“Do we want ISEAS to succeed? Absolutely! So why would I as a minister make an amendment to the change in order to make ISEAS less effective?” Mr Heng asked. “I hope that Mr Low, you do not start imagining things when there is none and that is not good for governance.”
He added that the Government was not using the name change to affect the composition of the Board.
“That is not our intention. Let me state categorically, that is not our intention,” Mr Heng said.
The exchange went on for a while until the Speaker called a stop to it.
“We’re going around in circles,” Mdm Halimah Yaacob said.
The BIll was passed, with the WP MPs opposing it.