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Speech by Sylvia Lim: Debate on ISEAS (Amendment) Bill




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14 July 2015

Mdm Speaker,

I support the renaming of ISEAS as the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute to honour our first Head of State. It is most appropriate to name a leading research centre and think tank, dedicated to the study of Southeast Asian societies, in honour of an illustrious President.  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.

However, this Bill brings more than just the name change for ISEAS.  It also seeks to change the structure of its Board of Trustees in a very fundamental way.   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.   Minister said that Clause 6 was “just an update”, but is that all that it is?  On the face of it, the amendment will change the character of ISEAS – it 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.

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The current Board consists of a Chairman and Deputy Chairman to be appointed by the President and 19 other members who are appointed by various bodies to reflect the diverse stakeholders in the work done by ISEAS. 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.

The Amendment 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.

It is useful to turn to the original purpose for which ISEAS was set up.  During the Parliamentary debate in 1968 when the ISEAS Bill came up for Second Reading, then Minister for Education Mr Ong Pang Boon told the House that it was intended that the research activities of ISEAS would increase Singapore’s understanding of its neighbours and help us to play a more effective role in the region.   He further 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.

One critical point to note is that, under the Act, the Board of ISEAS is vested with the power to approve its budget and research programme.   The composition of the Board will thus send a signal to the world about the direction of ISEAS.  Even if the Minister were to say that he would appoint persons from a wide spectrum of interests, a fundamental question remains- why not continue to let the organisations under Section 4 of the Act make their own nominations?  Why must the Board members now be government-approved?  Were there major problems arising from the way the Board of Trustees were diversely appointed?  If the method has worked to produce excellent outcomes, why is the government changing the method of composing the Board now?

The diversity of the Board and the autonomy of ISEAS are two sides of the same coin. The diverse way of composing the Board has allowed ISEAS to function as an autonomous think-tank.  The diverse way of composing the Board balances three ways in which the Minister for Education already has influence on the running of the Institute: as the authoriser of the payment of grants-in-aid to the Institute, as appointer of 3 members to the 10-member Executive Committee, and as possessor of powers to make rules for ISEAS, including the powers and functions of the Board.

Can ISEAS 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?  Are there plans to turn ISEAS into a body that simply churns out knowledge for the government bureaucracy?

Mdm Speaker, the Workers’ Party is supportive of renaming ISEAS as Yusof Ishak Institute.  However, we are of the view that failure to preserve the diversity and autonomy of the Board will undermine ISEAS’ reputation as an independent research centre and think tank.  Further, removing the office of President, our 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.

Therefore, the Workers’ Party objects to Clause 6 of the bill to make the Minister the sole appointer of all the board members, replacing the President and other organisations.

In the spirit of supporting the renaming of ISEAS as ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, I urge the government to rethink the Amendment Bill to preserve the diversity, autonomy and presidential association of ISEAS. If the govt fails to do so, we will have to vote against the bill to register our objection to Clause 6.

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