Two weeks ago (14 Jul), it was reported that a fierce fight erupted between PAP and WP over the introduction of a seemingly innocent bill to amend the name of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (‘Fierce fight erupts between PAP and WP MPs over bill‘).
The Bill was passed at around 5pm after close to 1 hour of heated debate, despite strong objections from WP to Clause 6 on a provision to give the minister (i.e. Education Minister) and not the President and other organisations, the power to appoint ISEAS Board members.
ISEAS was originally established as an autonomous think tank in 1968 by an Act of Parliament with the aim to be a leading research centre and think tank dedicated to the study of sociopolitical, security, and economic trends and developments in Southeast Asia and its wider geostrategic and economic environment.
To maintain its independence as a think tank, the Act stipulates that the President and other donor organisations would have the power to appoint ISEAS’ board members, overseeing it.
On the surface, the bill proposed to change the name of ISEAS to the “ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute”, which the WP MPs fully supported yesterday.
But a Clause 6 was quietly introduced as part of the bill, which “streamlines” the composition of the ISEAS Board from 22 to 15 members, and “updates” appointment authority for the Board. Under this clause, only the Minister (i.e, the government) will be able to appoint board members. The President and other donor organisations to ISEAS will no longer be able to do so.
Also, to protect ISEAS personnel, Clause 11 contains new sections to protect relevant ISEAS personnel from harassment and personal liability in the performance of their duties.
The PAP government probably decided to change the appointment authority because it can’t be sure if it will always have a “PAP-endorsed” individual like Tony Tan as President of Singapore.
Both PAP and WP MPs fought intensely over Clause 6.
ISEAS (Amendment) Bill more than a simple name change
WP Chairman Sylvia Lim started the protest when she pointed out that the ISEAS (Amendment) Bill was more than a simple name change. It also sought to change the structure of its board in a “very fundamental way”, affecting its diversity and autonomy.
“Can ISEAS maintain its autonomy and independence with all the powers concentrated in the minister with this 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?” she asked.
Her speech drew a rebuke from Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education Hawazi Daipi, “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.”
“I feel quite hurt to hear Ms Sylvia Lim’s comments,” he said.
Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli also later posted on his Facebook page that he, too, felt hurt as Ms Lim had “tarnished” the occasion with her questions.
Heng accuses Sylvia Lim of paranoia
Mr Heng, kept focusing his arguments on honoring the late former President Yusof. The bill’s main aim is to honour Mr Yusof, he stressed. Other clauses are to update provisions in legislation, he said.
“Now I hope that Ms Lim does not see shadows when there are none, and I hope that Ms Lim is not throwing up a red herring,” Mr Heng accused Ms Lim of paranoia.
WP Secretary-General Low Thia Khiang also joined the fray. He said that while they support the name change to honour Encik Yusof, “we cannot square with the change(s) that are being ‘tompang’ (piggybacked) with the name change”.
He questioned if the Government was indeed “sincere” in honouring Mr Yusof, or if it was “a disguise for controlling ISEAS”.
WP MPs were quite clear that they supported the other provisions except for Clause 6.
DPM Teo tries to disallow WP objecting to only 1 clause
Eventually, Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, intervened and said, “We’re going around in circles.” She put an end to the heated debate.
When it came to vote, the WP MPs made clear that they supported renaming ISEAS to the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. However, they would not support the bill unless Clause 6 was removed.
Then DPM Teo tried to force WP to either accept the whole bill or reject it entirely. By rejecting it entirely, WP would naturally run the risk of being accused of anti-the late President Yusof, playing into the hands of PAP.
Fortunately, Parliamentary rules do allow MPs to disagree with specific clauses of the Bill.
Speaker Halimah Yacob told DPM Teo, “The Standing Order allows for Members to record specific disagreement with specific clauses of the Bill. It does. So, it will be recorded that they have an objection to clause 6, and that will be recorded in the proceedings.”
Following was what transpired when DPM Teo tried to “corner” WP [Link]:
Mdm Speaker : Well, Members, I think this clarification session has gone on long enough. And we are going around in circles. I will now put the question.
Question put, and agreed to.
Ms Sylvia Lim : Madam, the Workers’ Party would like its objection put on record.
Mdm Speaker : Yes, I take note of your objection and it would be placed on record.
Ms Sylvia Lim : Due to clause 6.
Mdm Speaker : I will take note of that, your objection to clause 6. I assume all Members of the Workers’ Party want their objection to be recorded? Yes, it will be recorded. Can the Clerk now please read the title of the Bill.
The House immediately resolved itself into a Committee on the Bill. – [Mr Heng Swee Keat].
Bill considered in Committee; reported without amendment.
Ms Sylvia Lim : Madam, the Workers’ Party would like its objection to the Bill due to clause 6 recorded.
Mdm Speaker : I take note of your objection. It will be recorded. Clerk, please proceed.
The Deputy Prime Minister (Mr Teo Chee Hean) : A point of Order, Madam. Is there such a thing as an objection on that basis, and to have this kind of objection recorded in a vote? Either you vote for or you vote against the Bill. Which Standing Order, Madam, may I ask?
Mdm Speaker : The Standing Order allows for Members to record specific disagreement with specific clauses of the Bill. It does. So, it will be recorded that they have an objection to clause 6, and that will be recorded in the proceedings. Clerk, can you please proceed to read the title of the Bill?
Bill read a Third time and passed.
So, when a vote was called, WP of course, lost in the PAP-dominated Parliament.
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