They objected to a clause in a Bill to rename ISEAS as the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
The clause would give a Minister sole power appoint members of the institute’s board.
Currently, members of the board are appointed by the President and four chambers of commerce, two charitable organisations and the president of the National University of Singapore.
That’s in line with the ISEAS Act which was passed in 1968.
Also part of the bill – the trimming of the ISEAS board to 15 members, down from 22.
A feisty debate took place in parliament over the Bill, which lasted for more than half an hour until Parliament Speaker Halimah Yacob put it to a stop, saying the row was “going round in circles”.
WP Secretary-General Low Thia Kiang accused the Government of having a hidden motive to “control” ISEAS under the guise of honouring Mr Yusof – Singapore’s first president.
Mr Low questioned whether the Government was sincere in honouring Mr Yusof or if it was a disguise aimed at “controlling ISEAS by changing the appointment powers”.
He cited the example of Nanyang University, which was merged with the University of Singapore to form the National University of Singapore in 1980 amid strong opposition.
Mr Low said the WP “cannot support the change that is being ‘tompang’ (piggyback-ed) with the name change”.
Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said he was “surprised” and “disappointed” with Mr Low’s comments.
He accused the WP of throwing up a “red herring” (throw smoke lah), and questioned whether it was sincere on supporting the name change.
He rubbished Mr Low’s claim that the government was planning to use the name to change the composition of the ISEAS board.
Mr Heng compared ISEAS with other statutory boards where, in general, board members are appointed by a minister as they “draw resources from the Government.
He said it is important that there be proper accountability”.
“I spent so much time in my speech talking about why ISEAS has been an important institute in Singapore over the years and why it will continue to play a major role in the years forward. 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? I hope, Mr Low, that you do not start imagining things when there are none, and that is not good for governance.”
WP Chairman Ms Sylvia Lim said she supported the renaming of the ISEAS, but not the clause which would change the structure of the institute.
“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?”
That drew a sharp response from Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Education and Manpower) Hawazi Daipi.
He said that he was “quite hurt” by Ms Lim’s remarks.
Ms Lim had earlier said that the WP would vote against the Bill if the clause was not removed.
But in parliament, none of the WP MPs objected against the Bill and it was passed.
All 9 WP MPs, however, registered their objection to the contentious clause within the Bill.