Think tank renamed ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, bearing name of Singapore's first president

Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak.
Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak. PHOTO: ZAWIYAH SALLEH

SINGAPORE - The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) now bears the name of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, whose belief in diversity anchored him here and who, in the country's turbulent early years, worked to unite the different communities.

It was renamed the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in a ceremony on Wednesday, the 105th anniversary of Mr Yusof's birth.

At the ceremony on Wednesday, just days after the country celebrated its 50th year of independence, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said he hoped the name change would pay tribute to the vision of Mr Yusof and his fellow pioneers:

"As ISEAS continues in its next 50 years as the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, we hope that its name will constantly call to mind all that vision - of equality, justice, harmony and strength amid diversity."

Singapore, he added, was fortunate to have Mr Yusof as its head of state at the country's founding moment.

Reiterating a point he made in Parliament last month, when the move to rename the think tank was approved, Mr Heng said: "That he embodied our sovereignty assured all races that this would be home for all."

The name change was first announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the National Day Rally last year as one of three initiatives to honour Mr Yusof, who died in office in 1970.

The others were the setting up of the Yusof Ishak Professorship in Social Sciences at NUS, to enhance research in areas like ethnicity and multi-culturalism, and the building of a Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands.

"It is deliberate that we choose to honour Encik Yusof through institutions that allow our people to grow in spirit and knowledge, for Encik Yusof was a religious man, committed to learning and progress," said Mr Heng.

He also spoke of how Singapore's first president steered the country through its early years.

"Throughout his tenure, Singapore faced existential crises on many fronts - transitioning out of colonial rule, navigating tenuous relationships with neighbouring countries, dealing with merger and then suddenly nationhood just a few years later, when he became our first president," said Mr Heng.

Mr Yusof, who became Singapore's Yang di-Pertuan Negara in 1959, also had to deal with a diverse, growing population, racial unrest, and economic and infrastructural challenges.

"Survival of our state was far from assured," added Mr Heng.

"At a time like that, what does it say of Encik Yusof that he chose to stay in Singapore, to lead a new country that many thought would fail, rather than return to Malaysia? It says that he believed in Singapore. That he believed in the ideals and principles on which Singapore was founded."

Mr Yusof was a staunch champion of modernisation and multiculturalism, believing that as Singapore sought economic progress, it should also become a nation of "one united people", said Mr Heng.

And his commitment to a Singapore that was progressive, meritocratic and multicultural anchored him here: in Mr Yusof's eyes, the diversity of race, language and religion here was not an obstacle to the country's progress, but its strength.

"When we are secure in our own identity, when we are committed to our own diversity, then can we best live with, and grow together with, the diversity in our region, and our world," he said.

And so came ISEAS in 1968, one of the first research institutes of its kind in the region. Pioneer leaders saw that Singapore's fate was tightly intertwined with that of the region, and believed they too could contribute to the region through fostering mutual understanding.

Mr Heng also thanked Madam Noor Aishah, Mr Yusof's wife, for her support.

Before the National Day Rally last year, Mr Heng had, along with Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, met her to present the proposed initiatives to honour her husband to her and seek her views, he said.

"As a young wife and mother, you served our fledgling nation by Encik Yusof's side. Today, you continue to share your late husband's name and spirit with all of us, to inspire and rally all of us behind the principles he stood for," he said.

Madam Noor Aishah, her son Imran and his wife Zarina were among the guests at Wednesday's ceremony.

And now, with over a week left to the next National Day Rally, all three initiatives to honour Mr Yusof have been realised, noted Mr Heng.

The Yusof Ishak Mosque looks set to be ready by end 2016. The ground-breaking for the mosque was in March, and foundational work has since been completed. The community, too, has come together in support, with over $2.5 million being donated for the mosque.

Meanwhile, the about $3.87 million has been raised for the professorship at NUS, making up almost two-thirds of the $6 million target.

"Even now, Encik Yusof continues to bring our people together," said Mr Heng.

A new logo for the institute was also launched on Wednesday, along with two books: one a book by former journalist Lee Kim Chew which tracks the growth of ISEAS; and a monograph by ISEAS fellow Norshahril Saat on Mr Yusof that takes a look at his philosophy on multiculturalism, and the impact his ideals have left on Singapore.

A new permanent exhibition on Mr Yusof's life and beliefs has also been set up in the ISEAS library, and is open to the public.

asyiqins@sph.com.sg