Battle lines were unexpectedly drawn yesterday over a Bill to rename the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) in honour of Singapore's first president.
Workers' Party (WP) MPs took issue with a clause that would change how the institute's board of trustees would be appointed, leading to a heated exchange with Education Minister Heng Swee Keat.
The face-off grew increasingly tense and drew pointed jibes at the state of affairs of the Aljunied-Hougang-Punggol East Town Council, which is run by the WP.
Though the WP MPs made clear that they supported renaming Iseas the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute, they said they would not support the Bill unless the clause was removed.
Neither side budged. The clause stayed. And when a vote was called, the WP MPs said "no".
NOT THE RIGHT OCCASION
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 DAIPI, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Education
They also asked that their objection to the clause be recorded.
The clause reduces the number of board members, and gives the education minister the power to nominate representatives to the board. Currently, that responsibility is held by the president of Singapore, along with various bodies like the Shaw Foundation.
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, she said. "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," he said.
"I feel quite hurt to hear Ms Sylvia Lim's comments."
He was not alone. Second Minister for Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs Masagos Zulkifli posted on his Facebook page that he, too, felt hurt as Ms Lim had "tarnished" the occasion with her questions.
Mr Heng, in rounding up the debate, said the clause would bring Iseas - a statutory board under the Education Ministry - in line with other such bodies whose boards are appointed by their ministers.
The Bill's main aim is to honour Mr Yusof, he stressed. Other clauses are to update provisions in legislation.
"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," he said.
Mr Heng also pointed out that Ms Lim had not taken into account other clauses putting in financial provisions on the appointment of auditors, among others.
Pointedly, he said: "I hope that Ms Lim would agree with me that the proper audit of accounts and the timely submission of audited information are important."
Party chief Low Thia Khiang 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".
But, Mr Heng argued, "there is nothing whatsoever that is untoward about it".
He added: "The more you speak, the more I feel the Workers' Party has not been very sincere... in saying that you support the Bill."
Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob, putting an end to the to-ing and fro-ing, said: "We're going around in circles."
The Bill was passed.
Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh