Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute is born

The Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) now bears the name of Singapore's first president Yusof Ishak, who worked to unite the nation's different communities.

The think-tank's new name is the Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute.

At a ceremony held yesterday, the 105th anniversary of Mr Yusof's birth, Education Minister Heng Swee Keat said as the first head of state of a multiracial Singapore, Mr Yusof "embodied our sovereignty" and "assured all races that this would be home for all".

Mr Yusof was appointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara in 1959, when Singapore was self-governing after years under British colonial rule. In 1965, he became president upon Singapore's independence after a short-lived union with Malaysia.

During those years, he had to deal with a diverse and growing population, racial unrest, and economic and infrastructural challenges. He also steered the country through periods of "existential crises", Mr Heng said.

"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."

These ideals include equality, justice and diversity - whether in race, language or religion - as a source of strength, Mr Heng said.

Last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced three initiatives to honour Mr Yusof, who died in office in 1970.

The other two are setting up a Yusof Ishak Professorship in Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore (NUS), to enhance research in areas like ethnicity, and naming a new mosque in Woodlands the Yusof Ishak Mosque.

The Yusof Ishak Mosque is scheduled to be ready by next year end and over $2.5 million in donations has been collected for it. Fund-raising for the professorship at NUS, meanwhile, has reached close to two-thirds of the $6 million target.

"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.

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

On the move to name Iseas after Mr Yusof, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim said it was a "historic moment" not just for the Malay community but also for Singapore.

The Iseas library is now home to a permanent exhibition on Mr Yusof's life which is open to the public. Two books were also launched yesterday, one on Iseas' growth by former Straits Times journalist Lee Kim Chew, and the other, a monograph on Mr Yusof by Iseas fellow Norshahril Saat.

Mr Yusof's wife, Madam Noor Aishah, attended the ceremony with her son Imran and his wife Zarina, who both flew in from Brunei where they live.

Mr Imran said: "We feel overwhelmed by this remembrance of him. We hope to live out his ideals.

"The exhibition was like walking down memory lane. There was a mix of feelings: sadness, but also happiness because he is still remembered and honoured."

He chose to stay, thus convincing other Malays

Post-Separation in August 1965, Mr Yusof Ishak's steadfast loyalty to Singapore convinced many other Malays to stay instead of migrating across the Causeway where they would be part of the majority community.

As this fledgling nation's first president, Mr Yusof, who was born in Malaysia, strived to build up people's faith in Singapore as a multiracial nation.

The man and his ideals are the focus of a new 120-page monograph titled Yusof Ishak: Singapore's First President by Iseas fellow Norshahril Saat.

"Had he left for Malaysia, like many other Malay elites at that time, many other Malays would have followed suit on seeing that their Yang di-Pertuan Negara no longer trusted the Singapore system," wrote Dr Norshahril.

In the book, he also seeks to debunk the myth that Mr Yusof, who started Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu, was a "Malay chauvinist".

Dr Norshahril explained that Mr Yusof "was not struggling for Malays because he was a Malay". "He just wanted equality."

Former president S R Nathan, who wrote the foreward, said he suggested the book be written so that young Singaporeans could learn more about their country's history and its pioneers.

The monograph is not for sale as of now, but there are plans to distribute it to schools here.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim, who was interviewed for the book, told reporters yesterday that it could help younger generations understand how pioneers like Mr Yusof struggled to build a nation.

Second Minister for Home Affairs and Foreign Affairs Masagos Zulkifli said Mr Yusof was "the first among many significant Malay leaders who conveyed the message that this country is a country that belongs to everyone".

This article was first published on Aug 13, 2015.
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