Friday, 14 August 2015

ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute is born

Renaming institute honours first president's commitment to learning: Heng Swee Keat
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2015

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
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 13 Aug 2015

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".

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* New book on Yusof Ishak launched
Biography contains stories, personal details of first president's youth and his time in office
By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, The Straits Times, 6 May 2017

As a young boy, Mr Yusof Ishak wanted to be a judge. But his family could not afford to send him to England to study law.

So he imagined becoming a raja, or king, instead, his son Imran Yusof recalls in a new book on his father, who became Singapore's head of state and its first president.

In both roles, he felt he could ensure justice, said Dr Imran, who works at a hospital in Brunei. "He was concerned about justice. A judge metes out justice, likewise a raja should be someone who is in charge and who puts things right."

He added: "(My father) felt that the Malay leaders of the time were dissociated from common people."

This story and other deeply personal details of Mr Yusof's life are featured in a 126-page coffee-table book by ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute deputy director Ooi Kee Beng.

Titled Yusof Ishak: A Man Of Many Firsts, it was launched at the think-tank yesterday, at a seminar where Malaysian academic Ahmad Murad Merican - part of Mr Yusof's extended family - spoke on the evolution of Malay journalism in Singapore, and the influence of Utusan Melayu, the newspaper Mr Yusof founded.

The book has more than 100 photos of Mr Yusof and chronicles his life story, from being the son of a civil servant to head of state who would steer Singapore through formative moments of its nationhood.

It also offers little-known snippets about the man, gleaned from interviews with Dr Imran and Mr Yusof's widow, Puan Noor Aishah.

Mr Yusof, for instance, was an avid reader of the works of humorist P.G. Wodehouse. He also listened to Beethoven at home, alongside Malay classics like Dondang Sayang, or love ballads.

Dr Imran also revealed that his father suffered from tuberculosis for most of his adult life, and was a heavy smoker who managed to kick the habit only when he moved into the Istana. These put a great strain on Mr Yusof; he had his first heart failure in 1965 and suffered a few more scares in the years after. Five years later, he died of heart failure in office, at the age of 60.

While Mr Yusof's lasting legacy is that of president of a fledgling multiracial nation, he dedicated most of his life to Utusan Melayu, a Malay-language newspaper that reflected his firm belief in meritocracy and multiculturalism while he remained at its helm.

He was so consumed by his work that, at 39, he was still a bachelor, having rebuffed attempts at matchmaking by friends and colleagues.

When close friends finally convinced him to take a look at photos of potential brides, a glimpse of 16-year-old Noor Aishah was all it took to convince him to travel to Penang, where her family lived.

Puan Noor Aishah recalls in the book that when the newlyweds moved into their first home - in Jalan Ishak, named after Mr Yusof's father, a prominent resident there - it had no piped water or electricity.

After two decades helming Utusan Melayu, Mr Yusof left the paper in 1959, after members of Umno, which wanted special privileges for Malays - a concept Mr Yusof did not believe in - began buying up the bulk of its shares.

He moved to Perak, where he sold orchids, but was eventually persuaded to return by Singapore's founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who first met Mr Yusof when he represented the paper in a case.

In July 1959, Mr Yusof was made chairman of the Public Service Commission. Later that year, he was appointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara, and served two terms as president after Singapore gained independence in 1965. He would play a crucial part in helping to restore the trust of Singaporeans who lived through events such as the 1964 racial riots.

Mr Yusof longed for social equality, and would impress upon his children the value of meritocracy.

Dr Imran recounted: "Every so often he would remind me: 'Everyone should be treated equally. Whatever the colour of one's skin, one should be judged on merit, never on skin colour, race or religion. Anything else is unjust.'"

Dr Ooi said he was struck by Mr Yusof's sense of integrity, pointing out how he decided to leave his life's work rather than be an Umno lackey. He added: "Writing a biography about leaders from the 1960s... is most important for what they tell present and future generations about the times and the historical context in which they functioned."

Those keen on a copy of the book can e-mail . Copies are available for browsing at the National Library and ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute's library.

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