Mr Othman Wok, a former Cabinet minister and one of Singapore’s first generation of leaders, died on Monday (Apr 17) at the age of 92.
A journalist, union leader, politician and ambassador, Mr Othman’s courage and convictions made a difference to Singapore at a critical time in its history, said the late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.
Born in 1924, Mr Othman was the son of a Malay school principal. Despite objections from his grandfather, his progressive father sent the young Othman to Radin Mas School and Raffles Institution – both English-medium schools.
Mr Othman joined the Utusan Melayu, a Malay-language newspaper as a clerk, but was soon talent-spotted and offered a job as a cub reporter by its editor and managing director Mr Yusof Ishak, the man who was to become Singapore’s first President.
Mr Othman Wok in his youth.
While Mr Othman was working for Utusan Melayu, he became involved in union activities, and it was as Secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees Union that he first met Mr Lee Kuan Yew – the union’s legal advisor.
Persuaded to enter politics, he joined the People’s Action Party (PAP) a few days after it was formed in 1954.
Mr Othman won his first electoral battle in 1963, but was to learn that achieving racial harmony was easier said than done.
Following Singapore’s merger with Malaysia, racial tensions between the Malay and Chinese communities, stoked by fiery speeches by extremist Malay leaders from Kuala Lumpur, came to a head during the 1964 procession to celebrate the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday.
“UMNO had a meeting on Jul 19 at Pasir Panjang, (a) talk about racialism and all that by Jafar Albar. He made a very strong communal speech at that gathering which included UMNO members from across the Causeway that they ferried down to Singapore by buses and lorries,” recalled Mr Othman. “And these people, after that meeting on the 19th, didn’t go home … they were used to cause trouble.”
Mr Othman, who led the contingent of Malay MPs and PAP supporters at the procession, recalled how trouble broke out: “When my contingent arrived at Kallang Bridge, there was this old Chinese man on a bicycle, on the left side. Some Malay youths came from the front, caught hold of him, beat him up with sticks and threw his bicycle into the drain. He was severely injured.”
For the rest of Mr Othman’s life, the horrific images would return whenever he shared his experiences.
“People were being beaten up, houses were being burnt, vehicles being burnt – all pictured in my mind at that time. I was involved in it, I saw it with my own eyes,” he said. “It is just like a film being played again and again to me. I was very sad. This is racial riot between the communities, the Chinese and the Malays. And before that they were very friendly.”
In the aftermath of the riots, it was clear that concerted and strenuous efforts were needed to rebuild relationships between the races, as racial polarisation was evident, even at relief centres.
“The Chinese didn’t go to where the Malays went – the police station; they went to other police stations, so became segregated again,” said Mr Othman. “And my ministry had to prepare food for these refugees. Every day we cooked, in our central kitchen, and I went around in our lorries together with my staff, and we found that for example, I went to Paya Lebar Police Station, they were all Malays there, no Chinese. Then I went to another police station, Serangoon at that time, they were all Chinese there, no Malays.
“So we decided after the riots that this should not go on – polarisation between the two communities. We had to let them live together. So at that time, we (were) building flats so we moved them, mixed (them) together. It was not an easy thing to do but eventually they began to learn how to live as good neighbours.”
At the height of the 1964 tensions, Mr Othman himself became the principal target of verbal abuse among some segments of the Malay-Muslim community.
The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said of Mr Othman: “I remember your staunch loyalty during those troubled days when you were in Malaysia and the tensions were most severe, immediately before and following the bloody riots in July 1964.
“At that time, the greatest pressures were mounted by UMNO Malay extremists who denounced you and Malay PAP leaders – especially you – as infidels, “kafirs” and traitors, “khianat”, not to Singapore but to the Malay race.
“I heard it, the crowds said it, bunches of them. They were designed to intimidate him and the other Malay leaders in PAP.
“Because of the courage and the leadership you showed, not one PAP Malay leader wavered and that made a difference to Singapore.”
On the incident, Mr Othman simply said: “I was surprised, because not only I, but my Malay colleagues in the PAP stood together and faced the onslaught together with the Prime Minister, because we were fighting for what we believed in.
“So that accolade to me, I thought, was also for my colleagues because they faced the same danger, they faced the same accusation and criticism from the Malay community at that time.”
Mr Othman’s loyalty to Singapore was tested again in 1965, when they were faced with the critical decision to support or oppose separation from Malaysia.
“PM called me. He said: ‘Othman, come with me to the next room.’ And he said to me: ‘Would you sign this separation agreement?’ I said I would. I told him: ‘PM, the only worry I have is the Chinese in Singapore – what I meant was the communists in Singapore.’ ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘It’s my problem, I will handle it. You have nothing to worry.’ That was what he said to me.
“But my feeling when it was announced was, internally, you know, relief. After those two years of bickering, the pressure on me, my colleagues, the Malays in the PAP, on the government, I say it was a relief. No more pressure against us.”
And the next year, when an independent Singapore held its first National Day Parade, Mr Othman made sure he was there – a proud member of the People’s Defence Force.
Mr Othman was to serve for 17 years, 14 of them as Minister for Social Affairs.
Promoting racial harmony was a key responsibility, as was the promotion of sports among the masses and encouraging athletes to represent Singapore.
Said SS Dhillon, former secretary-general of the Singapore Olympic Council: “Mr Othman Wok – I always to refer to him as Mr Cool. He has a very cool personality, he is very approachable, very kind, very loving and he used to go around sportsmen and coax them to participate. Train harder and he encouraged them in that way.”
It was also Mr Othman who got the National Stadium built.
“When you think back to those times, those were very economically hard times, and yet he could push this through Parliament and get it passed,” said former Olympian sprinter C Kunalan. “So I think more importantly it was not how he fired us up but how he fired up the Cabinet to get the approval for all the plans that he had.”
As Minister overseeing the Malay-Muslim community, Mr Othman’s legacy includes the setting up of the Mosque Building Fund as well as the Islamic Religious Council or MUIS, which sees to the welfare of Muslims in Singapore.
“Through this fund, we managed to build a first mosque at Toa Payoh,” said Mr Othman. “A modern, better, multi-purpose mosque, not like the old ones, only for prayer; (there were) other activities. And people came to support and it was not difficult to get people to contribute. We had the contribution by deducting their salaries, voluntarily if they wanted to, through the CPF. It started with S$0.50. They could write in to say: ‘I don’t want to contribute’, but the majority, all I think the Muslims who worked with the Government then, contributed and they were able to build one mosque after another.”
After retiring from active politics in 1980, Mr Othman served as Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia and also on the Singapore Tourism Board and Sentosa Development Corporation.
The born storyteller also published his collections of horror stories as well as his autobiography, Never In My Wildest Dreams.
But for the man who lived through the race riots of the 1960s, unity among Singaporeans was an enduring mission, and Mr Othman continued to serve well into his 80s, giving talks on National Education to civil servants.
“Even with this terrorism problem, some of these young people do not take it seriously because it has not happened in Singapore,” said Mr Othman. “The test will come when a bomb explodes in Singapore, people are killed … What happens, do we tighten our bonding, become a united front of faith or we disintegrate? This is the test that we have to face if the real thing happens. I hope not. Because today when there are disasters in other countries, Singapore came together to help. I am sure were this to happen in Singapore, we will get together, to face it and solve it. I have that confidence.”
He added: “Always be loyal to your country. You’re a Singaporean, you will always be a Singaporean.”
Mr Othman leaves his wife and four daughters.