Othman Wok suffered many an assassination on his character in his 18 years in politics, standing up for a multi-racial Singapore, where he was denounced by Malay supremacists as an “infidel” and “traitor to the Malay race”.
He never wavered. But he was threatened repeatedly as an election candidate for the multiracial People’s Action Party (PAP) over the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).
He received a flurry of death threats in the fractious months leading to independence. One such missive was from an anonymous Malay letter-writer using the nom de plume Anak Singapura in early July 1964: “At this time you are a traitor to the community and religion … if you persist in doing this to the Malays, we dare to sharpen the long parang that you’ve been asking for.”
That same month, Umno leader Syed Jaafar Albar said in a July 12 speech in Pasir Panjang to thousands of Malays: “If there is unity, no force in this world can trample us down, no force can humiliate us, no force can belittle us… not one Lee Kuan Yew, a thousand Lee Kuan Yews… we finish them off… kill him, kill him. Othman Wok and Lee Kuan Yew.” Mr Albar’s words were, ironically, published in Utusan, the newspaper where Mr Othman had worked for 17 years.
Pasir Panjang was Mr Othman’s ward, after he won the nationwide poll there in September 1963. He quit journalism shortly after, when Mr Lee appointed him Minister for Social Affairs, making him the only Malay in Cabinet then. He was, however, not Singapore’s first Malay Cabinet minister, as the late Ahmad Ibrahim had been Minister for Health, and then Labour, between 1959 and 1962.
Nine days after Mr Albar’s invective, at around 4.30pm on July 21, 1964, Singapore’s worst racial riots erupted. Mr Othman was then leading a PAP contingent in a procession from the Padang to Lorong 12 Geylang, to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. When Chinese and Malays began hurling bottles at one another and punching policemen, Mr Othman led his group to safety within the old Kallang Airport building – and called his comrades in Cabinet to impose a curfew. A total of 23 people were killed, and 454 others injured.
A week later, a former Utusan colleague admitted to him that he had known the riots would break out – a good two hours before they happened. In Mr Othman’s 2000 biography Never In My Wildest Dreams, he recalled his colleague telling him thus: “We knew beforehand. We have our sources, you know.”
Mr Othman mused later in Men In White, the 2010 book on the history of the PAP: “I believe the riot was planned; it did not start spontaneously. They were very smart to choose a religious procession so that if we had stopped it, we would be called anti-Muslim. The inflammatory communal and racial speeches made by Malaysian Umno leaders worked up Malay sentiments in Singapore.”
In the aftermath of the riots, Mr Lee relied heavily on Mr Othman, his old unionist friend whom he found “capable, dedicated and with integrity”, to defuse tensions among all the races here.