Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong led the eulogies for the late Othman Wok at a memorial service on Wednesday night (April 19). He paid tribute to "one of Singapore’s greatest sons", and thanked the former Old Guard Cabinet minister for the pivotal role he played in helping to forge a multi-racial, multi-cultural Singapore.
“The Family of the late Encik Othman Wok, Mr President, Distinguished Guests, Fellow Singaporeans...
Today, we are gathered to bid farewell to one of our founding fathers – Encik Othman Wok. On behalf of the Government and the people of Singapore, I would like to convey our deepest condolences to Puan Lina Abdullah and all of his family.
Othman led a full and illustrious life. He was a journalist, a writer, a unionist, a politician, and a diplomat. But one golden thread that ran through his long life was his commitment to the ideal of a multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore.
Had he not been firm in that commitment, had he hesitated or wavered in the dark days of our Merger with Malaya and then Separation, when our history hung in the balance, the Singapore story would have turned out differently.
If you asked Othman whether he had imagined playing such a significant role in our history, he would tell you, as he titled his memoirs, “never in his wildest dreams”. Never in his wildest dreams did he think he would one day play such a pivotal role in how Singapore turned out.
FIGHTING FOR A MULTI-RACIAL SINGAPORE
Othman traced his ancestry back to the Orang Laut, who lived in Singapore before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived. He started life as a journalist at Utusan Melayu in 1946, mentored by none other than Encik Yusof Ishak, who was to later become our first President.
Othman joined the PAP shortly after it was founded in 1954. He worked closely with Mr Ong Pang Boon, then the party’s Organising Secretary, and helped Mr Lee Kuan Yew with his Malay speeches. In 1959, the party fielded him in Kampong Kembangan, but he lost narrowly to an UMNO candidate.
In September 1963, Othman was still with Utusan Melayu, now working in Kuala Lumpur.
He was asked to hurry down to Singapore to stand for elections again. He had just two days in which to settle his affairs. Othman told his editor that his mother was ill and that he needed a few days of compassionate leave. That same night, he took the train for Singapore. When he arrived, he went straight in to the election briefing, and was told by Mr Lee that he would be fielded in Pasir Panjang.
The 1963 General Election was crucial for the PAP and Singapore. They were held just as Singapore was joining Malaysia.
The pro-communist Barisan Sosialis remained a formidable force, and a PAP victory was far from certain. Fortunately, the PAP won and continued in government. Othman was elected Legislative Assemblyman for Pasir Panjang, and became our first Minister for Social Affairs.
The Barisan Sosialis was not the only party defeated in 1963. Another was UMNO. UMNO in Malaya and the PAP in Singapore had an agreement that the PAP would not contest in elections in Peninsular Malaysia and that UMNO would not contest in Singapore.
Despite this agreement, UMNO decided to contest in the Singapore elections in Malay-majority constituencies like Geylang Serai, Kampong Kembangan, and Southern Islands, and UMNO leaders came down from Malaya to campaign for their candidates. But to their consternation, all the UMNO candidates were defeated by Malay PAP candidates.
That election marked the inauspicious start of Singapore’s two very difficult years in Malaysia.
At stake was what kind of society we wished to live in: A multi-racial society, with all races enjoying equal rights; or a system based on ethnic politics and racial dominance? A Malaysian Malaysia, as the PAP wanted; or Malay supremacy, as the UMNO in Kuala Lumpur wanted?
Malay PAP leaders came under intense and relentless pressure to abandon multiracialism and choose race over nation.
Othman and his colleagues – Mahmud Awang, Rahim Ishak, Yaacob Mohamed, Mohamed Ariff Suradi, Rahmat Kenap, Buang Omar Junid – were abused, threatened and denounced. They were called “kafirs” or infidels. They received death threats. Othman recalled that some of his posters were smeared with faeces.
UMNO leaders made inflammatory racist speeches that targeted Mr Lee and Othman personally in the most vicious terms.
On 12 July 1964, UMNO organised a hostile rally in Pasir Panjang, Othman’s own constituency. Syed Jaafar Albar, then UMNO Secretary-General and a powerful rabble rouser, told the Malay crowd: “If there is unity, no force 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.”
Less than 10 days later, during a procession to mark Prophet Muhamad’s birthday, racial riots broke out which engulfed Singapore. It so happened that Othman was leading the PAP contingent in the procession. He was right there. He saw the violence first-hand. The experience was seared in his memory permanently. Keeping a cool head, he led his PAP group to safety at the People’s Association within the old Kallang Airport building.
In the aftermath of the riots, Othman accompanied Mr Lee Kuan Yew on community visits, to calm the ground and restore confidence and racial harmony.
Othman was convinced, with good reason, that the riots had been deliberately instigated. The purpose was to intimidate Singaporeans and show them what could happen if they refused to submit to the mailed fist.
The target was not just Chinese Singaporeans, but also Othman and the Malay PAP leaders.
But Othman and his comrades were not cowed. They had entered politics out of conviction and were determined not to betray their party and the values it stood for. They remained loyal to the PAP and the cause of multiracialism. Not a single Malay PAP legislative assemblyman jumped ship, though they knew they would have been richly rewarded had they done so.
What would have happened if they had? If Othman and his Malay colleagues had lost heart, the PAP’s claim to be a multi-racial party would have been severely damaged. Its cry of a “Malaysian Malaysia” would have been exposed as empty. The Federal Government might have been emboldened to suppress the Singapore state government, and bring Singapore to heel. There might never have been an independent, multi-racial Singapore.
But Othman and his Malay comrades stood firm, and held a sufficient portion of the Singapore Malay ground. It is because they kept the dream of a multi-racial society alive through those terrible dark days, that we are now able to say “We, the citizens of Singapore, regardless of race, language and religion”.
After the riots, then-Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak visited Singapore to feel the pulse of Singapore Malays. Tun Razak concluded that Singapore Malays were different from Malayan Malays.
There is a Malay saying, “rambut sama hitam, hati lain-lain”, which means that we may look the same but our hearts differ. In other words, it was not only Chinese Singaporeans who could not be cowed by threats of riots and mayhem. Malay Singaporeans too could not be easily seduced by appeals to race and religion. Singaporeans were an altogether obstreperous people. Better for Singapore to leave Malaysia. That set in train events which led to 9 August 1965.
[My limited Malay informs me that the literal translation of the first part is "(Our) hair (is the) same black (colour)". But the translation provided "we may look the same but our hearts differ" is true and concise. Just showing off my very limited Malay.]
When the Separation Agreement was being settled in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Lee saw Othman and other ministers in Temasek KL, the Singapore House in Kuala Lumpur. He asked Othman whether he would sign. Othman did not hesitate. He said yes immediately.
That was a crucial decision. For once Singapore separated from Malaysia, Singapore Malays would overnight cease being part of the majority race and become a minority community again. If Singapore Malays had not accepted that change, we could not have built a multi-racial society.
But it was because Malay Singaporeans and Malay PAP leaders in 1965 embraced the nobler dream of a shared identity, “regardless of race, language or religion”, that we are able today to practise in Singapore a form of non-communal politics, based on justice and equality, that is unique in our region and rare in the world.
Years later when Mr Lee Kuan Yew celebrated his 75th birthday dinner (in 1998) and launched the first volume of his memoirs covering this momentous period in our history, he paid tribute to Othman and his other Malay colleagues.
Mr Lee said with deep emotion: “Othman, I remember your staunch support and loyalty during those troubled days when we 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 (khianats) not to Singapore but to the Malay race. I heard it, the crowd said it, bunches of them, they were designed to intimidate you and the other Malay leaders in PAP. Because of the courage and leadership you showed, not a single Malay PAP leader wavered (in 1965)”, Mr Lee told his old comrade and friend Othman. “That made the difference to Singapore.”
The following year, at the PAP’s 45th anniversary (in 1999), the party staged a play to re-enact this history. The producer could not find anyone suitable to play the part of Othman, so he approached Othman, who agreed to play himself.
It was in this hall; I was in the audience. Othman gave a powerful account of his personal experience during the racial riots, and how he felt. He was better than any actor could have been.
[Victoria Concert Hall.]
Some years ago I visited a national education exhibition in a secondary school. A student explained to me the exhibits, he had done his homework, then asked me earnestly whether I too had celebrated Racial Harmony Day when I was his age in school. I was taken aback. I said “No. When I was in school, your age, there was a race riot on 21st July 1964. That is why we now celebrate Racial Harmony Day on 21st July every year. That was the legacy that Othman and his comrades left us.
BUILDING A MULTI-RACIAL SINGAPORE
After Independence, Othman continued as Minister for Social Affairs until 1977 and Director of the PAP Malay Affairs Bureau until 1981. He had a hand in developing the Administration of Muslim Law Act, which led to the establishment of MUIS, Syariah Court and the Registry of Muslim Marriages. He was also passionate about developing an active and vibrant sports scene and was actively involved in the building of the National Stadium.
Othman was always rolling up his sleeves, hands-on, setting an example. I remember when I was attending a course at the Outward Bound School at Pulau Ubin (in 1967), being surprised to find Othman, then a Minister, show up. He came not just for a few hours of a visit, but had come to spend a few days with us, to understand what we were doing and take part in the activities with us.
After Separation, when we urgently needed to build up the SAF, we recruited volunteers into the People’s Defence Force (PDF). Othman was one of several ministers, who volunteered, to set an example and underline the importance of defence. Others included Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Jek Yeun Thong, Mr Lee Khoon Choy, and Mr Fong Sip Chee. They marched proudly wearing officer cadet insignia at the first National Day Parade on 9 August 1966. A year later, Othman marched again, this time as a lieutenant leading the PDF contingent.
After Othman retired from politics, he stayed active. He served as Ambassador to Indonesia for three years, and helped us build an important relationship with President Suharto.
He also served as a Permanent Member on the Presidential Council of Minority Rights. He regularly shared his experiences with younger Singaporeans at National Education Seminars. He even found time to indulge his interest in writing, and published a book of ghost stories.
When Mr Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, he recommended to the President a special list of state honours to recognise the pioneers who had fought alongside him and build Singapore. Othman Wok was in that number, and was awarded the Order of Nila Utama.
Othman continued to attend events and gatherings even into extreme old age. My wife and I were happy and honoured to be invited to celebrate his 91st birthday with his family and friends at his home two years ago. What could I bring such a respected elder, who had lived such a full life? I decided to bring an album of photos of memorable moments in his life journey, including a dashing picture of him as an officer cadet in SAF uniform. I hope it gave him pleasure and satisfaction and brought back happy memories.
It is apt that we are here at the Victoria Concert Hall remembering Encik Othman Wok. This was where the PAP was founded in 1954. Othman joined the PAP soon after that. It was in this hall too, in 1964, after that incendiary rally speech by Syed Jaafar Albar at Pasir Panjang, that Othman chaired a meeting of Malay leaders and Mr Lee Kuan Yew spent six hours explaining the PAP’s belief in multi-racialism and rallying Singapore Malays to that cause.
It was at the Padang nearby, half a century ago, that Othman marched together with Singaporeans of all races and from different walks of life on our first National Day Parade. And it was at the Padang again in 2015, when we celebrated SG50, that Othman made his last official appearance. Singaporeans were happy to see him, and honoured him as one of the signatories of the Separation Agreement.
As we look back on 92 years of Othman’s life, we should also look ahead, to the future of Singapore. That was what he and his colleagues had fought for. At one of his last interviews Othman said: “You cannot just, like Kuan Yew says, go on auto-pilot ... Our future generations must continue to build on things. Do not lose focus on sensitive issues such as race, language and religion.”
So while it is with sorrow today that we bid farewell to one of Singapore’s greatest sons, we also give thanks for the extraordinary life of one who gave so much of himself to the nation.
I would like to end with a traditional pantun that sums up our gratitude:
“Pisang emas dibawa berlayar,
Masak sebiji di atas peti,
Hutang emas boleh dibayar,
Hutang budi dibawa mati”
Debts of gold we can repay, but debts of kindness will be carried all our lives.
On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you Othman. May you rest in peace.”