Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Remembering Othman Wok: 1924-2017

Othman Wok, member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet, dies aged 92
State-assisted funeral today for pioneer minister Othman Wok
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

Mr Othman Wok, a pioneer generation minister who helped lay the foundation for a multiracial Singapore, died peacefully at the Singapore General Hospital at 12.21pm yesterday. He was 92.

Mr Othman was one of the 10 Singapore signatories of the 1965 Separation Agreement and a key member of founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew's Cabinet.

"He supported Mr Lee in the fight for a multiracial and multi-religious Singapore, and became one of Mr Lee's closest comrades," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement. "The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are sad to learn of the passing of Mr Othman Wok and wish to convey their deepest condolences to his family."

Yesterday, Singapore's political leaders lauded Mr Othman as a champion for multiracialism, and a patron of sport and social services. He was Singapore's first minister for social affairs from 1963 to 1977, and concurrently held the culture portfolio from 1965 to 1968. He was ambassador to Indonesia from 1977 till 1981. He returned to Singapore and retired from politics that year.

In a Facebook post yesterday, President Tony Tan Keng Yam said Mr Othman made many significant contributions to Singapore. "His passion and commitment in helping others, and his impartiality and integrity in serving one and all, are traits that we remember and admire in him," Dr Tan said, adding that he and his wife Mary have lost a dear friend.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hailed him as a "a courageous champion of a multiracial, multi-religious, and meritocratic Singapore".

"During Singapore's turbulent years in Malaysia, Encik Othman came under great pressure, and even threats on his life, for his convictions. But he stood firm, and that made all the difference to Singapore," he said in a Facebook post.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim added that while Mr Othman made great contributions to the Malay-Muslim community, he had also urged Singaporeans to "make the effort to strengthen cross-cultural understanding, practise mutual respect, and come together as one united people".

Mr Othman was "keenly aware that race and religion could become major fault lines and conflicts could arise out of suspicion, misunderstanding and prejudice", Dr Yaacob said in a Facebook post.

A state-assisted funeral will be held for Mr Othman today, after a prayer session for him at the Sultan Mosque. In the highest honour accorded to a deceased Singaporean, a state flag will be draped over the casket, with the crescent and stars lying over the head and close to the heart of Mr Othman.

A ceremonial gun carriage will then carry his body to Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery where he will be buried. A memorial service will be held tomorrow at the Victoria Concert Hall for invited guests.

Family members said that Mr Othman had been in ill health for some time. He was hospitalised for a lung infection on April 6.

His daughter Lily Othman, 60, said the family remembers him as a "kind, compassionate and loving father... He always told us that no matter what you must always be humble. It doesn't matter if you are the president's daughter or the king's daughter, humility should be your middle name".

Mr Othman leaves behind his wife Lina, four daughters, a step-daughter, seven grandchildren, three stepgrandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Additional reporting by Toh Yong Chuan and Zhaki Abdullah

Memorial Service of the late Othman Wok

Fitting farewell to a founding father
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

The solemn sound of prayer filled the air at Sultan Mosque yesterday afternoon as loud thunder rumbled overhead and heavy rain poured down on Singapore.

Like showers of blessing, the thunderstorm gave a poignant touch to the funeral of pioneer leader Othman Wok. Family, friends and ordinary Singaporeans gathered at the mosque in Kampong Glam to bid a final farewell to one of the nation's founding fathers and a key member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet.

Mr Othman, 92, died on Monday in Singapore General Hospital. He had been hospitalised for a chest infection and stomach complications.

At the mosque, Mufti Mohamed Fatris Bakaram led customary prayers for the dead before Mr Othman's coffin was brought out of the prayer hall. Mourners, including political leaders, watched as a Singapore flag was draped over the coffin. The coffin was then placed on a ceremonial gun carriage for the journey to the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery for the burial.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in a Facebook post yesterday, noted that many braved the rain to pay their respects to Mr Othman, whom he described as "a man who at a pivotal moment, made a critical difference. Encik Othman will always be remembered as a man whose courage and conviction helped Singapore achieve racial and religious harmony".

A memorial service will be held this evening at Victoria Concert Hall for invited guests.

A champion of multi-culturalism
Othman Wok never wavered in his belief that only a nation that respected all its races would work
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

When pioneer generation minister Othman Wok was a boy, it was his nightly duty to soothe his maternal grandfather's sore muscles by stepping all over the latter's back.

As young Othman worked on him, the old man would regale his grandson with stories of his own father's derring-do, such as when the latter fended off a tiger in a thicket near Serangoon with just a parang.

Mr Othman's great-grandfather, whom he named only as Awang, had been hurt so badly that a village healer had to dress his wounds and pray over him. He recovered.

Mr Othman never faced a wild animal himself, but he saw plenty of blood being spilt in Singapore's worst race riots on July 21, 1964.

He also suffered many an assassination on his character in his 18 years in politics, standing up for a multiracial Singapore, where he was denounced by Malay supremacists as an "infidel" and "traitor to the Malay race".

He never wavered.

He was threatened repeatedly as an election candidate for the multiracial People's Action Party (PAP) instead of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

The death threats intensified in the fractious months leading to Singapore leaving Malaysia and becoming an independent nation in August 1965.

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 Syed Jaafar's words were, ironically, published in Utusan, the newspaper at which Mr Othman had worked as a journalist for 17 years.

Pasir Panjang was Mr Othman's constituency, which he won in a general election in September 1963.

He quit journalism shortly after, when Mr Lee appointed him minister for social affairs, making him the only Malay in the 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 Syed Jaafar'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 in the old Kallang Airport building - and called his comrades in Cabinet to impose a curfew. A total of 23 people were killed and 454 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: "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 Singapore's various races.


Mr Othman had met Mr Lee in 1952, in the office of his Utusan colleague Samad Ismail, who was then Mr Lee's confidant. "I found him to be a very friendly man, but very stern. He readily listens to what you say, but you must have substance," recalled Mr Othman of Mr Lee, who was then Utusan's legal adviser, in his 2000 biography.

In later years, Mr Lee got the workaholic journalist, who focused so much on landing scoops that he often forgot to cut his hair, to translate his speeches into Malay, edit PAP's news magazine Petir and help at its Malay Affairs Bureau.

At a flood-lit Padang past midnight on June 3, 1959, right after colonial governor William Goode declared Singapore self-governing, it was Mr Othman whom Mr Lee entrusted to make the new government's first official speech, which was in Malay, followed by speakers in Mandarin, Tamil and English.

Mr Othman's signature is among the 10 from PAP ministers on the Independence of Singapore Agreement 1965. In Men In White, he recalled: "PM called me into a room and asked me if I was prepared to sign the Separation declaration."

The query stemmed from two concerns. First, some among Mr Lee's colleagues, including Dr Toh Chin Chye and Mr S. Rajaratnam, were furious about having to separate when they had worked so hard to achieve merger with Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963.

Second, and perhaps most significantly, separation meant that, overnight, the Malay-Muslim community would go from being a majority to a minority on Aug 9, 1965. Singapore's Malays had then also begun to clamour for special privileges on a par with Malaysia's bumiputeras.

Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was offering Singapore's Malays land in Johor as well.

Mr Othman told Mr Lee that he would sign the 1965 agreement without hesitation.

To Mr Lee, his old friend's long unshakeable belief in a multi-racial Singapore mattered a great deal.

It was thanks to Mr Othman's charismatic leadership and solid support for PAP's incorruptibility and its vision of a better life for all Singaporeans, that no Malay PAP member joined Barisan or Umno.

A tearful Mr Lee recalled that at his 75th birthday dinner in 1998, and paid tribute to Mr Othman: "Because of the courage and leadership you showed, not a single PAP leader wavered. That made a difference to Singapore."

Mr Othman was initially keener on remaining a journalist than becoming a politician. Modest to a fault, he shunned the spotlight but, throughout his life, was often thrust into it. When, for instance, he received no acknowledgement for his application to be a PAP member in 1954, the year it was inaugurated, he shrugged it off. It was only in 1958, when Mr Lee got him to chair PAP's Geylang Serai-Changi branch, that he realised his application had been accepted.

Up till then, he was, in his words, "politically apathetic", even when, as the secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees' Union from 1952, he fought for higher wages and better working conditions for workers of all races.


Through it all, Mr Othman never wavered in his belief that only a nation that respected all its races would work. He abjured extremism of any kind, having watched the Hock Lee bus rioters in May 1955 had their flesh torn by granite chips churned up by high-pressure water jets aimed at them.

In 1958, he recoiled when he visited kampungs in Changi full of children sporting red scarves and singing songs lustily in praise of communism.

Mr Othman, who had four daughters from two marriages, was born into a family of orang laut, who were the original settlers of Singapore. "When Raffles landed in Singapore," he told The New Paper in 2000, "some of my relatives were standing there on the beach. We were here before this place was discovered by the British... That's why when I talk to young people about the history of our country, it really means something to me."

His orang laut blood, he once said half in jest, gave him strong sea legs, but no stomach for air travel, which he had to do a lot of as minister for social affairs from 1963 to 1977, and then as Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia from 1977 till his retirement from politics in 1981.

As the social affairs minister, it fell to him to sell government policies the Malays, especially, found hard to take.

When Malay businessmen asked the Government for financial support, Mr Lee responded that giving them such help would be like only giving them fish. Better, the prime minister said, for them to learn how to fish.

So, on Mr Othman's advice, the Government gave all Malays free primary-to-tertiary education - one of many initiatives to help the community. In 1990, this policy no longer applied to those in university.

When kampungs had to make way for public housing in Singapore, a Kuala Lumpur-based editor of Mr Othman's former employer, Utusan, demanded: "Do you expect Malays to live in flats? Where would they put their goats and chickens?"

Mr Othman replied that they would, with the Government's help, have to adapt to urban society.

A genial, patient man who was slow to anger and quick to mend fences, he was, in his own words, "good with people". That came from experiences that few of his fellow Malays had.

In 1949, the year he married his first wife Daliah "Cik Dah" Mohd Noor, he was often in the jungles of Pahang, covering the guerrilla war between the Malayan Communist Party and the British colonial power, as Utusan Melayu's war correspondent. Fortunately, he never had to stare into the jaws of tigers, unlike what had befallen his great-grandfather.

Once, in the Chinese squatter village of Triang in Pahang, he was embedded in a platoon of an RAF regiment, and watched as some of its soldiers fired indiscriminately, even at women and babies. "Throughout the operation, no communist appeared. It was all a mistake and innocent people paid for it." Enraged, he wanted to report on the killings but was warned by the troops' commander against doing so, he said in his 2000 biography.

Cik Dah bore him three daughters: Saffiah in 1950, Dahlia in 1951 and Lily in 1956. He had another daughter, Diana, in 1981 with his second wife Lina Abdullah, now 70.

Mr Othman is survived by his wife Lina, daughters, a stepdaughter, seven grandchildren, two great-grandsons and three stepgrandchildren.

His knack for getting along with everyone was evident in London, where he was on scholarship to study journalism for a year, weathering the chill in leather gloves that were a gift from Mr Yusof Ishak, his boss at Utusan who was the founder, editor-in-chief and managing director of the newspaper.

In London, he got on famously with a disparate group surrounding him, from his Polish landlady to Kuala Lumpur-born roommate Thor Beng Chong and housemate Lynden Pindling, who would later become prime minister of the Bahamas.

In June 1959, after the PAP won the right to govern Singapore, he was the friend whom Mr Lee asked about the suitability of Mr Yusof as head of state. In 1985, he was the first person his old friend Wee Kim Wee called to ask if he should accept Mr Lee's offer to be Singapore's fourth president.

As chief reporter of Utusan between 1946 and 1963, Mr Othman was the reporter to whom the Dalai Lama and Malayan Communist Party leaders Fang "The Plen" Chuang Pi and Lim Ah Leong readily gave exclusive interviews.

It helped that he was urbane and had the look of a matinee idol. When he first campaigned in 1959 to represent PAP in Kampong Kembangan, an Umno stronghold in Singapore, he and Cik Dah trudged through a sea of scowls. So he was surprised he lost to Umno stalwart Ali Alwi by just 200 votes.

Umno's man in Singapore then, Mr Khir Johari, mused afterwards in an interview cited in Men In White that Umno assemblymen had, unlike Mr Othman, "neglected to visit the kampungs, talk to the people and find out what their needs were".

Mr Othman, whose memory was sharp till the end, recalled in his 2000 biography: "At the post-election meeting at the Hokkien Community Hall, I met Lee Kuan Yew and I said I was sorry I lost. He told me not to worry because he knew that if he had not put me there, we would have lost by more votes."

As the Men In White authors Sonny Yap, Richard Lim and Leong Weng Kam noted: "Othman Wok lived through it all, as a minister in Lee's Cabinet, during the struggle with the communists, the Merger, the race riots and the trauma of Separation."

Mr Othman told them: "Those were the toughest times. Without Lee, we could have collapsed under all those pressures, particularly with the problems under Malaysia."

He was modest about his own contributions; without him, too, Singapore might not be what it is today.

As Associate Professor Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, who has studied Singapore's Malay intelligentsia, says: "Othman was Singaporean first and Malay second. And he never forgot his roots as a Muslim."

Long after his retirement from public life, young and old would tap Mr Othman's experiences as a Singaporean. He was enlisted to speak about his lessons for the future and, perhaps most importantly, at dialogues on Racial Harmony Day every July 21 - the very same date that Singapore's worst race riots erupted all those years ago.

Pioneer minister laid foundations for sport and social services
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

As a Cabinet minister, Mr Othman Wok helped build Singapore's first National Stadium, promoted the Singapore Grand Prix long before Formula One races came to the Republic's shores, and laid the foundations for the social service sector.

He had also put in place measures that continue to uplift the Malay community today.

Yesterday, ministers, Malay-Muslim organisations and the labour movement paid tribute to him for his contributions to Singapore.

Mr Othman, who was the Minister for Social Affairs in independent Singapore's first Cabinet, died yesterday, aged 92.

During his 18-year political career, he held not only the social affairs, but also the culture portfolio.

It was in this capacity that he oversaw the building of the National Stadium, Singapore's first large-scale sporting arena.

Recounting this, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said on Facebook: "While Singapore was focused on economic development at the time, Mr Othman was keenly aware that cultural development was just as important."

Besides sports, Mr Othman had also pushed for the development of social services, and he had been "instrumental" in shaping the foundations of the sector, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin. He added that Mr Othman tackled the "challenge of stretching the limited welfare fund to help Singaporeans in need" in the country's early days of independence.

Mr Othman championed the training of social workers and volunteers, and also initiated the predecessor of the National Council of Social Service - helping to create a more effective social service ecosystem, said Mr Tan's ministry in a statement.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) also paid tribute to Mr Othman yesterday for his "unwavering determination and dedication" to the labour movement. A former journalist, he had served as secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees' Union, where he "played a central role in fighting for higher wages and better working conditions", noted NTUC in a letter signed by its secretary-general Chan Chun Sing and president Mary Liew.

Others remembered Mr Othman for his contributions to the Malay-Muslim community.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, who is also the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said Mr Othman "laid the strong foundations for the administration of Muslim affairs that the community enjoys today".

Mr Othman had introduced the Administration of the Muslim Law Bill, which paved the way for the formation of three key Muslim statutory institutions - the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS), Registry of Muslim Marriages and Syariah Court. In a statement, MUIS called this his "greatest legacy".

Ms Rahayu Buang, chief executive of self-help group Yayasan Mendaki, said the successes of the Malay-Muslim community would not have been possible without the work of pioneers such as him.

Those who knew Mr Othman and worked with him also remembered him as a kind and humble man.

High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Chandra Das, who was a People's Action Party MP, said in an e-mailed statement: "He was a warm and friendly person always with a smile, especially for younger MPs like me."

Former MP Abbas Abu Amin, who succeeded Mr Othman as MP for Pasir Panjang in 1980, said at his wake yesterday: "He was very down to earth."

A dedicated politician and devoted family man
By Joanna Seow, Zhaki Abdullah and Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

On Sunday night, pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok's daughter Lily was persuading him to turn off the television and go to sleep.

It was 11.30pm and they were at Singapore General Hospital, where Mr Othman had been warded since April 6 for a chest infection and stomach complications.

Madam Lily, 60, said she usually performs the night duty in caring for her father.

"I will read some prayers for him and pat him to sleep before I go off," she said, as she recounted his final hours to reporters yesterday.

She said her father finally went to sleep at 11.45pm, and seemed fine at midnight, although his breathing was laboured.

In the morning, doctors called the family at around 8.40am and said Mr Othman might not survive much longer.

He was placed on a ventilator and breathed his last at 12.21pm.

"We tried our best to take care of him to the best of our ability, but I think God knows better and, you know, we are quite happy to let him go. He passed away... peacefully, so we are happy with that," Madam Lily told reporters outside the family home where the wake is being held. The home is in Kew Avenue in Bedok.

Madam Lily, a housewife and Mr Othman's youngest daughter with his late first wife Daliah "Cik Dah" Mohamad Noor, described him as a kind and loving father who was also devoted to his work as MP for Pasir Panjang constituency from 1963 to 1981.

"We know that we are more or less like his second family compared to his political work. We totally got it and we appreciated that as well," she said with a laugh.

But he always made time for the family, especially when he returned from his overseas trips as Singapore's first minister for social affairs, a post he held from 1963 to 1977.

"Whenever he (came) back from his travels, he (spent) at least one night with us, sharing his overseas stories, souvenirs," she said.

One lesson he often drummed into them was the importance of racial harmony as he lived through the 1964 race riots. He also emphasised humility, she said.

"You could be the president's daughter or the king's daughter, but humility should be your middle name," she recalled him saying.

In his later years, he watched movies regularly with Diana, 36, his only child with his second wife Lina Abdullah.

Ms Diana, who works at the Esplanade, posted on her Facebook page last year: "My dad used to travel a lot for work. We have always been very close so I got so mad at him for frequently setting off and when he's home, he always seemed too busy for me."

But looking through old family photo albums, she found that he had taken many photos of her and her mother.

"I realise that in spite of his mad schedule, he was and always is in fact completely present."

Mr Othman had been in and out of hospital since last November, and his last message to his children was to live peacefully with each other and maintain good relationships with one another, said Madam Lily.

Her husband Munir Shah, 64, a management consultant who described his father-in-law as kind and compassionate, said: "He had a good run... All of us were well prepared for this eventuality."

Yesterday, President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Mufti Fatris Bakaram and the widow of Singapore's first President Yusof Ishak, Puan Noor Aishah, were among many who paid their last respects.

Politicians past and present also went to the wake, including Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and his wife, deputy prime ministers Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Teo Chee Hean and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim.

The public can pay their respects at Mr Othman's home at 46, Kew Avenue today from 6.30am till 11am. The family would like to grieve in private for the last hour before the cortege leaves for the mosque at noon.

Additional reporting by Cheong Suk-Wai

Excerpt from PM Lee Hsien Loong's letter to Mr Othman's widow, Lina Abdullah
The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

"Encik Othman was steadfast and unwavering in believing in a multiracial, multi-religious, meritocratic Singapore.

His dedication and courage was most clearly shown during Singapore's turbulent years in the 1960s, when Singapore was part of Malaysia, and then separated from Malaysia to become an independent republic. In a vicious fight against the communalists, Encik Othman faced great pressure and threats on his life for joining the PAP.

If he had faltered, history might have taken a different course. But he stood resolutely by his convictions, and that made all the difference for Singapore.

His firm belief that one could build a multiracial, multireligious society, based on justice and equality, helped keep the dream alive through those dark days when Singapore was not the master of our destiny.

After Separation, Encik Othman's conviction gave heart to Malay Singaporeans, and made it possible for us to remain a multiracial society.

The Singapore we know today could not have existed without Encik Othman and others of our founding generation.

Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) remembered the staunch support that Encik Othman had shown, and the great debt that he owed Encik Othman for his loyalty and service to Singapore, when he (Mr Lee) spoke on the occasion of his 75th birthday...

Singaporeans will always remember Encik Othman as one of our founding fathers, whose courage and passion helped set Singapore on a path of peace and progress.

His passing is a deep loss to the nation."

'Singapore would be a very different place without him'
He gave all Singaporeans the confidence that multiracialism could work: DPM Tharman
By Rachel Au-Yong and Zhaki Abdullah and Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

Without the late founding father Othman Wok, Singapore would be a vastly different country, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

"His guts, the courage he gave the Malay community and the confidence in multiracialism that he gave all Singaporeans, the confidence that we could make it work - that's what we are in debt to him for," he told reporters at Mr Othman's wake in his Bedok home.

Amid racial tensions, Mr Othman "rose to the occasion, decided that his belief in unity was worth fighting for, and hitched his wagon to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore became what it is."

"So we're grateful to him for making that difference and making this country," Mr Tharman said.

Mr Othman, who held portfolios in social affairs and culture, died at Singapore General Hospital yesterday at 12.21pm. He was 92.

Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim had also lauded Mr Othman as a multiracial icon who united people of different racial and religious backgrounds during the political upheavals of Singapore's early days.

The pioneer Cabinet minister had seen through "some of the extremist forces that were at play at that time, and realised that a better future lay for Singapore in a society where we respect one another", he said.

"He fought for what he believed was right, not only for the Malays in Singapore but (also) the whole of Singapore," said Dr Yaacob, who is also the Minister for Communications and Information.

This was a "courageous act" because Mr Othman was "going against very, very strong forces, which we saw in the extremist Malay nationalists", he added.

Dr Yaacob also said that Mr Othman had laid the foundation for a "modern and progressive Malay-Muslim community".

He helped to develop the Administration of Muslim Law Act, laws passed in 1966 to enhance the administration of Islamic law in the Singapore legal system.

This, in turn, helped to create the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (MUIS) which, with the Syariah Court, are key institutions today that let Muslims in Singapore "lead a vibrant socio-religious life", said Dr Yaacob.

On a personal note, Dr Yaacob said he remembered Mr Othman best for the way he balanced his dual roles as a community leader and a national leader.

"In both roles, he brought to bear the ethos that has been associated with him and the founding generation: That of respect for multiracialism, respect for meritocracy, and respect for a society in which every community in Singapore has a space to thrive," he said.

Former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed told The Straits Times that Mr Othman's position as a top Malay politician against the backdrop of heated race politics was "all the more poignant".

Mr Zainul, who is helping to coordinate funeral arrangements between the Government and the late leader's family, said Mr Othman, like the late president Yusof Ishak, had always been clear about working towards multi-culturalism for Singapore. "Even when Mr Othman was a journalist, he understood the challenges of the community, and he wanted to help it understand what Singapore was trying to achieve," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who attended the wake later at night, said on Facebook that Mr Othman "stood up for an independent multiracial Singapore and helped lay the foundations for the peaceful and harmonious Singapore of today".

He added: "His unwavering commitment and loyalty to Singapore and the principles we stand for are an inspiration to all of us."


He was among the first Malay leaders of the PAP. He contributed significantly to the PAP's multiracial platform. We worked closely in the early years of the PAP. I was the party's organising secretary and Othman, who was then a journalist with Utusan Melayu, was our unofficial Malay translator. I would see him whenever we needed Malay translations for Petir and other publications. Othman always obliged.

I will always remember Othman to be a man of integrity and with absolute loyalty to the PAP and Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

He was also a man of high EQ, who always had kind words for his Cabinet colleagues, his grassroots workers and friends, and the man in the street.

MR ONG PANG BOON, one of two remaining members of independent Singapore's first Cabinet. The other is Mr Jek Yeun Thong.

Gun carriage carrying casket draped with state flag will pass heartland areas
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 18 Apr 2017

A state-assisted funeral will be held for the late Mr Othman Wok today, with a gun carriage carrying the casket draped with the state flag through heartland areas.

Members of the public can pay their respects at his home at 46, Kew Avenue from 6.30am to 11am.

At 12.15pm, a private hearse will bear Mr Othman's casket from his home to the Sultan Mosque at North Bridge Road for the funeral prayer. Kandahar Street, Muscat Street and a stretch of Sultan Gate will be closed from 7am to 3pm because of the prayer session.

After the prayer, the state flag will be draped over the casket in the presence of Mr Othman's family.

The draping of the state flag is the highest state honour that can be accorded to a deceased.

His casket will then be placed on a gun carriage, which will leave at 2pm for Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery.

The carriage will travel along North Bridge Road, North Boat Quay and River Valley Road, through Alexandra Road, Commonwealth Avenue, Commonwealth Avenue West and Clementi Avenue 6, before entering the Pan-Island Expressway and Jalan Bahar.

The authorities said traffic is expected to be heavy along these roads from 2pm to 3pm.

At the burial site, a coffin bearer party made up of nine officers from the army, navy, air force and police force will receive the casket.

A memorial service for Mr Othman, organised by OnePeople.sg for invited guests, will be held at the Victoria Concert Hall tomorrow at 6.30pm.

Remembering Othman Wok: An inspiring man who was ‘always smiling’
Friends and ex-colleagues remember pioneer minister as a good boss, encouraging leader
By Lin Yangchen and Chew Hui Min, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

As early as 7am, two long-time friends of pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok arrived at his home in Kew Avenue, to bid him a final farewell.

Mr Adanan Bakron and his wife, Madam Norsiah Suja'i, were the first to appear at the gate and waited patiently as Mr Othman's family prepared to receive mourners.

The couple, both retired education officers, were former neighbours of Mr Othman, who died on Monday at the age of 92.

"We lived like kampung people," said Mr Adanan, 79.

The families living along the same street held regular get-togethers, celebrating National Day every year with shared food on the road outside their terrace houses and visiting each other on festive occasions like Hari Raya, he added.

Madam Norsiah, 73, recalled Mr Othman being a judge in a debate competition at her secondary school. "He was very encouraging and gave us advice on how to speak better," she said, adding that Mr Othman was "always smiling".

For close to four hours, an unending stream of people, including past and present political leaders, came to pay their last respects to a man who played an important role in unifying Singapore's multiracial population, especially in the early days of Singapore's independence.

They included Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

Old Guard politicians who came to bid farewell included former senior parliamentary secretary Chan Chee Seng and former senior minister of state Ch'ng Jit Koon.

Ambassador-at-Large and veteran politial scientist Chan Heng Chee said Mr Othman was a part of the team that built the foundation of modern-day Singapore.

"Without him and without Yusof Ishak (Singapore's first president), the leadership would not have been complete," she said.

Many ordinary Singaporeans, like former national hurdles champion Osman Merican, remembered Mr Othman's easy-going manner and words of encouragement.

Mr Osman, a retired police officer, said Mr Othman - who as Minister for Culture and Social Affairs set up a sports department in his ministry in 1966 - was "very inspiring".

"I was just a kid new to sports when I met him before he became a minister, but he saw that I had ability and asked me to carry on," said the 78-year-old. " He told me that if I had any problem, I could look for him. He always had a good word for people he met."

Ms Sharon Yeap, 53, a secretary of Mr Othman's almost 35 years ago when he was an investment firm director, called him a "wonderful boss". In her five years at the firm, she said, he never raised his voice or acted as if he was a former minister. She added: "I really enjoyed going to work."

Businessman Richard Lim, 57, who would meet Mr Othman on his morning walk in Bedok, said: "I remember listening to his election speeches when I was a teenager. He was very fiery then, very different from his usual character."

After the last mourner left, Mr Othman's family held a private prayer session. The funeral cortege left the family home at 11.50am for the Sultan Mosque, where the Mufti led prayers for an hour before the Singapore flag was draped over the coffin. It was then placed on a gun carriage and taken to the Choa Chu Kang Muslim cemetery for burial.

Friends, ordinary Singaporeans bid farewell
They brave heavy rain to pay their respects as cortege travels along procession route
By Danson Cheong, Rachel Au-Yong and Zhaki Abdullah, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

Mr Muhammad Haziq was born more than 10 years after Mr Othman Wok stepped down from political office, and he had never met the late pioneer minister.

But the 20-year-old, who is waiting to enlist for national service, braved the rain yesterday to get a glimpse of Mr Othman's cortege as it travelled along River Valley Road.

"I felt a personal and moral duty to pay my respects to someone who had done so much for me," said Mr Haziq, a history buff who read about Mr Othman in newspaper clippings.

He stood on an overhead bridge in River Valley Road that was part of the funeral procession route from Sultan Mosque to the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery.

As Mr Haziq waited for the cortege, people at the cemetery were making sure Mr Othman's final send-off would go as smoothly as possible.

Under a makeshift white tent that shielded the burial plot from the rain, several workers used masking tape to remove dirt and debris from a black platform.

Former senior parliamentary secretary Yatiman Yusof bent down to remove a leaf blown in by a gust of wind.

Mr Yatiman was among those who gathered at the cemetery as well as Sultan Mosque to bid a final farewell to Mr Othman, who died on Monday at the age of 92.

Prayers were recited at the mosque after 1pm yesterday for Mr Othman, who was minister for social affairs in independent Singapore's first Cabinet and a champion of multiracialism.

Pallbearers later placed his coffin on a ceremonial gun carriage and it was taken to the cemetery. After the cortege arrived, eight pallbearers from the army, navy, air force and police moved the coffin onto a platform.

The state flag was removed from the coffin, and handed to his daughters Lily and Diana together with the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class), an award Mr Othman received in 1983.

Past and present Malay-Muslim leaders - including Mr Yatiman, former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed, Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim and Senior Minister of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman - helped members of Mr Othman's family as they transferred the body from the coffin into the grave.

After the grave was covered, Mufti Mohamed Fatris Bakaram read the talqin, or last prayers, for Mr Othman.

Political leaders who bade Mr Othman a final farewell yesterday included Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and members of the Cabinet.

Some members of the public who paid their last respects to Mr Othman remembered him as a strong leader of the Malay community - one who was open and friendly, and with a sense of humour.

Retiree Said Mohamed, 54, travelled for more than an hour from Woodlands to Sultan Mosque to pay his last respects to a man he described as a "a significant leader" for the Malay community.

Housewife Aini Osman, 58, a long-time friend of Mr Othman's widow Lina Abdullah, said that Mr Othman was a leader who made significant contributions to Singapore and her community.

Others spoke of his lighter side.

One of his former golfing buddies, Mr Billy Lee, 69, said Mr Othman was jovial and humorous.

He recounted a golfing trip in Indonesia in the 1990s, when their group of about 20 were in a cramped minivan travelling from Jakarta to Bandung.

Said Mr Lee: "He kept cracking jokes and made the three-hour journey so much more enjoyable."

The rain yesterday afternoon, which began falling after the prayer session at the mosque, continued to pour during the burial ceremony.

Before they left, Mr Othman's family poured flowers and perfumed water over his grave, leaving a sweet scent wafting over the final resting place of one of Singapore's founding fathers.

Additional reporting by Abigail Ng

Othman Wok lived and breathed multi-culturalism
That is the lasting impression Dr Yaacob Ibrahim has of the late Othman Wok, who was at the same time always "sensitive and attentive" to the well-being of Malay-Muslims in Singapore.
By Cheong Suk-Wai, Senior Writer, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

On the afternoon of July 21, 1964, a large group of Chinese people hurled rocks and bottles at a procession of Muslims passing from the Padang to Lorong 12 Geylang to mark the birthday of Prophet Muhammad.

Among those leading the procession was Mr Othman Wok, who was to become a member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet about a year later.

Despite Mr Othman's best efforts, the provoked procession of Muslims turned violent too, triggering Singapore's worst racial riots, with 23 people dead, 454 injured and about 1,000 arrested.

Among those caught in the crosshairs that day was Raffles Institution schoolboy Ismail Ibrahim, the eldest brother of Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Singapore's current Minister for Information and Communications and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs as well as Cyber Security.

Dr Yaacob, 61, was eight years old at the time. In an interview with The Straits Times in September last year, he recalled how "worried sick" his family was. He said: "Ismail was caught in the whole thing on the way back and there was no telephone in our house."

Dr Yaacob's family was then living in a Changi kampung, where Somapah is today, and had many Chinese and Indian neighbours who were just as concerned about his brother's safety.

He added: "When Ismail finally came back, everybody, including the Chinese, was happy."

His late father, a law clerk, then formed a vigilante committee with the village headman and a few villagers to keep watch over all their neighbours in subsequent riots later that year. "It was a mixed team of Malays, Chinese and Indians. In fact, there was a Chinese village nearby, with gangsters and all, but they had a truce with us. They said, 'We protect one another; if an outsider comes, we go together and whack the outsider.'"

All that, he added, showed that the "seeds" of multi-culturalism had always been in Singapore.

He stressed, however, that these seeds were nurtured by the late founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and Mr Othman, and that they helped to "embed" multi-culturalism in Singaporean lives through, among other things, policies for Housing Board flats and the education system. Both men, Dr Yaacob noted, were convinced that "it was better for the Malays to be in Singapore than anywhere else", as the Government ensured that they had access to education and other channels for progress.

In Dr Yaacob's letter of condolence to Mr Othman's widow Lina Abdullah, 70, which was released yesterday, the minister said he found the late leader "sensitive and attentive" to the needs of Malay-Muslims here, to the extent that, with the help of Singapore's first attorney-general Ahmad Ibrahim, he successfully put in place a new system to order and administer their affairs. These ranged from registering their marriages and divorces to redistributing their wealth after death and administering madrasahs and mosques.

Besides attending Mr Othman's birthday celebrations in recent years, Dr Yaacob recalled meeting Mr Othman "several times" over a cup of coffee to discuss the challenge of preserving multi-culturalism in Singapore.

"He never came across as someone who kept insisting on his own way," said Dr Yaacob. "The one thing he kept on insisting is never to forget that multiracialism is important to us… and you can see it in the way he lived his life."

For instance, he stressed, the pioneer Cabinet minister never saw mosques as being different from anything else about Singapore.

"They had to be managed differently, professionally, and they had to deliver good services, which are Singaporean values that permeate everything in the Malay-Muslim community," Dr Yaacob said.

Today, thanks to Mr Othman's insistence on the highest standards in administering the Mosque Building Fund that he and Mr Lee implemented in May 1975, there are a total of 71 mosques in tiny Singapore.

Of these, 24 are new-generation ones, including the Yusof Ishak Mosque in Woodlands, named after Singapore's first President. The mosque was opened last Friday by Mr Yusof's widow, Puan Noor Aishah, in the presence of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Dr Yaacob.

It was an uphill task getting Singapore's Malay-Muslims to buy into even the idea of the fund. As Dr Yaacob put it: "It was no easy solution to force every Muslim worker to give 50 cents of the salary (to the fund)." In 1975, a packet of nasi lemak cost 30 cents.

Mr Othman's vision of multi-culturalism also lives on in the community's religious classes, said Dr Yaacob. "We teach them how to be good neighbours because your neighbour could be a Buddhist, Taoist and so on… You live side by side with non-Muslims and Muslims."

As Dr Yaacob noted in his condolence letter, Mr Othman was so "sensitive and attentive" to his community's needs that he "rolled up his sleeves" to clean neighbourhoods alongside them.

The move soon dispelled their distrust of him as a possible "traitor" to the community because he belonged to the People's Action Party, which they saw as pro-Chinese then.

Dr Yaacob's mother, who once lived in Kampung Ubi in Geylang Serai, saw her estate "transform" from a flood-prone area to one that is well landscaped.

He said: "Today, if you ask the elderly population including my mother, they say, 'We trusted him, that he would do the job.'"

Dr Yaacob believes the best way to preserve the multi-culturalism that Mr Othman so loved is to "build in our young a curiosity and appreciation of others" so that they do not think of themselves "as just a member of a race".

He added: "If you're not interested in knowing your neighbours, I think we're done for."

Othman Wok, multiculturalism and the nation
By Norman Vasu and Nur Diyanah Anwar, Published The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

Mr Othman Wok's death turns another sad page in the final chapter of Singapore's beginnings. As an unplanned child of international politics, Singapore - a multicultural island with an experience of communal conflict - faced, at independence in 1965, uncharted waters alone.

Mr Othman, as one of the signatories of the Separation Agreement with Malaysia, carried, perhaps, a greater weight than most upon his shoulders. He traced his lineage to pre-Raffles Singapore and was both Malay and a Muslim - a pedigree leading him to be branded an infidel and a traitor by Malay extremists for being a member of the PAP, a multiracial political party.

Mr Othman's greatest contribution to present-day multicultural Singapore is, undoubtedly, his belief that diversity need not be divisive - inter-communal differences within a nation are not necessarily incompatible with shared values and a shared destiny. His position took courage for an individual who - to use parlance of today - had more skin in the game than most.

The attention paid by Mr Othman to the Malay-Singaporean community was akin to the late US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun's view on race relations in the United States - that "to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently".

Mr Othman appreciated the unease some Malays may have felt immediately after independence. Overnight, the community found itself becoming a minority within a predominately Chinese polity. As the sole Malay Cabinet member, Mr Othman assured the community that its needs and affairs would continue to be looked after.

As social affairs minister from 1963 to 1977 and minister for culture from 1965 to 1968, Mr Othman was pivotal in ensuring the continued development and progress of Malays, post-independence.

For example, he introduced specific initiatives aimed at advancing the welfare of the Malay and Muslim communities. To raise the socio-economic status of Malays, Mr Othman saw to it that free education was provided from the primary to tertiary levels. In addition, the foundation of Yayasan Mendaki, an organisation that still plays a vital role in the Malay community today, was laid.

Arguably, one of Mr Othman's greatest contributions to the Malay-Muslim community was the development of the Administration of Muslim Law Act, which led to the establishment of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, the Syariah Court and the Registry of Muslim Marriages.

The Mosque Building Fund was also established, to guarantee the building and conservation of mosques in Singapore's housing estates as the country developed.

Another significant legacy was the establishment of the Singapore Pilgrimage Office, the first formal system of haj registration that allowed for the proficient and effective administration of haj matters for Singaporean pilgrims.

However, Mr Othman was not an individual focused on the needs of only one community. He, instead, understood that Singapore needed to be shaped into a community of communities - a tightly woven quilt. He argued for a nation that is not only multiracial and multi-religious, but also, simultaneously, Singaporean.

As social affairs minister, he introduced initiatives to bolster commonality and national identity.

For example, a national sports stadium was built to bring a newly created people together. Sports was to be a means through which Singaporeans could create and share a sense of identity. For those old enough to remember the Kallang Roar during the 1970s and 1980s, there is little doubt the stadium fulfilled its raison d'etre.

Further, the provision of social welfare to all was, for Mr Othman, another way to develop a sense of making progress together. He understood how Singapore's development depended on the overall progress and upkeep of its people, regardless of their racial or religious affiliations.

Following from this, Mr Othman was dedicated to improving the lives of disadvantaged groups such as the disabled and the aged. He also served to advance the rights of workers, and fought for better wages and working conditions via the labour movement.

All these were based on an idea that, despite Singapore's inadvertent nationhood, the polity possessed the agency and the energy to look beyond its differences and find unity in difference.

Has Singapore developed into the Singapore Mr Othman literally signed up for?

Most would probably agree it has. Singaporeans are generally comfortable with having multiple identities, such that they can simultaneously be part of the nation as well as part of an ethnic group and religion. The possession of a multiplicity of identities sits easy as these different identities are not seen to be in continual contestation with one another.

In effect, as Mr Othman wanted, Singapore has indeed become a community of communities.

Is the Singaporean project sustainable?

The truth of the matter is that no one knows. The nation has surmounted previous challenges to achieve inter-communal harmony and will, no doubt, face more in time to come.

Perhaps, the only way to ensure the project keeps ticking is to continually work at it with the confidence Mr Othman had in the nation. When confronted with an issue, his response was "we will get together, to face it and solve it. I have that confidence".

Norman Vasu is deputy head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University. Nur Diyanah Anwar is a research analyst in the Social Resilience Programme in the same centre.

A signature for separation - and a multiracial Singapore
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

When separation from Malaysia became imminent in August 1965, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew pulled Mr Othman Wok aside to speak to him privately about it.

Leaving Malaysia meant the Malay-Muslim community in Singapore would go from being a majority to a minority, and Mr Lee was worried that Mr Othman, the only Malay-Muslim member of the Cabinet, would oppose the separation.

But Mr Othman, who was minister for social affairs, readily agreed to put his signature to the separation agreement, demonstrating his steadfast support for a multiracial Singapore.

This sent a strong signal to other Malay-Muslim members of the People's Action Party (PAP), and none of them defected to other political parties over the separation issue.

The late Mr Lee, recounting the event at his 75th birthday dinner in 1998, said of Mr Othman: "Because of the courage and leadership you showed, not a single PAP leader wavered. That made a difference to Singapore."

Mr Othman, who died on Monday, aged 92, was one of 10 representatives from Singapore who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement when Singapore left Malaysia in 1965.

The other signatories were Mr Lee and eight other ministers: Dr Toh Chin Chye (deputy prime minister), Dr Goh Keng Swee (finance), Mr E. W. Barker (law), Mr S. Rajaratnam (culture), Mr Ong Pang Boon (education), Mr Yong Nyuk Lin (health), Mr Lim Kim San (national development) and Mr Jek Yeun Thong (labour).

With Mr Othman's death, only two members of this group of Old Guard leaders remain - Mr Ong, 88, and Mr Jek, 86.

Mr Ong was a member of self-governing Singapore's first Cabinet, formed after the PAP won the Legislative Assembly General Election in 1959. He was appointed minister for home affairs that year, and spearheaded the "anti-yellow culture" campaign to stamp out pornography, gambling dens, prostitution and secret societies.

He went on to hold other portfolios, including education, labour, environment and communications, until 1984. He remained a backbencher until he stepped down from politics in 1988.

Mr Jek was elected a member of the legislature in the 1963 General Election. He was appointed labour minister that year and tasked with reforming the trade unions that had been taken over by communists.

He subsequently also held ministerial positions for culture as well as science and technology until his retirement from politics in 1988.

As minister for culture, Mr Jek promoted Asian art and values as a "cultural ballast" against Western decadence.

After leaving politics, he became a diplomat. He was Singapore's high commissioner to the United Kingdom and ambassador to Denmark.

PM Lee to deliver eulogy at memorial service
By Tham Yuen-C, Assistant Political Editor, The Straits Times, 19 Apr 2017

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver a eulogy for the late Mr Othman Wok at a memorial service to be held at Victoria Concert Hall today.

Five others will also be speaking at the service organised by racial harmony advocacy group OnePeople.sg.

They are Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim; Minister of State Janil Puthucheary; Member of Parliament for Pasir Panjang from 1980 to 1991, Mr Abbas Abu Amin; MP for West Coast GRC Patrick Tay; and Mr Munir Shah, Mr Othman's son-in-law.

In a statement yesterday, Dr Puthucheary, who is chairman of OnePeople.sg, said: "Tuan Haji Othman Wok was a beacon for multiracial ideals and along with our pioneers helped lay the foundations of peace and harmony in Singapore. Today, we remember his life and his work as an inspiration to all Singaporeans."

More than 600 invited people are expected to attend the service, including President Tony Tan Keng Yam, Cabinet ministers, members of the judiciary, MPs and senior civil servants, as well as Mr Othman's family, his close friends and Old Guard colleagues.

Grassroots leaders from Pasir Panjang, the constituency Mr Othman represented for 18 years, will also be there, along with representatives from religious bodies, self-help groups and unions.

During the service, a video commemorating Mr Othman's contributions to Singapore will be screened. He was a member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet, and a champion of multiracialism.

At the end of the service, guests will observe a minute of silence and Majulah Singapura will be played.

Some roads will be closed to traffic to facilitate security arrangements for the service, said the State-assisted Funeral Organising Committee.

The affected roads, including Fullerton Road, Connaught Drive, St Andrew's Road (between Parliament Place and Coleman Street), Old Parliament Lane, Empress Place and Parliament Place (between Supreme Court Lane and St Andrew's Road), will be closed from 12pm today to 2am tomorrow.

Eight bus services - 75, 100, 107, 130, 131, 167, 195 and 961 - will be diverted as a result.

Traffic is expected to be heavy along surrounding roads and the Land Transport Authority has advised motorists to expect delays. Motorists and commuters can find more information at www.mytransport.sg, www.sbstransit.com.sg and www.smrt.com.sg

During the road closures, parking restrictions will be strictly enforced, and vehicles parked illegally or causing obstruction will be towed away.

The State-assisted Funeral Organising Committee also advised people against flying any unmanned aircraft, including drones, into or within the vicinity of Victoria Concert Hall.

Memorial Service of the late Othman Wok

They kept dream of a multiracial Singapore alive: PM Lee
He credits Othman Wok and his Malay colleagues' commitment to equality for all
By Zakir Hussain, Political Editor, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

The unwavering commitment of pioneer leader Othman Wok and his Malay colleagues to multiracialism made today's Singapore possible, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Speaking at the memorial service for one of Singapore's founding fathers, Mr Lee highlighted how Mr Othman and his Malay People's Action Party (PAP) comrades were steadfast in the face of death threats and racial riots during Singapore's two years in Malaysia.

They also held a sufficient portion of the Malay ground to tilt the scales, he noted, saying: "It is because they kept the dream of a multiracial society alive through those terrible dark days, that we are now able to say, 'We, the citizens of Singapore... regardless of race, language or religion.'"

That they were neither cowed nor convinced to break faith with the cause led then Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak to conclude, on a visit after the 1964 riots, that Singapore Malays were different from Malayan Malays.

"Singaporeans were an altogether obstreperous people," Mr Lee said of a conclusion that set in motion a train of events that led to Singapore leaving the federation on Aug 9, 1965.

A crucial decision, Mr Lee added, was Mr Othman's signing the Separation Agreement and Malay Singaporeans' accepting being a minority in a society based on equal rights for all.

"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 multiracial society," he said.

"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."

Mr Othman's dedication to a multiracial, multi-religious Singapore was a "golden thread" that ran through his long life, said Mr Lee.

Mr Lee was the first of six speakers to deliver eulogies for Mr Othman, who died on Monday, aged 92.

"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," he added.

Mr Othman's dedication to multiracialism was a core theme of the ceremony at Victoria Concert Hall, attended by 600 family members, friends and guests.

It was held a day after the state-assisted funeral, as Muslim custom requires burial as soon as possible.

Yesterday, speakers also paid tribute to Mr Othman's strength of character. Former MP Abbas Abu Amin and labour MP Patrick Tay spoke of his humility and warmth, and son-in-law Munir Shah spoke of his generosity.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said Mr Othman saw in multiracialism "the foundation of a cohesive nation". He effortlessly balanced his roles as a national and community leader, and ignited a "can-do" spirit in the Malay/Muslim community amid rapid change, Dr Yaacob said.

Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, chairman of OnePeople.sg which organised the memorial, said this approach to building a shared space, where communities were prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, was unprecedented.

He said: "The seeds that Mr Othman Wok planted - multiracialism, an approach to building a shared space... and a willingness to take on the challenges of the world around us - these have grown and the fruits of his labour are visible in the society we live in, the identity we share and the nation we are all proud of."


Othman was convinced, for good reason, that the (racial) riots (of 1964) 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 multiracial 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, multiracial Singapore.

But Othman and his Malay colleagues stood firm, and held a sufficient portion of the Singapore Malay ground. It is because they kept the dream of a multiracial society alive through those terrible dark days, that we are now able to say, 'We, the citizens of Singapore... regardless of race, language or religion.'

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, on pioneer leader Othman Wok's crucial role in establishing an independent, multiracial Singapore.

PM Lee: Singapore story would have been very different if not for Othman
PAP's Malay legislators withstood pressure to pick race over nation
By Toh Yong Chuan, Manpower Correspondent, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

When Singapore was a part of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, the People's Action Party's (PAP) Malay assemblymen came under relentless pressure to choose race over nation, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

They were also offered land and other riches to jump ship and join Umno, Malaysia's leading Malay party.

But the Malay members of the PAP were not cowed by threats of violence like the racial riots or tempted by wealth, and they remained resolute to the cause of multiracialism, he noted in his eulogy to pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok at a memorial service.

This led Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak to conclude, during a visit to Singapore after the July 1964 racial riots, that Singapore Malays were different from Malayan Malays, Mr Lee said.

"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 motion a train of events which led to August 9, 1965," he said of Singapore's Independence story.

Had the Malay PAP leaders wavered, the party would have lost the moral authority to champion its ideal of a multiracial country, and the Singapore story would have turned out very differently, he said.

Mr Lee recounted the events as he described the Malay community's pivotal role in how Singapore turned out. "If Othman and his Malay colleagues had lost heart, the PAP's claim to be a multiracial 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, multiracial Singapore.

"Othman and his Malay colleagues stood firm, and held a sufficient portion of the Singapore Malay ground. It is because they kept the dream of a multiracial society alive through those terrible dark days, that we are now able to say 'We, the citizens of Singapore... regardless of race, language or religion'," Mr Lee said.

Mr Othman, who died on Monday at age 92, had an illustrious life as a journalist, a writer, a unionist, a politician and a diplomat, the Prime Minister noted.

But the golden thread that ran through his life was his commitment to the ideal of a multiracial and multi-religious Singapore.

Mr Othman, who joined the PAP in 1954, became a member of the Legislative Assembly in 1963 after winning the Pasir Panjang constituency in the general election.

As a Malay PAP assemblyman during the days when communalist emotions ran high, he was abused, threatened and denounced by Malaysia's Umno politicians.

"They were called 'kafirs' or infidels. They received death threats. Othman recalled that some of his (election) posters were smeared with faeces," said Mr Lee.

It was also during this period that Mr Othman would witness the dangers of racial politics first-hand.

In July 1964, he was leading the PAP contingent in a procession to mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday when racial riots broke out and engulfed Singapore. A cool-headed Mr Othman led his group to safety, but the incident was seared in his memory.

In the aftermath of the riots, he accompanied then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on community visits to calm the ground and restore confidence and racial harmony.

PM Lee said yesterday that in those tumultuous times, the Malay community in Singapore also held fast to the ideals of multiracialism.

When the Separation Agreement was being settled, Mr Lee Kuan Yew approached Mr Othman to ask if he would sign the document. He readily agreed, recounted PM Lee.

"That was a crucial decision. 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 multiracial society.

"But it was because Malay Singaporeans and Malay PAP leaders in 1965 embraced the nobler dream of a shared national 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," PM Lee said.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as prime minister in 1990, he recommended to the President a special list of state honours to recognise the pioneers who had built Singapore. Mr Othman was awarded the Order of Nila Utama.

"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."

He recalled Mr Othman saying at an interview: "'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 country."

Ending his eulogy with a Malay poem, PM Lee said: "Debts of gold we can repay, but debts of kindness will be carried to all our lives."

He added: On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you, Othman. May you rest in peace."

Ethos of multiracialism a model for all time, says Yaacob
Othman's beliefs and conviction even more important amid extreme ideologies today
By Zhaki Abdullah and Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

The ethos of multiracialism espoused by Mr Othman Wok is even more important today, with extreme ideologies proliferating on many fronts, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim yesterday.

In such a climate, there is a greater need for "courageous souls" like Mr Othman to speak up for diversity, Dr Yaacob added in his eulogy for the pioneer minister, who died on Monday at age 92.

Speaking at a memorial service for Mr Othman, he said: "The battle for respect, trust and mutual understanding is won, and will always be won, when men like Othman Wok fight with sheer passion and conviction against any force that seeks to divide us."

Men like him do not use violence but stand their ground "with the spirit of empathy and respect for their fellow men", he added. "They will forever be our models and beacons for a better future."

Mr Othman's role in uniting a nation that could have fractured along racial lines was highlighted yesterday in the eulogies of both Dr Yaacob and Minister of State Janil Puthucheary.

Reflecting on Mr Othman's steadfast belief in multiracialism, Dr Yaacob said it stemmed from his life experiences. As "an ordinary clerk thrust into public life", he faced difficult choices at a time when Singapore was forging its own identity amid its newfound independence.

"He could have been part of a society where he would be comfortable as part of the privileged majority, never mind that the minorities would feel less than welcome."

Instead, Mr Othman chose to be part of a new nation "founded on the principles of multiracialism, where everyone would have equal opportunities to succeed".

Mr Othman had made his choice when he joined the People's Action Party in 1954, Dr Yaacob said.

He had "kept his faith" with the party's model for a diverse society in the years before Singapore's independence in 1965, despite "economic survival, racial riots, chauvinistic elements pulling constantly at the hearts and minds of our Malay community", he added.

As a minister, Mr Othman also saw sports as a "powerful unifying force" that transcended race, language and religion, and had worked hard to establish some of Singapore's sporting institutions.

"I can only imagine Encik Othman's satisfaction when he saw Singaporeans cheering on Team Singapore as one during the Olympics and Paralympics last year, and the SEA Games and Asean Para Games the year before."

Dr Janil in his eulogy said Mr Othman had sown the seeds for "an approach to building a shared space built on compromise and sacrifice".

Dr Janil, who is chairman of racial harmony advocacy group OnePeople.sg, said this "untried, difficult, challenging" approach of Singapore's pioneer leaders was "quite unlike anything that had been attempted in history".

It required sacrifice from all communities and races, who had to recognise their differences and work to overcome them.

"All our people sacrificed something, majority and minorities alike together - language, religious practice, dress codes, social customs, aspects of education. We were all prepared to give up something for the greater good," said Dr Janil.

"We developed a consciousness that in matters of racial harmony, giving was better than taking, sacrifice and compromise were better than winning."

Another legacy of Mr Othman and the pioneer leaders was that "we do not have to accept the world as it is".

At a time when kampungs were racially segregated, and jobs and education were available to only certain groups, "it is remarkable for a handful of people to believe that their ideas could heal and shape the entire nation", said Dr Janil.

To look at people of different faiths, ideals and religions and "find the common shared vision... some common humanity and to make the choice to stand with them... this is a different type of courage".

Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said that as a national leader, Mr Othman helped forge a multiracial Singapore, and as a leader of the Malay-Muslim community, he had also made lasting contributions.

He cited as an example Mr Othman's part in introducing the Administration of Muslim Law Act.

"Encik Othman may have left us, but we must always remember that he has left his legacy about what this nation, our Singapore, stands for - courage, conviction and a deep- seated commitment to the ideal of multiracialism," he said.

No special treatment for Minister 'Ozzy' in volunteer force
By Danson Cheong, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

While being the Minister for Social Affairs, Mr Othman Wok was also an officer cadet in the fledgling People's Defence Force (PDF).

But he did not receive any special treatment, recalled 70-year-old Tien Chao Heng yesterday.

"It was an inspiration to all of us, because here was someone who was a minister that was getting the same tongue-lashing and shouting as us," he said.

Mr Tien was an officer cadet with Mr Othman in the 1960s, when both men volunteered to serve in the PDF, a corps of volunteer soldiers that would train on weekends.

The pioneer Cabinet minister, who died on Monday aged 92, was 41 when he joined the PDF.

After his memorial service yesterday, Mr Tien and other volunteers recounted their time in military service with one of the nation's founding fathers.

Mr Othman was a man who, despite his political stature, was respectful and humble and loved to crack jokes, they said. "He never talked down to people... he behaved like he was one of us," said Mr Tien.

The men gave nicknames to one another, and Mr Othman's was "Ozzy".

A former MP for Pasir Panjang, Mr Abbas Abu Amin, said Mr Othman always respected officers with a higher rank. Mr Abbas held the rank of major in the PDF and he said Mr Othman, then a captain, always saluted him first. "We all thought that no matter how high your rank was in the army, you should always respect a minister, but the moment (Mr Othman) is in uniform, he would be respecting you as a senior officer," said Mr Abbas.

Mr Tien said that in those early days, the camaraderie among the men was high. They would joke with one another to soften the blow of tough training in the jungle and the "not-so-palatable" food.

"If someone asked how the food was, we would say 'the chilli sauce was nice' or 'the light sauce was delicious'," said Mr Tien with a chuckle.

In his eulogy yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong paid tribute to Mr Othman for volunteering with the PDF at a time when the country "urgently needed to build up the Singapore Armed Forces".

Other pioneer ministers who were also in the volunteer force included Mr Ong Pang Boon, now 88, and Mr Jek Yeun Thong, now 86.

Mr Othman would go on to march in the first National Day Parade in 1966 as an officer cadet, and then as a lieutenant leading the PDF contingent the following year.

"Othman was one of several ministers who volunteered, to set an example and underline the importance of defence," said Mr Lee.

Beloved father, MP and active unionist
Tributes to pioneer minister show his devotion to country, deep love for family and belief in power of labour unions
By Joanna Seow and Rachel Au-Yong, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

Mr Munir Shah had been courting Ms Lily Othman for some time when he suggested having a proper meal with his prospective father-in-law, Mr Othman Wok.

The younger man had set out to impress the pioneer Cabinet minister, who died on Monday at the age of 92, but was quickly put in his place.

When Mr Shah said he was schooled at Raffles Institution, Mr Othman replied that he too had studied there.

When Mr Shah bragged about the club facilities next to the Shell refinery on Pulau Bukom where he worked, Mr Othman retorted that he had cut the ribbon at the opening of the club, and Pulau Bukom was in the Pasir Panjang constituency he was MP for.

"The coup de grace came when he said, 'The woman that you have been dating is my daughter. She is mine, but she will be yours only if you behave yourself'. I was rendered speechless," Mr Shah, 64, said to laughter at the memorial service for Mr Othman last night.

"He was a quiet, unassuming person, but he could deliver a killer punch. And I felt that I got away quite lightly, because Lily eventually became my wife with his blessing."

Mr Shah also shared in his eulogy how Mr Othman had introduced his youngest daughter Diana to Japanese food, and how Diana would leave the last piece of salmon for her father Mr Othman, because she knew how much he loved it.

"It was a mark of the profound love between father and daughter. Lina Abdullah - his wife - and Safiah, Dahlia and Lily (his daughters) can also vouch for this enduring love."

But family came second for Mr Othman, who always put the country first, he said, adding that Mr Othman professed a shared responsibility for the well-being of the nation.

Mr Othman, who was in independent Singapore's first Cabinet, saw founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew as an architect in nation building and himself as a builder.

He had an "unflinching loyalty" to Mr Lee, because of his utmost respect for him, said Mr Shah.

Guests gathered at the Victoria Concert Hall yesterday also heard about Mr Othman's kindness towards his fellow People's Action Party (PAP) colleagues.

Former MP Abbas Abu Amin, who was Mr Othman's successor at his Pasir Panjang constituency, recounted how the minister had supported his 1980 General Election campaign, by personally persuading residents to vote for him.

Pasir Panjang was a PAP stronghold, but campaigning was difficult as the pro-communist Barisan Sosialis - formed by a breakaway group from the PAP - was a formidable force then.

"I saw up close how Encik Othman connected easily with his grassroots leaders, villagers and residents," said Mr Abbas in Malay.

He added that Mr Othman remained popular as he got older, and kept active by playing soccer at Farrer Park. "I was impressed by his energy and enthusiasm, and how he continued to stay grounded and connected. Many people liked to approach him and talk to him," he said.

Labour MP Patrick Tay, in a eulogy on behalf of the labour movement, described Mr Othman as a firm believer in the power of unions. He recounted how Mr Othman, a journalist, was elected honorary secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees' Union (SPEU) in 1951. They trusted that he would, as their representative, fight for them.

"He did not disappoint and served with distinction and pride," said Mr Tay, NTUC's assistant secretary-general.

It was during his time as a journalist and unionist that Mr Othman developed a relationship with Mr Lee, who was legal adviser to SPEU as well as to Utusan Melayu, where Mr Othman worked.

Said Mr Tay: "The friendship between Mr Lee and Encik Othman grew over the years. When Mr Lee set up the People's Action Party in (November) 1954, he invited Encik Othman to join the party. Encik Othman accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history."

Remembering Othman Wok: Sombre reminder of Old Guard leaders and their sacrifices
By Li Xueying, Deputy News Editor, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2017

Yesterday afternoon, Mrs Jek Yeun Thong, 83, put on a black dress, clasped a necklace around her neck and slipped on a pair of embroidered sandals.

As she dressed, she took care not to tell her husband where she was going: Mr Othman Wok's memorial service.

Mr Jek, Singapore's first minister for labour after independence, is now 86 and has been bedridden the past two years after suffering two strokes.

His wife told The Straits Times: "I don't want him upset. The past few times, when I told him that someone had died, he cried."

With the passage of time there is, understandably, a sense of loss when another Old Guard leader leaves the scene.

With Mr Othman's passing on Monday, two members of that august band of first-generation leaders from the People's Action Party (PAP) remain: Mr Jek and Mr Ong Pang Boon, 88, the country's first home affairs minister.

Throw the net wider to include the 64 members of Singapore's first Parliament, and seven are known to be living, having made rare public appearances.

It is a generation of which much has been written, but whose story bears telling again and again. A constant thread is the sacrifices made. Not least among them was Mr Othman.

He died on Monday, aged 92.

As the most senior of the PAP's Malay members in the 1960s, he was the one person most prominently put in the position of being caught between the visceral pull of race and the need to form a multicultural nation, as Singapore and Kuala Lumpur battled over the kind of Malaysia that should emerge.

In the process, Mr Othman and his colleagues came under immense pressure. They were branded kafirs or infidels, recounted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday. They received death threats. Some of Mr Othman's posters were smeared with faeces.

But he never wavered, and "not a single Malay PAP Legislative Assemblyman jumped ship, though they knew they would have been richly rewarded had they done so".

That sense of putting nation - at a time when it was still an inchoate entity - over self, family and community was hardly limited to Mr Othman.

Yesterday, Mr Ong, who walked unaided to his front-row seat next to Mr Othman's family, listened intently as Dr Janil Puthucheary paid tribute to his generation:

"All communities gave up something, all our people sacrificed something, majority and minorities alike together - language, religious practice, dress codes, social customs, aspects of education.

"We were all prepared to give up something for the greater good. We developed a consciousness that in matters of racial harmony, giving was better than taking, sacrifice and compromise were better than winning."

It would have resonated with Mr Ong, who incidentally was introduced to PAP's leaders in 1955 by Dr Puthucheary's uncle James, a fellow member of the University of Malaya Socialist Club.

As minister for education from 1963 to 1970, Mr Ong spearheaded the bilingual policy in 1966 making it compulsory for students to learn two languages, including the teaching of English in Chinese vernacular schools.

It paved the way for English to become Singapore's common working language, and also eventually led to a shift in the predominant language spoken at home. This became English.

A Chinese-educated KL boy himself, Mr Ong then had to convince the Chinese-speaking community to subsume their communal interests under national interests - even as it came at the cost of a generation that felt itself culturally displaced.

The Old Guard's ethos of multiracialism is more important than ever today, with the rise of extreme ideologies, as Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim put it.

And PM Lee yesterday recounted what Mr Othman had said at one of his last interviews: "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."

Now, Singapore's survival is not the principal concern for many of those from the first generation, given their own dignified struggles with the afflictions of time.

Mr Ho Kah Leong, 80, a former parliamentary secretary, chuckled at his own efforts, saying yesterday at the Victoria Concert Hall: "I swim, exercise and paint. I try to keep active."

Mr Othman too remained light of heart and pursued his other interests in his years after politics.

He gained a following of fans when he compiled ghost stories that he had written in Jawi in the early 1950s, into a book titled Malayan Horrors. Even as he later battled cancer, he organised makan sessions with friends and burnished his reputation as a joker who loved to tease his friends.

When looking back at his contributions in his biography, he wrote: "Where my contribution to Singapore is concerned, I leave it for others to judge me. I think I've done the best that I could do."

And yesterday, as the national anthem played in Mr Othman's honour, and his peers rose somewhat unsteadily to their feet, that is a sentiment that perhaps most of them feel just as keenly.

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