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Life and times of Yusof Ishak, Singapore's first president

Published on Aug 18, 2014 3:45 PM

SINGAPORE - In his National Day Rally speech on Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced three ways the country will pay tribute to Mr Yusof Ishak, who was appointed Singapore's Yang di-Pertuan Negara six months after it gained self-government in 1959 and named the first president of an independent Singapore in 1965.

The new mosque in Woodlands will be named Masjid Yusof Ishak; the Institute of South East Asian Studies (Iseas) in the National University of Singapore will now be known as Iseas - The Yusof Ishak Institute;  and a Yusof Ishak Professorship in Social Sciences will be started at NUS.

We look back at the milestones in the life of Mr Yusof, who died in 1970 at age 60.
1. Yusof Ishak was born in Perak on Aug 12, 1910, the oldest of nine children of a civil servant, Ishak Ahmad. His father was transferred to Singapore in 1923 to be Assistant Inspector of Fisheries.

2. He attended Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School) for his primary education before entering Raffles Institution, where he was one of 13 students and the only Malay in the Queen’s Scholarship class. He missed out on the scholarship by a few points.

3. Mr Yusof not only excelled in his studies but he was also a good athlete, representing RI in many games including hockey, cricket, swimming, water polo, basketball, boxing and weightlifting. As a boxer, he won the Aw Boon Par cup in 1932. In weightlifting, he became  the national lightweight champion in 1933.

4. He got a taste of politics from his father who was an active member of the Singapore Malay Union, where the future president of Singapore would later become a youth leader.

5. In 1938, together with 20 Malay leaders in Singapore, he started Utusan Melayu, a newspaper dedicated to Malay issues, and which championed the need for the community to modernise and focus on education. Utusan Melayu, first published in 1939, was the first paper to be owned and financed by the Malays.

6. In 1948, he wed Noor Aishah Mohd Salim in an arranged marriage when she was just 16 years old and he was 39. They had three children - two daughters and a son.

7. After the war, Utusan Melayu, which had been closed during the Japanese occupation, reopened in 1945. In 1957, Mr Yusof moved from Singapore to live in Kuala Lumpur, and the Utusan Melayu headquarters also shifted there.

8. In 1959, he resigned from the newspaper and moved back to Singapore to take up the position of chairman of the Public Service Commission of Singapore, at the invitation of Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister.

9. After the PAP won the 1959 election and Singapore achieved self-government, Mr Yusof was appointed the Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore, or Head of State.

10. When Singapore gained independence on Aug 9, 1965, he became the first President of the Republic of Singapore.

11. As president of the newly independent Singapore, he reached out to the people to reassure citizens stunned by the country's ejection from Malaysia. He visited constituencies around the island, standing in an open Land Rover, walking for hours in the hot sun.

12. On July 29, 1966, Mr Lee declared open Yusof Ishak Secondary School at Jubilee Road. It is the only school to be named after a Singapore president.

13. In his 1968 New Year message, Mr Yusof said: “No man need feel that to belong to a particular religion puts him at a disadvantage or gives him an advantage... This is how things are in Singapore and this is how things must always be in our country. Only in this way can a multiracial society like Singapore live in peace and prosperity.”

14. His health started to fail in 1968 and he was hospitalised for heart trouble and other illnesses. He died of heart failure in Nov 23, 1970, while still in office, and was buried at the Kranji State Cemetary.  

15. His portrait appears on the Singapore Portrait Series currency notes introduced in 1999.