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The Straits Times says

He gave credence to 'we, the citizens'

The separation of Singapore from Malaysia by political fiat over five decades ago created a lacuna in how the new city-state ought to be "imagined as a community". That term refers to how an idea of a nation is socially constructed and is shared by its people. Thus, when the idea of being Malaysian faded, after the break-up, another arose later to fill the perceptual gap: "we, the citizens of Singapore". It is the city's good fortune that the new concept of nationhood chosen by its founding fathers rested on the ideal of multiracialism. Had people seen themselves as discrete groups, each with its own territory, so to speak, Singapore would not have matured as a nation. Instead, its founding fathers, like Mr Othman Wok who died on Monday, upheld the lived experience of diversity evident in many kampungs and settlements, and developed multiculturalism as a political process.

The reverse process is evident in cities elsewhere facing migration tensions, where "national politics has become infused with issues of group definition", as an American commentator put it. Faced with voter resentment in many quarters, politicians have shied away from strongly advocating multiracialism. Some intellectuals argue for a minimal role of the state in the face of cultural diversity. Apart from ensuring different groups keep the peace, the liberal state is enjoined to do nothing - it "should not be in the business of trying to determine which cultures will prevail", as an Australian political theorist argued.

Fortunately for Singapore, its pioneer leaders sought to ensure the cultures of all its people would prevail. The state was active in its support of all groups, and promoted an inclusive and cohesive society. What the leadership was up against were fears that things would turn out adversely for particular groups, like the Malays who went from being part of a majority to a minority. Were it not for the conviction Mr Othman had in multiracialism, some of them might have wavered during the turbulent 1960s which saw communal riots on both sides of the Causeway.

As a signatory to the Separation Agreement, Mr Othman had no doubt Singaporeans would hold together, and he laboured to both help the Malay community to build itself and to forge close links with others. His achievement as both an authentic community leader and a credible national leader serves as an inspiration for present and future leaders. They are faced with divisive pressures, fed by the social media, which are threatening to become an entrenched part of the political scene everywhere.

Mr Othman saw the visceral grip of ethnic mistrust but never ceased to believe Singaporeans could forge a national identity. Evidence of this bond echoed in the Kallang Roar at the first National Stadium, which Mr Othman played a part in building, out of his love for sports and country.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2017, with the headline 'He gave credence to 'we, the citizens''. Print Edition | Subscribe