Remembering Othman Wok: 5 ways he left his mark on Singapore

Former minister of Social Affairs Othman Wok with his photographs of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He has fond memories of Mr Lee as a good leader who was approachable and honest.
Former minister of Social Affairs Othman Wok with his photographs of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He has fond memories of Mr Lee as a good leader who was approachable and honest.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Singapore's first Minister for Social Affairs, Mr Othman Wok, is remembered as dedicated politician who was a firm believer of a multi-racial Singapore.

He died on Monday (April 17) at the age of 92, after being hospitalised for over a week due to a chest infection and stomach complications.

Besides serving the Pasir Panjang constituency as MP for 18 years, he did pioneering work in sports, social services and Muslim affairs. He was conferred the Order of Nila Utama (2nd Class) in 1983 for his political, economic and social contributions to Singapore and its nation-building efforts.

Here are five ways Mr Othman left his mark on the country.

1. Signing the Separation Agreement

Mr Othman's signature is among the 10 from People's Action Party (PAP) ministers on the Independence of Singapore Agreement 1965, when Singapore split from Malaysia.

Separation meant that, overnight, the Malay-Muslim community would go from being a majority to a minority, and radical segments of the community had tried to whip up communalist emotions among the people. But Mr Othman stood by his belief that a multicultural Singapore would work, and signed the agreement.

2. Building Singapore's first National Stadium

As Minister for Culture and Social Affairs, Mr Othman set up a sports department within his ministry in 1966. He championed local sports and oversaw the construction of the former National Stadium in Kallang, Singapore's first large-scale sporting arena.

The Olympic-standard stadium, which cost about $50 million to build, was opened in 1973 and hosted the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular Games, and the 1983 and 1993 South-east Asian Games, as well as 18 National Day Parades before it closed in 2007.

Mr Othman also helped form the Singapore National Olympic Council and chaired the National Sports Promotion Board, through which he strove to bring sports to all Singaporeans.

3. Social services

During his years as Social Affairs Minister from 1963 to 1977, Mr Othman worked to advance the quality of social welfare services. His ministry went from providing the basic functions of assistance and rehabilitation to also focus on social progress for national development, the Ministry of Social and Family Development said in a statement on Monday.

In 1968, Mr Othman initiated the incorporation of the Singapore Council of Social Service, now the National Council of Social Service, to better focus social welfare efforts.

He was also an advocate of improving the training of social workers and volunteers.

4. Supporting the Muslim community

Mr Othman was involved in the introduction and implementation of the Administration of Muslim Law Act 1966, to establish a central governing body for Muslim matters. The Act came into operation in 1968 and 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 Mr Othman's "greatest legacy".

Together with founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and other Malay MPs, Mr Othman also developed the Mosque Building Fund which has supported the building of 26 modern generation mosques to date.

5. Champion of multiracialism

When the PAP was formed in 1954, Mr Othman joined the party as he believed in its policy of multiracialism, even though this later led to him being denounced by Malay supremacists as a "traitor".

In 1963, after being elected MP for Pasir Panjang constituency, he became the only Malay minister in independent Singapore's first Cabinet.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong hailed him for being "steadfast and unwavering in believing in a multiracial, multi-religious, meritocratic Singapore", in his condolence letter to Mr Othman's wife Lina on Monday.

"After Separation, Encik Othman's conviction gave heart to Malay Singaporeans, and made it possible for us to remain a multi-racial society," he wrote.