Othman Wok: 1924-2017

Beloved father, MP and active unionist

Attendees observing a minute of silence at the memorial service at Victoria Concert Hall yesterday.
Attendees observing a minute of silence at the memorial service at Victoria Concert Hall yesterday.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Tributes to pioneer minister show his devotion to country, deep love for family and belief in power of labour unions

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.

LOVING FATHER

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. 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 MUNIR SHAH, Mr Othman's son-in-law.

"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."

 

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2017, with the headline 'Beloved father, MP and active unionist'. Print Edition | Subscribe