Remembering Lee Kuan Yew

Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Trusted friend and political comrade

Othman Wok, 90, served in Cabinet as Social Affairs Minister from 1963 to 1977

My friendship with Lee Kuan Yew began in 1952. He agreed to represent postal workers pro bono in their strike negotiations with the colonial government. One day, he arrived at the offices of the Malay daily, Utusan Melayu, where I was chief reporter, to provide updates about concessions he had secured on behalf of the workers.

What struck me was his willingness to fight for them, most of whom were Malays and Indians. This is a good man, I remember thinking to myself. His multiracial outlook coincided with mine.

I came to trust Kuan Yew and to respect him as a friend and a political comrade. His firm non-communal, non-communist stance drew my deep admiration. I believed in his cause and was prepared to stand with and fight alongside him.

It was this loyalty to him that exposed me to accusations within the radical segments of the Malay community that I "sold my soul to the Chinese".

In 1964, Umno secretary-general Syed Jaafar Albar arrived in Singapore from Kuala Lumpur to whip up communalist emotions among the Malays here. He urged Malays to unite against Kuan Yew. The crowd cheered his calls, shouting: "Kill LKY! Kill Othman Wok!"

We eventually learnt that the riots that year during the procession to mark Prophet Muhammad's Birthday were a premeditated attempt to cause trouble in Singapore.

My friends from Utusan Melayu in Kuala Lumpur later said they were informed ahead of time that there would be a riot in Singapore that day. It was not spontaneous. It was planned by radical Malay leaders who came from north of the Causeway.

Faced with a difficult dilemma, Kuan Yew stayed true to his multiracial principles. He did his best to push for his vision of a Malaysian Malaysia. When it was clear that then Malaysian PM Tunku Abdul Rahman would have none of it, Separation became inevitable.

On the day the Separation document had to be signed in Kuala Lumpur, Kuan Yew took me aside and asked: "If I sign this Separation agreement, would you sign?"

I was the only Malay Cabinet minister at the time, and Kuan Yew was worried I would oppose it. I assured him I would sign.

I told him my concerns were about how we were going to cope with the communist threat in an independent Singapore. He said to me: "You don't worry. I will handle them."

He made good on this promise, dealing firmly and deftly with the communists after Independence. Some have expressed disagreement with Kuan Yew on his subsequent actions, since many of those detained continued to insist for many years that they were not communists.

This is a misunderstanding of how the communists worked in that era. They did not admit they were communists then because communist organisations had been declared illegal from the time of the Malayan Emergency. So it became their strategy to go underground and to secretly infiltrate groups throughout society. My good friend Samad Ismail, also an Utusan Melayu newsman, did not admit to being a communist at the time, but he turned out to be a card-carrying member of the Malayan Communist Party.

Samad was detained in Malaysia in the 1970s. I have no doubt there were detainees in Singapore who, like him, were underground communist members or strong communist sympathisers who fought for the same violent cause. Kuan Yew fought the communists vigorously and Singapore is better off because of it.

To me, the key quality that distinguished him was his decisiveness. When he took a decision, he followed through and was willing to confront the consequences head on. That is the type of man he was, that is why I was most willing to serve in his Cabinet.

In his later years, we did not meet much, since he had his health problems and I had mine. But on the few occasions that I met him, I could see that he had mellowed.

If Kuan Yew had not entered politics, Singapore would have turned out very different. Perhaps Singapore would have been taken over by the Malaysian government, which would have installed a Malay leadership. Perhaps the communists would have come into power after Separation.

Either way, Singapore would have been much worse off. Kuan Yew was a great man who loved his country and who answered the nation's call at a time of crisis and upheaval. For Singapore, there will not be another Lee Kuan Yew after Lee Kuan Yew.