Remembering Othman Wok (1924-2017): Once an MP, now he's a 'JC'

Mr Othman works on the typewriter he used to churn out ghost stories for Utusan Melayu in the 1950s as his granddaughter Indriana looks on. PHOTO: ST FILE
Mr Othman works on the typewriter he used to churn out ghost stories for Utusan Melayu in the 1950s as his granddaughter Indriana looks on. PHOTO: ST FILE

They were once very much in the public eye, people who made a name for themselves in their respective fields. What have they been up to since they stepped out of the spotlight? Today, we catch up with former Cabinet minister Othman Wok in this occasional series, Do You Remember?

This article was first published in The New Paper on April 23, 2000 

Othman Wok has a smile on his face as he says: "I work from the morning till 2 pm. After that I become JC."

JC? Before I can guess he laughingly explains: "Jaga cucu" (Malay for "baby-sitting the grandchildren").

These days that's the favourite occupation of the former Minister for Social Affairs and Culture, long-time Member of Parliament for Pasir Panjang and part of our illustrious political "Old Guard".

He is 76, trim, fit, sociable as always, and a fervent fan of his wife Lina's cooking.

"People keep asking her to open a restaurant," he says of his 52-year-old spouse. "She cooks mostly fish and vegetables for me. It's how I keep my figure!"


Mr Othman in the garden of his home in 2000 with wife Lina (holding baby Sabrina) and granddaughter Indriana. PHOTO: ST FILE 

Mr Othman officially retired from public office in 1981. He was a Minister from 1963 to 1977 and then Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia till his retirement.

"I seriously considered going back to journalism. But first I took about three months' leave. I was enjoying myself when I got a call from the Prime Minister's Office," he reminisces.

"Before I knew it I was a board member of the Singapore Tourism Board and Sentosa Development Corporation.

"I was to be a sort of 'tourist guide' to visiting dignitaries."

THIS IS RETIREMENT?

The two appointments lasted till 1994 and 1997 respectively.

However, on the very day both appointments began - April 1, 1981 - he also became a director of an investment company.

He still is, as well as being a director of about 10 other companies. This includes being on the board of Utusan Melayu, where he began his professional life as a reporter in 1946.

"I'm also a permanent member of the Presidential Council for Minority Rights," he says, "and that stretches to infinity."

So the word retirement doesn't really figure in his vocabulary.

"I don't want to give the impression that I am a workhorse," he laughs. "Tomorrow, like I do every Thursday, I shall be playing 18 holes of golf."

His handicap is 24. "Good enough for a social golfer," as he puts it.

The golf games are permanent fixtures in his diary. He belongs to three clubs - Singapore Island Country Club, Sentosa Golf Club and Palm Resorts in Johor Bahru.

He also organises twice-yearly golf trips to courses in Australia, Thailand, Malaysia and elsewhere.

"Five or six days of pure golf," he says, "Only my golf buddies and I, no wives. If we took them along they'd want to go shopping and it would be a strain on our credit cards."

Quite a contrast, for he started out hating golf.

"When Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew called me in 1977 to ask me to accept the appointment as ambassador to Indonesia, he asked me if I played golf.

"I said I didn't and he advised me to start. There were 99 ambassadors there at the time and not many of them played golf. The game was not as wildly popular as it is today.

"I took a crash course and hated it for years, though I don't need to tell anyone that many business deals and political decisions are made on the golf course."

Golf may be a passion. But his heart clearly belongs to his five daughters from two marriages.

NINE GRANDCHILDREN

And now even more so to his nine grandchildren. They range in age from 1 1/2 months to 23 years.

Somewhere in a graciously-appointed bungalow in the Katong area, little Indriana, three, and Sabrina (just six weeks old) spend fun-filled afternoons with their Datuk (grandfather).

"I look forward to this part of my day," says Mr Othman. But although I spend only half a day at the office - and ponteng (play hooky) every Thursday for my golf game, I am still pretty busy."

Life isn't as hectic as it used to be, when the appointments diary was filled to overflowing, but he is still more active than many "retirees" 10 years his junior.

Great ghosts! He's writing again

He's itching to write again.

Mr Othman was a well-known journalist before politics claimed him, and has always had the hankering to write.

In the 90s, he produced two books of horror stories - Malayan Horror, in English and going into its fifth reprint, and Cerita2 Seram (Malayan Horror Stories).

Most were written during his days at Utusan Melayu. They were done at the behest of Mr Yusof Ishak, founding editor of Utusan Melayu, who was to become Singapore's first president.

"Ghosts, horror and the supernatural ... that is all part of our Malay culture," says Mr Othman.

"Malays just love stories like these and Yusof Ishak asked me to write one every week for the Sunday edition called Utusan Zaman.

"Sure enough, the circulation almost tripled.

GAVE HIMSELF THE CREEPS

"I'd write about everything. You know the old favourites - Pontianak, Orang Minyak ... I would always write at midnight when everyone was in bed and the house was quiet. That way I could give myself the creeps.

"My third daughter Lily, a journalist, kept bugging me to compile the books. And she finally did it herself."

He must be feeling the urge to write again: He has just dusted off the old typewriter with which he wrote some of his original stories.

Why a typewriter in this Internet age?

"I have a PC, but I'm not the greatest expert at all that," he says candidly. "I have one in the office, so I do much of my writing there.

"Like that any time I have a problem I can yell for my secretary and she'll come running in to help me.

"I don't have one at home. No secretary there! And this typewriter. It is pure nostalgia. I hope it will last."

Soon to be launched will be the autobiography he has been working on for the past seven years.

But the ghosts of his past are also back to haunt him.

So his wife, Lina, shouldn't get too alarmed if she starts hearing strange noises in the house in the dead of night.

It will just be her husband oiling up the typewriter ... and trying to give himself the creeps.

A history buff, and proud of it

For the past four years, Mr Othman has been giving regular talks to students - from secondary and junior college, and polytechnic - grassroots leaders and civil servants.

The subject? Singapore's history , which is very close to his heart. He is after all a true-blue Malay Singaporean.

"Get that right," he emphasises, "Malay SINGAPOREAN.

"You know, when Raffles landed in Singapore, some of my relatives were standing there on the beach. We were here before this place was discovered by the British. This story has been handed down from generation to generation.

"I come from orang laut (sea gypsies) stock. Some lived in huts on stilts near the shore, some lived on boats. We were originally from the Riau islands.

"That's why when I talk to young people about the history of our country, it really means something to me."

Understandably, since he figures prominently in the early history of Singapore.

"I am very proud of the great strides the Malay community has taken," he says firmly.

"There is no denying that at that time they were the most backward of the three ethnic groups. There was no great emphasis on education.

"Talking to young Malays today, I can feel that they have a sense of personal pride . That they feel they have worked hard to get where they are.

"It warms my heart today to see Malays actively participating in every sector of the economy. Their English language skills have also improved by leaps and bounds. And this has certainly helped in uplifting our community."