They kept dream of a multiracial Singapore alive: PM Lee

Mr Othman Wok played a pivotal role in Singapore’s history, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the memorial service for the late Cabinet minister at Victoria Concert Hall on Wednesday (April 19).
(From left) Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob; former Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon; Mr Othman Wok's daughters Diana and Lily; his widow Lina Abdullah; President Tony Tan Keng Yam and his wife Mary; and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the memori
(From left) Speaker of Parliament Halimah Yacob; former Cabinet minister Ong Pang Boon; Mr Othman Wok's daughters Diana and Lily; his widow Lina Abdullah; President Tony Tan Keng Yam and his wife Mary; and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the memorial service yesterday. In his tribute to Mr Othman, Mr Lee said his dedication to a multiracial, multi-religious Singapore was a "golden thread" that ran through his long life.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

He credits Othman Wok and his Malay colleagues' commitment to equality for all

The unwavering commitment of pioneer leader Othman Wok and his Malay colleagues to multiracialism made today's Singapore possible, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Speaking at the memorial service for one of Singapore's founding fathers, Mr Lee highlighted how Mr Othman and his Malay People's Action Party (PAP) comrades were steadfast in the face of death threats and racial riots during Singapore's two years in Malaysia.

They also held a sufficient portion of the Malay ground to tilt the scales, he noted, saying: "It is because they kept the dream of a multiracial society alive through those terrible dark days, that we are now able to say, 'We, the citizens of Singapore... regardless of race, language or religion.'"

That they were neither cowed nor convinced to break faith with the cause led then Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak to conclude, on a visit after the 1964 riots, that Singapore Malays were different from Malayan Malays.

"Singaporeans were an altogether obstreperous people," Mr Lee said of a conclusion that set in motion a train of events that led to Singapore leaving the federation on Aug 9, 1965.

HE STOOD FIRM FOR NATION

Othman and his Malay colleagues stood firm, and held a sufficient portion of the Singapore Malay ground. It is because they kept the dream of a multiracial society alive through those terrible dark days, that we are now able to say, 'We, the citizens of Singapore... regardless of race, language or religion.'

PM LEE

A crucial decision, Mr Lee added, was Mr Othman's signing the Separation Agreement and Malay Singaporeans' accepting being a minority in a society based on equal rights for all.

"Singapore Malays would overnight cease being part of the majority race and become a minority community again. If Singapore Malays had not accepted that change, we could not have built a multiracial society," he said.

"It was because Malay Singaporeans and Malay PAP leaders in 1965 embraced the nobler dream of a shared identity, 'regardless of race, language or religion', that we are able today to practise in Singapore a form of non-communal politics, based on justice and equality, that is unique in our region and rare in the world."

Mr Othman's dedication to a multiracial, multi-religious Singapore was a "golden thread" that ran through his long life, said Mr Lee.

Mr Lee was the first of six speakers to deliver eulogies for Mr Othman, who died on Monday, aged 92.

"Had he hesitated or wavered in the dark days of our merger with Malaya and then Separation, when our history hung in the balance, the Singapore story would have turned out differently," he added.

Mr Othman's dedication to multiracialism was a core theme of the ceremony at Victoria Concert Hall, attended by 600 family members, friends and guests.

It was held a day after the state-assisted funeral, as Muslim custom requires burial as soon as possible.

Yesterday, speakers also paid tribute to Mr Othman's strength of character. Former MP Abbas Abu Amin and labour MP Patrick Tay spoke of his humility and warmth, and son-in-law Munir Shah spoke of his generosity.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said Mr Othman saw in multiracialism "the foundation of a cohesive nation". He effortlessly balanced his roles as a national and community leader, and ignited a "can-do" spirit in the Malay/Muslim community amid rapid change, Dr Yaacob said.

Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, chairman of OnePeople.sg which organised the memorial, said this approach to building a shared space, where communities were prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, was unprecedented.

He said: "The seeds that Mr Othman Wok planted - multiracialism, an approach to building a shared space... and a willingness to take on the challenges of the world around us - these have grown and the fruits of his labour are visible in the society we live in, the identity we share and the nation we are all proud of."

Read Mr Lee's full eulogy here.

 

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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 'They kept dream of a multiracial Singapore alive: PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe