We remember... Singapore separating from Malaysia

We felt hopeful, not sad

Mr Othman Wok, 90, who left the Cabinet in 1977, said he is most proud of bringing about free education for the Malays, from primary to tertiary levels.
Mr Othman Wok, 90, who left the Cabinet in 1977, said he is most proud of bringing about free education for the Malays, from primary to tertiary levels.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

The Sunday Times speaks to people who were in the news, or whose neighbourhood was in the news, the week that Singapore became an independent country

Many were keen to be part of multicultural nation: Othman

In 1965, when Mr Othman Wok received a phone call from Culture Minister S. Rajaratnam asking him to go to Kuala Lumpur on Aug 7, he feared Mr Lee Kuan Yew might be in trouble.

"I was a bit worried because some in Umno wanted the Tunku to detain our PM," said Mr Othman, referring to then Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman, leader of Malaysia's dominant Malay party, Umno.

Tensions between the central government in Kuala Lumpur and the People's Action Party-led state government in Singapore had worsened after Mr Lee made a speech in Parliament and questioned the political dominance of the Malays. He and the PAP had been pushing the idea of a Malaysian Malaysia.

Mr Othman, then Social Affairs Minister, left for Kuala Lumpur on Aug 7. When he reached Temasek House, he not only met Mr Lee but was also told that Singapore and Malaysia would be going their separate ways.

"The PM was quite worried about me. He asked, 'What do you think?'," Mr Othman, now 90, told The Sunday Times. "I said, 'Frankly, I'm a Singaporean. I'm a PAP member. I agree with what the party has decided'."

While there were concerns about the loss of Malaysia as a hinterland, the overall mood was positive, he said. "We felt hopeful and not sad at all. In spite of being forced to leave Malaysia, we believed this could be a good thing for Singapore... we could develop as an independent nation and multiracial society."

Driving back to Singapore, he stopped in Malacca to tell PAP members the news and arrived home tired.

Waking up on Aug 9, he got a call from Parliamentary Secretary for Social Affairs Chan Chee Seng telling him that people were happy that Singapore had separated from Malaysia. Some even lit firecrackers.

Although some Malays here were disappointed that overnight, they had become a minority community, Mr Othman felt no pressure.

"Many Malays here supported the PAP and were keen to be part of a multicultural nation," he added.

Mr Lee mixed well with the Malays and was an able leader, he said. "Some people say he was anti-Malay, but he was not."

Mr Othman assured those who were uncertain. "If you had a government like that under Lim Yew Hock (Singapore's chief minister from 1956 to 1959), surely the Malays in Singapore had no confidence at all."

Referring to the PAP team in charge of Singapore since 1959, he said: "It was a different group of men who had dedicated themselves to Singapore. Honest, sincere, incorruptible."

Mr Othman, who left the Cabinet in 1977, said he is most proud of bringing about free education for the Malays, from primary to tertiary levels.

Noting that 50 years of independence is special, he said: "We are a very good example of how multiracialism can not only survive but also progress well with harmony."

Research by Jagjit Kaur, Information Resource Centre, Singapore Press Holdings This week in 1965: A look back at the events that shaped Singapore 50 years ago

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'We felt hopeful, not sad'. Print Edition | Subscribe