Letter of the day

Forum: Mahmud Awang, a man who worked tirelessly for a multiracial Singapore

A photo from March 27, 2015, showing Mr Mahmud Awang speaking at NTUC's memorial ceremony for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
A photo from March 27, 2015, showing Mr Mahmud Awang speaking at NTUC's memorial ceremony for the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew.PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

It is with great sadness that I read of Mr Mahmud Awang's death on Monday in Mersing, Johor.

I have known him since I entered politics in 1997.

He stepped down from parliamentary politics in 1968, but remained a member of the People's Action Party, and would make his way down to the party convention/conference from his home in Johor.

Mr Mahmud would also be present at dialogues where retired PAP Malay MPs were invited, and was keen to share his experiences with new MPs.

I have always been intrigued by the first generation of PAP Malay MPs, because of their willingness to be members of a party that was seen then by the Malay community as being too Chinese.

He and the others, such as the late Haji Yaacob Mohamed, Mr Rahmat Kenap, Mr Buang Omar Junid and Mr Mohamed Ariff Suradi, came from a political background like no other - they were all members of Umno but became disillusioned with the party and joined the PAP just before the 1959 General Election.

They came from the long line of Malays active both in politics and the unions against the backdrop of colonialism and rising Malay nationalism. Among them, Mr Yaacob Mohamed became one of "Lee's Lieutenants" and Mr Mahmud became the first caretaker president of the National Trades Union Congress. This speaks volumes of the trust placed on him, given the situation then of communist infiltration of the unions.

I am sure the trust placed on Mr Mahmud and other Malays in the PAP must have given the Malay community a psychological boost.

In one session, I asked him about the by-election in Anson in 1961, which he lost to Mr David Marshall by only about 500 votes. He told me he had been asked to contest the by-election and he proceeded willingly. Such was his straightforward nature, a quality seen in his parliamentary debates.

In the debate on the third reading of the Administration of Muslim Law Act in August 1966, a year after Singapore's separation from Malaysia, Mr Mahmud spoke in support of the Bill and deftly put Umno (then present in Singapore) at the receiving end of a barb on its manipulation of religion for political gains, unlike the PAP. This demonstrated his conviction in multiracial politics.

He is perhaps the last of that generation of Malays who threw their lot in with the PAP at a time when it was fashionable to join other parties with a Malay agenda.

My generation of PAP Malay MPs are beneficiaries of this older generation's conviction and commitment to multiracialism.

We are grateful to them for making it possible for other Malays to step forward and see politics as an honourable undertaking.

It is my wish that Mr Mahmud and others of his generation be seen in the same light as those in the founding fathers' generation.

I do not wish for a monument, but perhaps a mention in the history books of the role they played and their contributions to building modern Singapore.

They deserve to be seen as part of that constellation of men and women who believed strongly in the idea of a multiracial Singapore and worked tirelessly at it.

Yaacob Ibrahim (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 07, 2021, with the headline 'Mahmud Awang, a man who worked tirelessly for a multiracial Singapore'. Subscribe