Singapore owes Othman Wok a debt of gratitude

He was a man of conviction who stayed loyal to the ideal of a multiracial, multi-religious Singapore in the face of death threats and offers of rich rewards should he defect, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at a memorial service for the late pioneer Cabinet minister held yesterday at Victoria Concert Hall. Below is an excerpt from his speech.

Othman traced his ancestry back to the Orang Laut, who lived in Singapore before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived. He started life as a journalist at Utusan Melayu in 1946, mentored by none other than Encik Yusof Ishak, who was to later become our first President.

Othman joined the PAP shortly after it was founded in 1954. In 1959, the party fielded him in Kampong Kembangan, but he lost narrowly to an Umno candidate.

In September 1963, Othman was still with Utusan Melayu, now working in Kuala Lumpur. He was asked to hurry down to Singapore to stand for elections again. That same night, he took the train for Singapore. When he arrived, he went straight into the election briefing, and was told by Mr Lee (Kuan Yew) that he would be fielded in Pasir Panjang.

The 1963 General Election was crucial for the PAP and Singapore. They were held just as Singapore was joining Malaysia. The pro-communist Barisan Sosialis remained a formidable force, and a PAP victory was far from certain. Fortunately, the PAP won and continued in government. Othman was elected Legislative Assemblyman for Pasir Panjang, and became our first Minister for Social Affairs.

The Barisan Sosialis was not the only party defeated in 1963. Another was Umno. Umno in Malaya and the PAP had an agreement that the PAP would not contest in elections in Peninsular Malaysia and that Umno would not contest in Singapore. Despite this agreement, Umno decided to contest in the Singapore elections in Malay-majority constituencies like Geylang Serai, Kampong Kembangan, and Southern Islands, and Umno leaders came down from Malaya to campaign for their candidates. But to their consternation, all the Umno candidates were defeated by Malay PAP candidates.

That election marked the inauspicious start of Singapore's two very difficult years in Malaysia. At stake was what kind of society we wished to live in: a multiracial society, with all races enjoying equal rights; or a system based on ethnic politics and racial dominance? A Malaysian Malaysia, as the PAP wanted; or Malay supremacy, as the Umno in Kuala Lumpur wanted?

PM Lee Hsien Loong said Mr Othman Wok and his Malay colleagues had entered politics out of conviction and were determined not to betray their party and the values it stood for. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Unswayed by threats

Malay PAP leaders came under intense and relentless pressure to abandon multiracialism and choose race over nation. Othman and his colleagues - Mahmud Awang, Rahim Ishak, Yaacob Mohamed, Mohamed Ariff Suradi, Rahmat Kenap, Buang Omar Junid - were abused, threatened and denounced. They were called "kafirs" or infidels. They received death threats.

On July12, 1964, Umno organised a hostile rally in Pasir Panjang, Othman's own constituency. Syed Jaafar Albar, then Umno Secretary-General and a powerful rabble rouser, told the Malay crowd: "If there is unity, no force can trample us down, no force can humiliate us, no force can belittle us… not one Lee Kuan Yew, a thousand Lee Kuan Yews… we finish them off… kill him, kill him. Othman Wok and Lee Kuan Yew."

Less than 10 days later, during a procession to mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday, racial riots broke out which engulfed Singapore. It so happened that Othman was leading the PAP contingent in the procession. Keeping a cool head, he led his PAP group to safety at the People's Association within the old Kallang Airport building. In the aftermath of the riots, Othman accompanied Mr Lee Kuan Yew on community visits, to calm the ground and restore confidence and racial harmony.

Othman was convinced, for good reason, that the riots had been deliberately instigated. The purpose was to intimidate Singaporeans and show them what could happen if they refused to submit to the mailed fist. The target was not just Chinese Singaporeans, but also Othman and the Malay PAP leaders.

But Othman and his comrades were not cowed. They had entered politics out of conviction and were determined not to betray their party and the values it stood for. They remained loyal to the PAP and the cause of multiracialism. Not a single Malay PAP Legislative Assemblyman jumped ship, though they knew they would have been richly rewarded had they done so.

What would have happened if they had? If Othman and his Malay colleagues had lost heart, the PAP's claim to be a multiracial party would have been severely damaged. Its cry of a "Malaysian Malaysia" would have been exposed as empty. The Federal Government might have been emboldened to suppress the Singapore state government, and bring Singapore to heel. There might never have been an independent, multiracial Singapore.

But 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."

After the riots, then Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak visited Singapore to feel the pulse of Singapore Malays. Tun Razak concluded that Singapore Malays were different from Malayan Malays. There is a Malay saying, rambut sama hitam, hati lain-lain, which means that we may look the same but our hearts differ. In other words, it was not only Chinese Singaporeans who could not be cowed by threats of riots and mayhem. Malay Singaporeans too could not be easily seduced by appeals to race and religion. Singaporeans were an altogether obstreperous people. Better for Singapore to leave Malaysia. That set in train events which led to Aug 9, 1965.

When the Separation Agreement was being settled, Mr Lee saw Othman and other ministers in Temasek KL, the Singapore House in Kuala Lumpur. He asked Othman whether he would sign. Othman did not hesitate. He said yes immediately. That was a crucial decision. 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. But it was because Malay Singaporeans and Malay PAP leaders in 1965 embraced the nobler dream of a shared national 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.

Years later when Mr Lee Kuan Yew celebrated his 75th birthday dinner (in 1998) and launched the first volume of his memoirs covering this momentous period in our history, he paid tribute to Othman and his other Malay colleagues. Mr Lee said with deep emotion: "Othman, I remember your staunch support and loyalty during those troubled days when we were in Malaysia and the tensions were most severe immediately before and following the bloody riots in July 1964. At that time, the greatest pressures were mounted by Umno Malay extremists who denounced you and Malay PAP leaders, especially you, as infidels (kafirs) and traitors (khianats) not to Singapore but to the Malay race. I heard it, the crowd said it, bunches of them, they were designed to intimidate you and the other Malay leaders in PAP. Because of the courage and leadership you showed, not a single Malay PAP leader wavered (in 1965)."

Mr Lee told his old comrade and friend Othman: "That made the difference to Singapore."

Some years ago, I visited a national education exhibition in a secondary school. A student explained to me the exhibits, then asked me earnestly whether I too had celebrated Racial Harmony Day when I was in school. I was taken aback. I said: "No. When I was in school, there was a race riot on 21st July 1964. That is why we now celebrate Racial Harmony Day every 21st July!" That was the legacy that Othman and his comrades left us.

No autopilot on race

After Independence, Othman continued as Minister for Social Affairs until 1977 and director of the PAP Malay Affairs Bureau until 1981. He had a hand in developing the Administration of Muslim Law Act, which led to the establishment of Muis, Syariah Court and Registry of Muslim Marriages. He was also passionate about developing an active and vibrant sports scene in Singapore and was actively involved in the building of the National Stadium.

After Separation, when we urgently needed to build up the SAF (Singapore Armed Forces), we recruited volunteers into the People's Defence Force (PDF). Othman was one of several ministers, who volunteered, to set an example and underline the importance of defence. Others included Mr Ong Pang Boon, Mr Jek Yeun Thong, Mr Lee Khoon Choy, and Mr Fong Sip Chee. They marched proudly wearing officer cadet uniforms at the first National Day Parade on Aug 9, 1966. A year later, Othman marched again, this time as an officer leading the PDF contingent.

After Othman retired from politics, he stayed active. He served as Ambassador to Indonesia for three years, and helped us build an important relationship with President Suharto. He also served as a Permanent Member on the Presidential Council of Minority Rights.

When Mr Lee stepped down as Prime Minister in 1990, he recommended to the President a special list of state honours to recognise the pioneers who had fought alongside him to build Singapore. Othman Wok was in that number, and was awarded the Order of Nila Utama.

It is apt that we are here at the Victoria Concert Hall remembering Encik Othman Wok. This was where the PAP was founded in 1954. Othman joined the party soon after it was founded. It was in this hall too, in 1964, after that incendiary rally speech by Syed Jaafar Albar at Pasir Panjang, that Othman chaired a meeting of Malay leaders, and Mr Lee Kuan Yew spent six hours explaining the PAP's belief in multiracialism and rallying Singapore Malays to that cause. It was at the Padang nearby, half a century ago, that Othman marched together with Singaporeans of different races and from different walks of life on our first National Day. And it was at the Padang again in 2015, when we celebrated SG50, that Othman made his last official appearance. Singaporeans were happy to see him, and honoured him as one of the signatories of the Separation Agreement.

As we look back on 92 years of Othman's life, we should also look ahead, to the future of Singapore. That was what he and his colleagues had fought for. At one of his last interviews, Othman said: "You cannot just, like Kuan Yew says, go on autopilot… Our future generations must continue to build on things. Do not lose focus on sensitive issues such as race, language and religion."

So while it is with sorrow today that we bid farewell to one of Singapore's greatest sons, we also give thanks for the extraordinary life of one who gave so much of himself to the nation.

I would like to end with a traditional pantun that sums up our gratitude:

Pisang emas dibawa berlayar,

Masak sebiji di atas peti,

Hutang emas boleh dibayar,

Hutang budi dibawa mati.

Debts of gold we can repay, but debts of kindness will be carried all our lives.

On behalf of a grateful nation, thank you Othman. May you rest in peace.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2017, with the headline 'S'pore owes Othman Wok a debt of gratitude'. Subscribe