Othman Wok, member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet, dies aged 92

Ministers, family and ex-colleagues of Mr Othman Wok pay tribute to the the former cabinet minister who died on Monday (April 17) at the age of 92.
A file photograph of Mr Othman Wok at his home on April 4, 2015.
A file photograph of Mr Othman Wok at his home on April 4, 2015.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Mr Othman Wok, a member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet, has died at the age of 92.

In a statement, the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) said Mr Othman died at 12.21pm at the hospital on Monday (April 17). He leaves behind his wife, four daughters, seven grandchildren, two great-grandsons, a step-daughter and three step-grandchildren.

He will be buried at Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery on Tuesday (April 18). A ceremonial gun carriage will bear the body from Sultan Mosque to the Pusara Abadi Muslim cemetery, the PMO said.

The State flag will be flown at half-mast on all Government buildings till a memorial service organised by OnePeople.sg on Wednesday (April 19) is completed.

He was admitted to the Singapore General Hospital on April 6, but his situation worsened on Sunday night, son-in-law Munir Shah, 64, said.

Mr Othman was an MP for Pasir Panjang constituency from 1963 to 1981. His portfolios included social affairs and culture, and he is remembered for championing multi-racialism as well as his work in social welfare and sports development.

The PMO statement said: "The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are sad to learn of the passing of Mr Othman Bin Wok and wish to convey their deepest condolences to his family."

It lauded Mr Othman - one of the signatories of the Separation Agreement - as a founding father of Singapore.

"He was a key member of Mr Lee Kuan Yew's Cabinet, during the critical period when Singapore was in Malaysia, and then separated from Malaysia to become an independent republic. He supported Mr Lee in the fight for a multi-racial and multi-religious Singapore, and became one of Mr Lee's closest comrades," the statement said.

In a Facebook post, the People's Action Party said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had praised Mr Othman as "one of the multi-racial team of founding leaders who built Singapore".

Born in Singapore in 1924, Mr Othman joined Malay newspaper Utusan Melayu as a journalist in 1946, working under its founder Yusof Ishak, who would later become Singapore's first president.

Mr Othman joined the People's Action Party soon after its founding in 1954, and was involved in its publication Petir.

He stood for election to the legislative assembly in Kampong Kembangan in 1959, and lost narrowly.

In 1963, Mr Othman, by then deputy editor of Utusan, contested again, this time in Pasir Panjang. He won by a majority of 992 votes, and was made minister for home affairs and social welfare by Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew.

The ministry was soon renamed and Mr Othman became minister for social affairsfrom 1963 until 1977. He also took on the culture portfolio from 1965 to 1968.

While in office, Mr Othman took a deep interest in the plight of the disadvantaged in society, from the disabled to wayward teens and welfare home residents.

In a statement on Monday, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) said Mr Othman worked to advance the quality of social welfare service, moving beyond the basic functions of assistance and rehabilitation to also focus on social progress for national development.

"Mr Othman's visionary step of initiating the predecessor of the National Council of Social Service helped to create a more effective social service ecosystem. He also championed the training of social workers and volunteers to better equip them with skillsets needed," the ministry said.

"Mr Othman's tireless efforts in shaping the social sector in Singapore set a solid foundation for all of us at MSF to build upon. He will be dearly missed."

Mr Othman also oversaw the formation of the Singapore Sports Council, set up to encourage and nurture passion and excellence in sport, which his team felt was vital to a young nation's sense of self-confidence.

Significantly, he helped ensure the needs of Malay Singaporeans were met. Many of them were anxious after separation from Malaysia in 1965.

Mr Lee and other Malay MPs initiated a fund for the building of mosques to which working Muslims contributed via the CPF system.

Under his watch, medical and welfare services for Singaporean haj pilgrims were also expanded.

Mr Othman's signature contributions were in rallying Malay Singaporeans round to support a society where everyone was treated equally, regardless of race or religion.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong previously noted that when Singapore was part of Malaysia and the PAP fought for a multiracial society, Mr Othman was denounced by ultras as an "infidel", "a traitor to Malays", and got death threats. But he stood firm, "and that made all the difference to Singapore".

Old guard minister Ong Pang Boon said Mr Othman was among the first Malay leaders of the PAP, and contributed significantly to the PAP's multiracial platform.

"We worked closely in the early years of the PAP. I was the Party's Organising Secretary and Othman, who was then a journalist with Utusan Melayu, was our unofficial Malay translator. I would see him whenever we needed Malay translations for Petir and other publications. Othman always obliged," Mr Ong said.

"I will always remember Othman to be a man of integrity and with absolute loyalty to the PAP and Mr Lee Kuan Yew. He was also a man of high EQ, who always had kind words for his Cabinet colleagues, his grassroots workers and friends, and the man-in-the-street."

In a Facebook post on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam wrote: "We are indebted to (Mr Othman), and will always be. He made a multiracial Singapore possible, which matters more than anything else we have."