Remembering Othman Wok: How pioneer leader helped to shape multi-racial Singapore, says PM Lee Hsien Loong

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).
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Mr Othman Wok and his colleagues never wavered in their commitment to multi-racialism.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Mr Othman Wok and his colleagues never wavered in their commitment to multi-racialism. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
A minute of silence was observed at the end of the memorial service.
A minute of silence was observed at the end of the memorial service.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG
PM Lee Hsien Loong and Ms Ho Ching consoling the widow of Othman Wok, Madam Lina Abdullah, at the end of the memorial service.
PM Lee Hsien Loong and Ms Ho Ching consoling the widow of Othman Wok, Madam Lina Abdullah, at the end of the memorial service.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - When Singapore was a part of Malaysia from 1963 to 1965, the People's Action Party's (PAP) Malay leaders came under relentless pressure to choose race over nation.

They were also offered land and other riches to jump ship and join Malaysia's leading Malay party, the United Malays National Organisation (Umno).

But the PAP leaders were not cowed or tempted and remained loyal to the cause of multiracialism.

Had they wavered, the PAP would have lost the moral authority to champion its ideal of a multiracial country, and the Singapore story may have turned out very differently, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Wednesday (April 19) in his eulogy to pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok.

He recounted the events as he described the Malay community's pivotal role in how Singapore turned out.

"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.

"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'," Mr Lee said at a memorial service for Mr Othman, who died on Monday, aged 92.

Speaking of Mr Othman's illustrious life as a journalist, a writer, a unionist, a politician and a diplomat, Mr Lee said one golden thread that ran through was the pioneer leader's commitment to the ideal of a multiracial and multireligious Singapore.

Mr Othman, who joined the PAP in 1954, became a legislative assemblyman in 1963 after winning the Pasir Panjang single-member constituency in the General Election that year.

As a Malay PAP assemblyman during the days when communalist emotions ran high, he was abused, threatened and denounced by Malaysia's Umno politicians.

"They were called 'kafirs' or infidels. They received death threats. Othman recalled that some of his (election) posters were smeared with faeces," said Mr Lee.

It was also during this period that Mr Othman would witness the dangers of racial politics first hand.

In July 1964, he was leading the PAP contingent in a procession to mark Prophet Muhamad's birthday when racial riots broke out and engulfed Singapore. A cool-headed Mr Othman led his group to safety, but the incident was forever seared in his memory.

In the aftermath of the riots, he accompanied founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew on community visits to calm the ground and restore confidence and racial harmony.

Mr Lee added that it was not just Mr Othman and the other Malay PAP leaders who held fast to the ideals of multiracialism during these tumultuous times, but also the Malay community in Singapore.

As a result, Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak Hussein, during a visit to Singapore after the riots, concluded that Singapore Malays were different from the Malays in Peninsula Malaysia.

"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," he said.

"Singaporeans were an altogether obstreperous people. Better for Singapore to leave Malaysia. That set in train events which led to August 9, 1965," said Mr Lee about Singapore's independence story.

After events were set in motion and the Separation Agreement were being settled, Mr Lee Kuan Yew approached Mr Othman to ask if he would sign the document. He readily agreed.

"That was a crucial decision. For once Singapore separated from Malaysia, 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," said Mr Lee.

When Mr Lee Kuan Yew stepped down as prime minister in 1990, he recommended to the president a special list of state honours to recognise the pioneers who had built Singapore. Mr Othman was among them, and was awarded the Order of Nila Utama.

"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 auto-pilot... 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 country," said Mr Lee.

Ending his eulogy with a traditional Malay poem, or pantun, he said: "“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."

Read Mr Lee's full eulogy here.