Remembering Othman Wok: Loving father who put his country first, says son-in-law

Mr Munir Shah delivers his eulogy at the memorial service for Mr Othman Wok on April 19, 2017.
Mr Munir Shah delivers his eulogy at the memorial service for Mr Othman Wok on April 19, 2017.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - Mr Munir Shah had been courting Ms Lily Othman for some time when he asked to formally meet her father, pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok.

The couple would eat leftover food in the kitchen at the family's Buckley Road residence when they returned from dates, and Mr Shah suggested having a proper meal with his prospective father-in-law so that he could impress him.

"When (Lily) told him late one night that someone was coming to ask formally for her hand the next day, his reply was, 'Who is the unlucky man?'" Mr Shah, 64, said to laughter on Wednesday evening (April 19) during his eulogy at the memorial service for Mr Othman.

During their meeting, Mr Othman quickly put the younger man in his place when he tried to show off.

When Mr Shah said he studied at Raffles Institution, Mr Othman replied that he too had studied there.

Mr Shah bragged about the club facilities next to the Shell refinery on Pulau Bukom where he worked. Mr Othman retorted that he had cut the ribbon at the opening of the club, and Pulau Bukom was in the Pasir Panjang constituency of which he was the MP.

"The coup-de-grace came when he said, 'The woman that you have been dating is my daughter. She is mine, but she will be yours only if you behave yourself'. I was rendered speechless," said Mr Shah, a management consultant.

He added: "(Mr Othman) was a quiet, unassuming person, but he could deliver a killer punch. And I felt that I got away quite lightly, because Lily eventually became my wife with his blessing."

Recounting more family times to those gathered at Victoria Concert Hall, Mr Shah spoke of how Mr Othman had introduced his youngest daughter Diana to Japanese food, from tempura to sushi and sashimi. Diana would leave the last piece of salmon for her father Mr Othman, because she knew how much he loved it, he added.

"It was a mark of the profound love between father and daughter. Lina Abdullah - his wife - Safiah, Dahlia and Lily (his daughters) can also vouch for this enduring love," he said.

But Mr Othman always put country before family, he said, adding that Mr Othman professed a shared responsibility for the wellbeing of the nation.

He also had an "unflinching loyalty" to founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, because of his utmost respect for him, said Mr Shah.

Mr Othman, who was in Mr Lee's first Cabinet in independent Singapore, saw Mr Lee as an architect in nation building and himself as a builder.

Mr Shah quoted a statement Mr Othman made in a magazine article: "Although I had very little time to talk to the children, there were some values that were very important for them to have. In addition to religious studies at home, we sent them all to the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) for formal schooling. I taught them never to be stuck up, especially later when I became the Minister for Social Affairs."

He added: "This humility, selfless attitude and the trust in the institutions built for this nation are key attributes for which he will be remembered by all of us."

Mr Othman's contributions to Singapore, some of which have a lasting impact on people's lives, have been recognised anew, and that is one of the bright spots during "this dark hour for the family", said Mr Shah.

Another bright spot is an act of charity, he added, saying Mr Othman had donated a piece of land owned by his late father in Mattar Road, on which the Darul Ihsan Orphanage is now sited.

The outpouring of words of kindness from people from all walks of life, and the bonding of people of all races, religions, languages and social background were other bright spots that touched Mr Shah.

In his speech, he also highlighted Mr Othman's appreciation for good food, especially for local cuisine.

Mr Othman would take turn to host dinners with Mr Shah, former president of the National Council of Social Service Gerard Ee, Mr Yong Poh Shin of the Royal Selangor family, and a former High Commissioner of Malaysia to Singapore

He would also be the one to say "if the nasi lemak sambal was somewhat watered down or whether the ayam bleado has been moderated to taste like a western dish".

He also had a passion for writing ghost stories in Jawi, when he was reporting for the newspaper Utusan Melayu in the early 1950s. His daughter Lily persuaded him to compile them into a book, which was called Malayan Horrors.

Mr Othman was proud of his heritage, which can be traced to the Orang Laut who were the original settlers of Singapore.

He mentioned this whenever there was any discussion about genealogy, as well as in his autobiography, Never in my Wildest Dreams, said Mr Shah.

"As the Prime Minister mentioned, this kampong boy never thought in his wildest dream that he would make such a difference to this nation. But he did."