Othman Wok: 1924-2017

Remembering Othman Wok: An inspiring man who was ‘always smiling’

Friends and ex-colleagues remember pioneer minister as a good boss, encouraging leader

Mr Adanan Bakron and his wife Norsiah Suja'i were the first visitors to arrive at Mr Othman's home early yesterday morning to pay respects to their former neighbour and long-time friend.
Mr Adanan Bakron and his wife Norsiah Suja'i were the first visitors to arrive at Mr Othman's home early yesterday morning to pay respects to their former neighbour and long-time friend.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

As early as 7am, two long-time friends of pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok arrived at his home in Kew Avenue, to bid him a final farewell.

Mr Adanan Bakron and his wife, Madam Norsiah Suja'i, were the first to appear at the gate and waited patiently as Mr Othman's family prepared to receive mourners.

The couple, both retired education officers, were former neighbours of Mr Othman, who died on Monday at the age of 92.

"We lived like kampung people," said Mr Adanan, 79.

The families living along the same street held regular get-togethers, celebrating National Day every year with shared food on the road outside their terrace houses and visiting each other on festive occasions like Hari Raya, he added.

Madam Norsiah, 73, recalled Mr Othman being a judge in a debate competition at her secondary school. "He was very encouraging and gave us advice on how to speak better," she said, adding that Mr Othman was "always smiling".

For close to four hours, an unending stream of people, including past and present political leaders, came to pay their last respects to a man who played an important role in unifying Singapore's multiracial population, especially in the early days of Singapore's independence.

They included Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Trade and Industry (Trade) Lim Hng Kiang, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam and Health Minister Gan Kim Yong.

Old Guard politicians who came to bid farewell included former senior parliamentary secretary Chan Chee Seng and former senior minister of state Ch'ng Jit Koon.

Ambassador-at-Large and veteran politial scientist Chan Heng Chee said Mr Othman was a part of the team that built the foundation of modern-day Singapore.

"Without him and without Yusof Ishak (Singapore's first president), the leadership would not have been complete," she said.

Many ordinary Singaporeans, like former national hurdles champion Osman Merican, remembered Mr Othman's easy-going manner and words of encouragement.

Mr Osman, a retired police officer, said Mr Othman - who as Minister for Culture and Social Affairs set up a sports department in his ministry in 1966 - was "very inspiring".

"I was just a kid new to sports when I met him before he became a minister, but he saw that I had ability and asked me to carry on," said the 78-year-old. " He told me that if I had any problem, I could look for him. He always had a good word for people he met."

Ms Sharon Yeap, 53, a secretary of Mr Othman's almost 35 years ago when he was an investment firm director, called him a "wonderful boss". In her five years at the firm, she said, he never raised his voice or acted as if he was a former minister. She added: "I really enjoyed going to work."

Businessman Richard Lim, 57, who would meet Mr Othman on his morning walk in Bedok, said: "I remember listening to his election speeches when I was a teenager. He was very fiery then, very different from his usual character."

After the last mourner left, Mr Othman's family held a private prayer session. The funeral cortege left the family home at 11.50am for the Sultan Mosque, where the Mufti led prayers for an hour before the Singapore flag was draped over the coffin. It was then placed on a gun carriage and taken to the Choa Chu Kang Muslim cemetery for burial.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'An inspiring man who was 'always smiling''. Subscribe