Remembering Othman Wok: Tributes to a firm believer of multi-racial Singapore

 Mr Othman, 92, who died in the Singapore General Hospital on Monday morning, was one of Singapore's pioneer ministers and held portfolios in social affairs and culture.
Mr Othman, 92, who died in the Singapore General Hospital on Monday morning, was one of Singapore's pioneer ministers and held portfolios in social affairs and culture.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Tributes flowed in on Monday (April 17) for former minister Othman Wok, who was hailed as a champion of multiracialism, and patron of the sports and social services.

Mr Othman, 92, who died in the Singapore General Hospital on Monday morning, was one of Singapore's pioneer ministers and held portfolios in social affairs and culture.

Leaders remembered Mr Othman as a firm believer of multi-racial Singapore.

President Tony Tan Keng Yam said in a Facebook post that Mr Othman, who began his political career in 1963 when Singapore was part of Malaysia, fought for a Singapore that served the needs of all people regardless of race, language and religion.

He was also one of the Malay community's strongest advocates of racial and religious reconciliation, said Dr Tan.

As the Minister for Social Affair, Mr Othman also actively promoted the development of the local sports scene by introducing programmes encouraging participation in sports, and forming the Singapore National Olympics Council (SNOC). Mr Othman also helped establish the National Stadium.

"Mr Othman Wok will be remembered for his sincerity and personable nature. When Mrs Tan and I visited him during the annual Hari Raya gatherings at his residence, we were always very touched by his graciousness and warm hospitality. We have lost a dear friend today," said Dr Tan.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said in a Facebook post: "We are indebted to him, and will always be. He made a multiracial Singapore possible, which matters more than anything else we have."

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, said Mr Othman was "keenly aware that race and religion could become major fault lines and conflicts could arise out of suspicion, misunderstanding and prejudice".

"As such, he urged Singaporeans to make the effort to strengthen cross-cultural understanding, practice mutual respect, and come together as one united people," said Dr Yaacob.

He added that Mr Othman had also made great contributions to the Malay-Muslim community by introducing the Administration of the Muslim Law Bill in Parliament that paved the way for the formation of three key Muslim statutory institutions - Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), the Registry of Muslim Marriages and Syariah Court.

Together with the founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew and other Malay MPs, Mr Othman had also implemented the Mosque Building Fund in 1975, now known as the Mosque Building and Mendaki Fund, that has paid for the building of 26 mosques, he added.

"Through his tireless efforts, he laid the strong foundations for the administration of Muslim affairs that the community enjoys today," said Dr Yaacob.

Malay/Muslim organisations also paid tribute to Mr Othman.

In a statement, Muis said: "With his passing, the community has lost a strong leaders who sought tirelessly to uplift the community. His significant contributions not only created a deep impact on the lives of the Singaporean Muslims, but have also enabled them to grow and prosper as the nation grew."


Ms Rahayu Buang, chief executive of self-help group Yayasan Mendaki, said in a statement that Mr Othman was one of the Malay leaders who played a pivotal role in helping Singapore stay united after the country separated from Malaysia in 1965, when the Malay community suddenly found itself as a minority group.

"The successes of those within the Malay/Muslim community would not have been possible without the foundations laid by pioneers such as Mr Othman Wok... We honour his indomitable spirit, determination and most importantly his love for his community and his country," she added.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli said Mr Othman played a key role in ensuring a smooth transition following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia in 1965. He was one of the 10 signatories of the 1965 Separation Agreement.

“When most had doubts that Singapore could even survive when separated from Malaysia; when many had doubts that the various races could live peacefully together; when many would have given up uplifting the needy for a good life when being needy was a norm, Mr Othman Wok did not flinch in the face of uncertainty,” said Mr Masagos.

Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam described Mr Othman as a "true patriot".

"If not for him, and a few others, who fought fearlessly against significant odds, we will not be here. The Singapore we have today will not be," wrote Mr Shanmugam on Facebook.

Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said Singapore's multi-racial and multi-religious harmony was "due to the courage of leaders like Mr Othman Wok at a critical juncture of our history".

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean urged Singaporeans to build on the foundations laid by pioneer leaders such as Mr Othman.

"His unwavering commitment and loyalty to Singapore and the principles we stand for are an inspiration to all of us," he said in a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, Minister in the Prime Minister's Office Chan Chun Sing highlighted Mr Othman's contributions to the labour movement and the grassroots.

Mr Othman was deputy chairman of the People's Association, and was involved in the labour movement as the secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees' Union in the 1950s.

"We have lost a Singapore son today, but we will always remember and remain inspired by what he has done for Singapore and Singaporeans," said Mr Chan.