Othman Wok: 1924-2017

Pioneer minister laid foundations for sport and social services

Former Cabinet minister Othman Wok died on Monday (April 17) at the age of 92. Mr Othman was Minister for Social Affairs from 1963 to 1977 and Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia from 1977 till his retirement from politics in 1981. ST VIDEO: NG KAI LING
Mr Othman Wok, who was the Minister for Social Affairs in independent Singapore's first Cabinet, died on Monday (April 17), aged 92.
Mr Othman Wok, who was the Minister for Social Affairs in independent Singapore's first Cabinet, died on Monday (April 17), aged 92. PHOTO: ST FILE

As a Cabinet minister, Mr Othman Wok helped build Singapore's first National Stadium, promoted the Singapore Grand Prix long before Formula One races came to the Republic's shores, and laid the foundations for the social service sector.

He had also put in place measures that continue to uplift the Malay community today.

Yesterday, ministers, Malay-Muslim organisations and the labour movement paid tribute to him for his contributions to Singapore.

Mr Othman, who was the Minister for Social Affairs in independent Singapore's first Cabinet, died yesterday, aged 92.

During his 18-year political career, he held not only the social affairs, but also the culture portfolio.

It was in this capacity that he oversaw the building of the National Stadium, Singapore's first large-scale sporting arena.

Recounting this, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said on Facebook: "While Singapore was focused on economic development at the time, Mr Othman was keenly aware that cultural development was just as important."

Besides sports, Mr Othman had also pushed for the development of social services, and he had been "instrumental" in shaping the foundations of the sector, said Minister for Social and Family Development Tan Chuan-Jin. He added that Mr Othman tackled the "challenge of stretching the limited welfare fund to help Singaporeans in need" in the country's early days of independence.

Mr Othman championed the training of social workers and volunteers, and also initiated the predecessor of the National Council of Social Service - helping to create a more effective social service ecosystem, said Mr Tan's ministry in a statement.

The National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) also paid tribute to Mr Othman yesterday for his "unwavering determination and dedication" to the labour movement. A former journalist, he had served as secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees' Union, where he "played a central role in fighting for higher wages and better working conditions", noted NTUC in a letter signed by its secretary-general Chan Chun Sing and president Mary Liew.

Others remembered Mr Othman for his contributions to the Malay-Muslim community.

Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim, who is also the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said Mr Othman "laid the strong foundations for the administration of Muslim affairs that the community enjoys today".

Mr Othman had introduced the Administration of the Muslim Law Bill, which paved the way for the formation of three key Muslim statutory institutions - the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis), Registry of Muslim Marriages and Syariah Court. In a statement, Muis called this his "greatest legacy".

Ms Rahayu Buang, chief executive of self-help group Yayasan Mendaki, said the successes of the Malay-Muslim community would not have been possible without the work of pioneers such as him.

Those who knew Mr Othman and worked with him also remembered him as a kind and humble man.

High Commissioner to Sri Lanka Chandra Das, who was a People's Action Party MP, said in an e-mailed statement: "He was a warm and friendly person always with a smile, especially for younger MPs like me."

Former MP Abbas Abu Amin, who succeeded Mr Othman as MP for Pasir Panjang in 1980, said at his wake yesterday: "He was very down to earth."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline 'Pioneer minister laid foundations for sport and social services'. Print Edition | Subscribe