Remembering Othman Wok (1924-2017): His quick action saved lives

Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, accompanied by Mr Othman, tours troubled areas to meet community leaders during the racial riots of 1964.
Then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, accompanied by Mr Othman, tours troubled areas to meet community leaders during the racial riots of 1964. PHOTO: ST FILE

Former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew always said he could not have created a miracle called Singapore without his team. In our weekly series on our founding fathers, we feature former Social Affairs Minister Othman Wok.

This article was first published in The New Paper on June 8, 2015

The 1964 riots, the worst racial violence in modern Singapore, saw 23 people killed and 454 injured.

And the quick thinking of then-Minister for Social Affairs Othman Wok probably saved many lives during the turbulent period.

On July 21, 1964, Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the Malays held a procession and were out in full force.

Inflammatory speeches by Muslim leaders stirred emotions which boiled over into violence.

Mr Othman, who was leading a People’s Action Party (PAP) contingent then, said: “As we passed Kallang, the procession suddenly stopped. I saw people running around and shouting that there was a riot in front.”




He rushed to a telephone, called then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and suggested a curfew.

“There had been many casualties during the riots. I told him that there should be a curfew.”

Curfew was declared at 9.30pm, restoring order and preventing further bloodshed.

As a Malay, Mr Othman was in a tough position when he joined the PAP in 1954.

At a time when politics were fought along racial lines, he was labelled a traitor by supporters of the Kuala Lumpur-based United Malays National Organisation.


“People said horrible things such as ‘Go back to your village’ and ‘Traitor. You joined a Chinese party’, Mr Othman recalled.

“Some of my posters were smeared with faeces, but that did not dampen my spirits — even though I was scared that I might be hammered.”

Yet, throughout his 27 years in politics, he had the interests of the Malays at heart.

In 1965, a time of great uncertainty following Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, he was given the daunting task of convincing the Malays that they would be looked after despite being a minority race.

He swung into action, implementing policies that continue to benefit the Malay community to this day.

He proposed that all Malays be given free education from primary to tertiary level and set up the Mosque Building Fund (MBF), with Muslims contributing a small sum from their monthly salary to build mosques in new towns.

As of 2007, 22 mosques costing $103 million had been built using the MBF.

Having worked so hard to achieve racial harmony in Singapore, Mr Othman perhaps understands the delicate balance in which it hangs better than anyone else.

Speaking to Tampines Junior College students in 1997, exactly 33 years after the fateful riots broke out, he said: “Race, language and religion are very sensitive issues that appeal to the heart.

“These issues are always under a seemingly peaceful surface, but just a small spark will create a big mess and damage our prosperity, racial harmony, stability, peace and tranquillity.”


Mr Othman Wok is a passionate fan of the Liverpool Football Club.

The People’s Action Party regularly calls on him to conduct chats with new Members of Parliament.

He entered and left politics the same year as the late Mr Lim Kim San. Both won the 1963 elections and stepped down in 1980.

His first job was as a radio technician.

He dabbles in writing fiction and has published a series of horror stories.


Mr Othman Wok had a close shave with death in 1978.

As ambassador to Indonesia, he was asked to inspect a resort in Bali with the Indonesian ambassador to Singapore.

They were supposed to board a helicopter early in the morning but having stayed up to watch a World Cup match, Mr Othman overslept and missed the ride.

At lunchtime, he was informed that the helicopter had crashed, killing everyone on board.

“It was very fortunate for me. If I had not overslept, I would have been in the group,” he said.