Remembering Othman Wok (1924-2017): The story of Singapore's race relations as seen through his eyes

Former cabinet minister Othman Wok.
Former cabinet minister Othman Wok. PHOTO: ST FILE

Race relations is an issue that will never go away. And who is better placed to talk about it than former minister Othman Wok who was in the procession to mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday on July 21, 1964 when a race riot erupted? Here is his anecdotal account of the ups and downs of race relations here, as related to Ravi Veloo.

This article was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 25, 1997

Give people a chance and they will live in peace, but beware the few politicians who would exploit race issues for their own purposes - that's where trouble almost always begins.

This is the message from a former Government minister, Mr Othman Wok, whose family lineage can be traced back to the first landing of Sir Stamford Raffles, and whose own life here has been deeply involved with improving race relations.

Speaking in his Shenton Road office, a spry 72-year-old Mr Othman, now a businessman, draws on his own personal experiences from early childhood in a Malay kampung to his years as Social Affairs Minister to trace some of the fault lines - and pillars - of race relations in Singapore.

As a Malay/Muslim, perhaps one anecdote from his personal life illustrates how far this country has come as a nation.

In the early 1930s, when his father wanted to send him to an English school as part of the first batch of such Malay students in a British experiment to bring the Malays into the mainstream, Mr Othman's grandfather, a religious teacher, objected.

He was worried that with an English-language education, the young Othman would convert to Christianity. That did not happen, of course, when Mr Othman went to an English school. Instead, he became a key link between the Malay/Muslim community and the new People's Action Party Government from the 1950s.

Today, one of Mr Othman's daughters attends a Christian school, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in Katong.

"There is no issue here. She remains very Muslim. She gets her own religious education on Islam outside of school. That's one reason, you see, why the Malays have grown more comfortable with such matters."

Like the rest of Singapore, the community knows what Mr Othman's father knew way back when his grandfather refused to see the light, that the English language and a mainstream education are keys to a brighter future, as long as one's own culture and beliefs were not eroded, he says.

"Malay parents recognise the importance of their children learning other languages too. My cousin sends his two children to Chinese school, and they speak Mandarin very well.

"My nephew's daughter is learning French! The more languages the better your opportunities," he adds, referring to his sister's son, former Member of Parliament Zulkifli Mohammad.

Dressed in a conservative greyish-brown shirt, with a blue tie dotted with red roses, Mr Othman recalls his own family's history, and draws a personal sketch of race relations on the island.

"The first four years of my life, I grew up in a Malay-dominated quarters area, with long barracks with attap roofs. It was my uncle's quarters actually, where my grandparents and my parents lived too, and we had to sleep all over the floor.

"Next door to our kampung were Chinese farms, vegetables and pigs. They knew that pigs were taboo to us Malays, so they kept them in fenced compounds, and there was never any trouble. We kept goats. Our Indian neighbours nearby kept cattle. People lived peacefully next to each other.

"As a little boy, I played with all the Chinese and Indian kids. We communicated in Bahasa Malay. One day my father brought back a three-wheeled bicycle, I remember we all climbed on top of it and rode it around.

"And it was like that as I grew up and moved to different quarters when my father, a Malay teacher, was moved around. Malays, Chinese, Indians, we all went to different schools, but the rest of the day we played together on the football fields.

"I remember when we were living on Pulai Brani for a while in the 1930s when my father taught there, there was once a big fight between the Malay and Chinese workers of the tin smelting works.

"I remember the adults coming to our football field and telling us kids, go home, go home quickly. But that was not a communal riot and it was not because of religion either. They couldn't get along at work. The fight was over in a day, and no one in the kampung itself, whether Malay or Chinese, took part.

"After the war, when I was a reporter with a Malay paper, there was a riot in Pulau Bukom. That was also between workers, and nothing to do with religion. Again, it didn't spread.

"So before the war, there were no communal riots. The problem was more of gang clashes between secret societies organised along racial lines.

"Then in 1950, came the Maria Hertogh case. I wasn't in Singapore, I was in a London polytechnic."

The Maria Hertogh riots from Dec 11 to Dec 13, 1950, were a violent response to a newspaper campaign which whipped up religious sentiments over a custody battle between the parents of a Dutch Catholic girl and the Muslim family which adopted her when her parents were held by the Japanese during World War II.

Sentiments turned ugly when the young Maria's Muslim marriage was declared null, and the court ruled that she be returned to her natural parents. Eighteen people were killed in the riots, and 173 injured.

There were other riots in the country in the ensuing years, but these were more like clashes between the authorities and communist-inspired forces, and although they involved mostly Chinese, it could be argued they were not truly racial in nature.

"The first really communal riot was in 1964. Some Malay politicians were upset that the Malays voted for the PAP, which took all the seats they thought they could win.

"They told lies, egging the Malays on, telling them 'you are second-class citizens, your religion is in danger'. All not true, but they repeated it over and over again.

"The paper I worked for, Utusan Melayu, was in the forefront, repeating the lies every day. And when you repeat lies in the newspaper every day, people tend to believe it.

"They tried to discourage the Malays from moving into flats, saying it was against their culture. And when the Malays were slow to respond to these kinds of messages, they started this riot."

On July 21, 1964, a Muslim procession to mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday turned violent.

"There was a big gathering at the Padang. It was very emotional. I was there. 'Your kampung is your palace!', they said. In my heart, I said something was going to happen, but I never expected a riot. There were uniformed police everywhere.

"Then the procession began. People marched in a two-mile long procession through Beach Road, Arab Street, Lavender Street, right up to Kallang Bridge.

"I was towards the back of the procession. The riot began in the front. I saw some Malay youths running towards us, they just bashed up any Chinese they saw. Somebody shouted in the front, 'Kachau, kachau', which is Malay for 'disturbance'.

"I took my contingent into Old Kallang Airport, which was empty then. There was a big iron gate. We moved in, and I closed the gate. I looked for a phone, and called the Prime Minister to tell him there was a riot."

Trouble continued for a week, and the whole country was put under a curfew. By the time it was over, 23 people had been killed, and 454 injured.

"I discovered later it was planned by a few people. One week after the riots, I went up to Kuala Lumpur, and a former reporter from Utusan Melayu came to see me. He said that at 2 o'clock, he knew the riot was going to happen.

"I said, 'How come, when the riot only started at 4 to 4.30?' 'Oh yes, we knew beforehand,' he said' " That clicked. They must have been informed by someone because it was going to be big news."

Such incidents have shown him the need to be wary of people who would stoke up trouble for the sake of political gain, he says, emphasising that racial sentiments may always boil under a seemingly peaceful surface.

"Soon after the riots, we decided on a housing policy to mix the races together in the Housing Board flats. The experience of Geylang Serai and Joo Chiat showed that if the communities were left apart, there will be endless problems.

"So we made a policy so that in every block, there should be Chinese, Malays and Indians. We kept it quiet at first, but we built new flats and encouraged people to live together. We induced those in the Government first to do it, policemen, immigration officers.

"When people moved in and found they no longer had to queue up for communal toilets and now had lights and more privacy than before, they became keen."

So does he think such riots could occur today?

"I don't think communal riots as big as what happened in '64 and '69 can take place. But there could be dissension," he replies, adding that the country has acquired some strengths in the past years.

These included its robust economy in which there were jobs for all and less to fight about, as well as higher educational levels, and a more rational public.

Importantly, the material progress was shared by all the communities. "These days it is harder to find Malays living in one or two-room flats. Many are in maisonettes."

And all the communities had realised the value of an English education as a link to the world of commerce, giving them a common playing field too.

He adds: "I think the younger people of today are closer than we were in the old days, partly because they share a more common youth culture. In the old days, we were still a bit shy, and may not have confided in each other as much as young people do today."

It was a natural fruit of better relations between their parents' generation too, says Mr Othman. His own immediate neighbours in the private Opera Estate are Christian Indians on the left and a Buddhist Chinese family on the right.

"We are very close to each other, and always help each other. Any festive celebrations, Christmas, Lunar New Year, Hari Raya, we always invite each other around."

Things are "well and good" in Singapore all round, says the old hand, completing a personal survey of the state of race relations, but warns again of one small "minority", the politicians who would stir latent communal feelings for their own purposes. "We must always be on our guard against the 'minorities' who always want to rear their ugly heads again. I don't think it will end with a very big riot in Singapore, but it will create dissension. Whatever happens, this must be nipped in the bud."


Born 72 years ago, Mr Othman Wok describes himself as "Orang Laut" (literally, "man of the sea"), a descendant of one of a few hundred or so Malay families who lived in Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles landed here in 1819.

Mr Othman's father, a Malay teacher, sent him to English-language school, beginning in Radin Mas and later Raffles Institution. He continued his education in England.

His first love was journalism, but he was also politically inclined and became an active trade unionist. He was editor of a Malay-language newspaper, Utusan Melayu, when he joined the People's Action Party in 1954, a time when Singapore was being torn apart by communalists and communists, and politics was a matter of life and death.

He won a Parliamentary seat on his second try, becoming the Member for Pasir Panjang in the General Election of 1963. He spent the next 14 years as Minister for Social Affairs, stepping down in 1977 to become Ambassador to Indonesia for the next three years.

He retired after that and became a board member of the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and the Sentosa Development Corporation for a few years. He is now a director of a handful of companies, including Overseas Investments. He has three daughters by his first wife, Cik Dah Mohd Noor, and seven grandchildren by them. Cik Dah died of cancer 10 years ago. He has a 15-year-old daughter by his present wife.