Remembering Othman Wok (1924-2017): Why we must build on pioneers’ legacy

Mr Othman gives away some of his old personal items to the Malay Heritage Centre in 2001.
Mr Othman gives away some of his old personal items to the Malay Heritage Centre in 2001. PHOTO: BERITA HARIAN

This article was first published in My Paper on May 14, 2012

Mr Othman Wok is modest about his contributions to Singapore. Though he isn’t a household name for many young Singaporeans, the former social-affairs minister is not bothered about not being recognised.

In an exclusive three-hour interview with My Paper recently, Mr Othman - who was part of Singapore’s first Cabinet led by former prime minister and People’s Action Party (PAP) founding member Lee Kuan Yew - stressed the importance of building on the groundwork that has brought Singapore this far.

“There’re always improvements to be made,” he said. “You cannot just, like Kuan Yew says, go on auto-pilot...Our future generations must continue to build on things. Do not lose focus on sensitive issues such as race, language and religion.”

As for the kind of legacy he hopes to leave behind, the man wants to be remembered simply “as someone who champions multi-racialism”. 

He said: “We’ve been a good example for the surrounding region, showing that we can live together in peace and harmony, though we are from different backgrounds. We must be careful not to lose that.”

The sprightly 87-year-old was animated during the interview at his Beach Road office, speaking off the cuff about his past, from his decision to enter politics, to his background as a journalist and relationships with fellow pioneers. 

“Sometimes, I can go off on a tangent,” he admitted with a hearty laugh.

Mr Othman holds several positions in the private sector, including as independent director of Overseas Trustees Limited and its associate companies. 

He is the only one of the five remaining founding fathers of Singapore - aside from Mr Lee - My Paper managed to contact. Those who have died are Mr E. W. Barker, Mr S. Rajaratnam, Mr Lim Kim San, Dr Goh Keng Swee and, most recently, Dr Toh Chin Chye.

The passing of Dr Toh, the founding chairman of the PAP, in February cast a spotlight on Singapore’s pioneers and their contributions to the country.

Though the two never worked closely, Mr Othman remembers Dr Toh as “always very serious, a straight-talker who was quite no-nonsense”.

As for Mr Othman, well, one might call him a reluctant politician. His true passion, he admitted, is journalism. 

Born in Singapore to a Malay-language-teacher father and a housewife mum, the elder of two children attended Sekolah Melayu Telok Saga and Raffles Institution. 

At 26, he spent a year in London after receiving a scholarship for a journalism diploma awarded by London Polytechnic. During the Japanese Occupation (1942-1945), he worked as a rat-catcher and laboratory assistant in the Japanese Anti-Plague Laboratory.

After the war, he joined the Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu. There, he worked under its chief editor, Mr Yusof Ishak, who would go on to become the first president of Singapore when it gained independence in 1965. 

“I didn’t want to be a politician, I wanted to be a journalist,” he said with a wistful smile.

Still, he joined the PAP upon its establishment in 1954, and was asked by Mr Lee, then the legal adviser to Utusan Melayu, to contest in the Kampong Kembangan ward in the 1959 elections. 

It proved a challenging time, as Malay residents of the constituency, an Umno stronghold, viewed him as a “traitor” for being a part of the PAP.

“They thought we were biased against them, and didn’t believe that the PAP was formed to establish a more equal and just society... No one should be given rights based on race or religion,” he said.
Though he did not win the seat, he and his team soldiered on, “trying to improve the constituencies and clean up the place”. He eventually won a seat in Pasir Panjang in 1963. 

He recalled: “I thought Kuan Yew would use me as a back-room boy. But, one day, he called and told me he wanted me as a minister. I was surprised and didn’t say anything.”

He served as social-affairs minister and member of Parliament for Pasir Panjang until 1977, after which he became ambassador to Indonesia before retiring in 1981. 

He then served as a board member of the then Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and Sentosa Development Corporation until 1996, when he said “enough is enough”, he joked.

Although his health has been erratic of late, the grandfather of 10 and great-grandfather of two – he has four grown-up daughters from two marriages – looks back on his life fondly.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he mused.

“So far, so good.”