Remembering Othman Wok: A brave man committed to multiracialism, says Yaacob Ibrahim

Minister Yaacob Ibrahim delivers his eulogy at the memorial service of Othman Wok on April 19, 2017.
Minister Yaacob Ibrahim delivers his eulogy at the memorial service of Othman Wok on April 19, 2017. PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - Courage, conviction and a deep-seated commitment to the ideal of multiracialism were values manifested in Mr Othman Wok, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim on Wednesday (April 19).

Mr Othman also never wavered from his commitment to a multiracial Singapore, Dr Yaacob, who is also Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, added in his tribute to the late Malay leader at a memorial service at Victoria Concert Hall.

He died on Monday at age 92.

Mr Othman's championing of multiracialism came from his life experiences, noted Dr Yaacob, who described him as "an ordinary clerk thrust into public life" and forced to confront difficult choices.

"He could have been part of a society where he would be comfortable as part of the privileged majority, never mind that the minorities would feel less than welcomed. Or he could choose to be part of a new nation founded on the principles of multiracialism, where everyone would have equal opportunities to succeed," he said.

But Mr Othman chose to join the People's Action Party (PAP) in 1954, keeping faith with the party's model for a diverse society in the years before Singapore's independence in 1965.

"We all know the early years were fraught with difficulties and uncertainties - economic survival, racial riots, chauvinistic elements pulling constantly at the hearts and minds of our Malay community," said Dr Yaacob.

Mr Othman strived to unite the country in everything he did, whether in sports, culture or Muslim affairs.

"I can only imagine Encik Othman's satisfaction when he saw Singaporeans cheering on Team Singapore as one during the Olympics and Paralympics last year, and the SEA Games and Asean para-games the year before," he said.

Mr Othman saw sports as a "powerful unifying force" that transcended race, language and religion, he added.

Speaking in Malay, Dr Yaacob said: "For me personally, as a member of the Malay/Muslim community and Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, one endearing legacy is his contributions to our community.

"The introduction of the Administration of Muslim Law Act reflected his foresight and sincerity in safeguarding the Malay/Muslim community, to this day."

He said Mr Othman, with Singapore's first Attorney-General Ahmad Ibrahim, "worked hard" to establish three key Muslim institutions: the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, the Registry of Muslim Marriages and the Syariah Court.

Together with other pioneering community leaders, they enabled the religious life of the Malay/Muslim community to progress in line with modernisation.

He said Mr Othman's multiracial ethos was more important than ever today.

"At a time when extreme ideologies are being peddled on many fronts, the need for courageous souls like him to speak up for diversity and respect for differences is ever more crucial."

"And the battle for respect, trust and mutual understanding is won, and will always be won, when men like Othman Wok fight with sheer passion and conviction against any force that seeks to divide us."