Remembering Othman Wok: A unifying icon in multi-racial Singapore: Ministers

Old Guard PAP Minister Othman Wok, at his office at The Concourse on March 1, 2006.
Old Guard PAP Minister Othman Wok, at his office at The Concourse on March 1, 2006. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Without the late founding father Othman Wok, Singapore would be a vastly different country, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Monday evening (April 17).

"His guts, the courage he gave the Malay community and the confidence he gave all Singaporeans in multi-racialism, that we could make it work - that's what we're in debt to him for," he told reporters at Mr Othman's wake in his Bedok home.

Amid racial tensions, Mr Othman "rose to the occasion, decided that his belief in unity was worth fighting for, and hitched his wagon to Mr Lee Kuan Yew and and made Singapore what it is."

"So we're grateful to him for making that difference and making this country," Mr Tharman said.

Mr Othman, who held portfolios in social affairs and culture, died at Singapore General Hospital on Monday at 12.21 pm. He was 92.

Minister-in-charge for Muslim AffairsYaacob Ibrahim had also lauded Mr Othman as a multi-racial icon - a man who united people of different racial and religious backgrounds during the political upheavals of Singapore's early days.

The pioneer Cabinet minister had seen through "some of the extremist forces that were at play at that time, and realised that a better future lay for Singapore in a society where we respect one another," he said.

"He fought for what he believed was right, not only for the Malays in Singapore but the whole of Singapore," said Dr Yaacob, who is also the Minister for Communications and Information.

This was a "courageous act" because Mr Othman was "going against very, very strong forces, which we saw in the extremist Malay nationalists," he added.

Dr Yaacob also said that Mr Othman had laid the foundation for a "modern and progressive Malay-Muslim community."

He helped to develop the Administration of Muslim Law Act, laws passed in 1966 to enhance the administration of Islamic law in the Singapore legal system.

This, in turn, helped to create The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore(Muis) which, with the Syariah Court, are key institutions today that let Muslims in Singapore "lead a vibrant socio-religious life," said Dr Yaacob.

Mr Othman, with former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, also launched the Mosque Building Fund, which has helped to pay for the construction of 26 modern mosques in the heartlands, he added.

Personally, Dr Yaacob said he remembered Mr Othman best for the way he balanced his dual roles as a community leader and a national leader.

"In both roles, he brought to bear the ethos that has been associated with him and the founding generation: That of respect for multiracialism, respect for meritocracy, and respect for a society in which every community in Singapore has a space to thrive," he said.

"I had interacted with him and he always reminded us that we must not forget to continue to be tolerant and understanding of each other and live peacefully with one another," he said.

Former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin told The Straits Times that Mr Othman's position as a top Malay politician against the backdrop of heated race politics was "all the more poignant".

Mr Zainul, who is helping to coordinate funeral arrangements between the Goverment and the late leader's family, said Mr Othman, like the late President Yusof Ishak, had always been clear about working towards multi-culturalism for Singapore.

"For example, even when Mr Othman was a journalist, he understood the challenges of the community, and he wanted to help it understand whatSingapore was trying to achieve," he said.