Remembering Othman Wok: Unionist who fought - and won - better pay for workers, says MP Patrick Tay

Some 600 guests gathered at the Victoria Concert Hall on Wednesday to remember Mr Othman Wok who died on Monday at the age of 92.
Labour MP Patrick Tay delivering a eulogy on behalf of the labour movement at a memorial service for the late Mr Othman Wok.
Labour MP Patrick Tay delivering a eulogy on behalf of the labour movement at a memorial service for the late Mr Othman Wok. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

SINGAPORE - Pioneer Cabinet minister Othman Wok was widely known as an early political stalwart. Less well-known was his role as a unionist in pre-independent Singapore, said labour MP Patrick Tay on Wednesday night (April 19).

Describing Mr Othman as a firm believer in the power of unions, Mr Tay said fellow unionists felt that as their representative he would fight for them, so they elected him honorary secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees' Union (SPEU) in 1951.

"He did not disappoint and served with dedication and pride," Mr Tay said in a eulogy on behalf of the labour movement at a memorial service for Mr Othman.

The late leader, one of Singapore's founding fathers, died in hospital on Monday, at age 92.

When elected to lead the printing union, Mr Othman was a journalist with Utusan Melayu. But he strongly believed that "workers should have the right to determine their own working conditions", Mr Tay noted.

In 1953, he worked hard to represent Malaya Publishing House workers in a wage dispute, and won them better terms.

A few months later, he became involved in a dispute between Straits Times Press workers and the company's management.

The dispute eventually escalated into an illegal strike in February 1954, which was unsuccessful, Mr Tay said.

It was through this incident that Mr Othman and founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew got to know each other better. Mr Lee was then the legal adviser for the SPEU, which the Straits Times Press was part of.

Their relationship, however, started two years earlier when Mr Lee was legal adviser to Utusan Melayu, the Malay newspaper at which Mr Othman was a journalist.

Said Mr Tay: "The friendship between Mr Lee and Encik Othman grew over the years. When Mr Lee set up the People's Action Party in (November) 1954, he invited Encik Othman to join the party. Encik Othman accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history."

Mr Tay said Mr Othman remained an inspiring figure, even after he retired from politics.

He sat on the boards of several corporations and statutory boards, like the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board, and mentored several young People's Action Party (PAP) activists.


Mr Tay had met Mr Othman at several PAP events, and remembers him as "always being open and forthcoming as he shared his experiences and the challenges early PAP leaders faced".

He added that Mr Othman will always be remembered for his commitment to Singapore, having been part of a leadership team that took Singapore through the merger with and separation from Malaysia.

"The Singapore we see today is shaped by the words and actions of Encik Othman and his fellow comrades. Together, they made their vision of an independent, multiracial and multireligious Singapore a reality," he said.

"We share our grief with Encik Othman's family, but also their pride in the man and the leader. He may not be with us any longer, but we have his legacy -a multiracial Singapore - one that we will continue to cherish."