Othman Wok: 1924-2017

'Singapore would be a very different place without him'

Former Cabinet minister Othman Wok died on Monday (April 17) at the age of 92. Mr Othman was Minister for Social Affairs from 1963 to 1977 and Singapore's ambassador to Indonesia from 1977 till his retirement from politics in 1981. ST VIDEO: NG KAI LING
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said Mr Othman fought for what he believed was right, not just for Malays, but also all of Singapore. Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the wake yesterday. He said Mr Othman believed that unity was worth fighting for.
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said Mr Othman fought for what he believed was right, not just for Malays, but also all of Singapore.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Dr Yaacob Ibrahim said Mr Othman fought for what he believed was right, not just for Malays, but also all of Singapore. Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the wake yesterday. He said Mr Othman believed that unity was worth fighting for.
Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the wake yesterday. He said Mr Othman believed that unity was worth fighting for.PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Mr Ong Pang Boon.
Mr Ong Pang Boon.

He gave all S'poreans the confidence that multiracialism could work: DPM Tharman

Without the late founding father Othman Wok, Singapore would be a vastly different country, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.

"His guts, the courage he gave the Malay community and the confidence in multiracialism that he gave all Singaporeans, the confidence that we could make it work - that's what we are 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 Singapore became 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 yesterday at 12.21pm. He was 92.

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

MAN OF INTEGRITY

He was among the first Malay leaders of the PAP. He contributed significantly to the PAP's multiracial platform. We worked closely in the early years of the PAP. I was the party's organising secretary and Othman, who was then a journalist with Utusan Melayu, was our unofficial Malay translator. I would see him whenever we needed Malay translations for Petir and other publications. Othman always obliged.

I will always remember Othman to be a man of integrity and with absolute loyalty to the PAP and Mr Lee Kuan Yew.

He was also a man of high EQ, who always had kind words for his Cabinet colleagues, his grassroots workers and friends, and the man in the street.

MR ONG PANG BOON, one of two remaining members of independent Singapore's first Cabinet. The other is Mr Jek Yeun Thong.

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 (also) 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.

On a personal note, 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.

Former senior minister of state Zainul Abidin Rasheed 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 Government 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. "Even when Mr Othman was a journalist, he understood the challenges of the community, and he wanted to help it understand what Singapore was trying to achieve," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, who attended the wake later at night, said on Facebook that Mr Othman "stood up for an independent multiracial Singapore and helped lay the foundations for the peaceful and harmonious Singapore of today".

He added: "His unwavering commitment and loyalty to Singapore and the principles we stand for are an inspiration to all of us."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2017, with the headline ''Singapore would be a very different place without him''. Print Edition | Subscribe