5 Othman Wok Facts Every Singaporean Should Know About The Late Ex-Cabinet Minister

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Key Comrade Of LKY Dies At 92

Mr Othman Wok, one of Singapore’s founding fathers and a trusted Cabinet minister of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, died on Monday (April 17) at the age of 92.

The veteran politician was a member of Singapore’s very first Cabinet — formed at a very difficult time for the country as politics was fraught with racial tensions.

Throughout his 27-year political career, he acted in the best interests of the Malay community, but received death threats and was called “a traitor”. But that didn’t stop the man from rooting for what he believed in.

Here’s a quote from him from AsiaOne that encapsulates his life:

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Facts About Othman Wok

Many Singaporeans don’t know much about Mr Othman, let alone his achievement’s or his sacrifices for our country, which is sad.

So here are a few facts about the former politician that every Singapore should know:

1. He Met Yusof Ishak And LKY As A Reporter

According to Channel NewsAsia, he initially joined Malay-language newspaper Utusan Melayu as a clerk, but was offered a reporter job by the paper’s editor and managing director Yusof Ishak, who happened to become Singapore’s first president.

Here’s Mr Othman with Mr Yusof in 1966, when Mr Yusof was already president and Mr Othman, a minister:

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Mr Othman then became involved in union activities and became the secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees Union.

It was in that role that he met Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was the union’s legal adviser. Here are photos of them together:


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2. He Was Integral In Helping Malays

One of the significant things Mr Othman was known for was proposing all Malays be given free primary to tertiary education.

He then set up the Mosque Building Fund and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore.

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According to AsiaOne, it was thanks to the fund that Toa Payoh got its first mosque; as of 2007, 22 mosques have been built using the fund.

3. He Lost His First Election

Mr Othman became a member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954, just a few days after it was formed.

But he lost his 1959 bid for election to the legislative assembly in Kampong Kembangan to the United Malays National Organisation (Umno), who branded him a “traitor” to the Malays and an “infidel” as he had joined the PAP, then regarded as a “Chinese party”.

Yes, this was the time his election posters were smeared with faeces.

Thankfully, he proceeded to win his electoral battle in Pasir Panjang in 1963, and entered parliament. Mr Lee made him minister for home affairs and social welfare in his first Cabinet.

Here’s him visiting Kembangan after being appointed minister:

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Mr Lee commended him for remaining loyal and steadfast despite the name-calling during the height of racial tensions in 1964, according to Channel NewsAsia:

I heard it, the crowds said it, bunches of them. They were designed to intimidate him and the other Malay leaders in PAP. Because of the courage and the leadership you showed, not one PAP Malay leader wavered and that made a difference to Singapore.

4. He Was Concerned About Terrorism

Despite being well into his 80s, he gave talks on National Education to civil servants, warning them on the dangers of disunity leading to terrorism.

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Channel NewsAsia quoted him as saying:

Even with this terrorism problem, some of these young people do not take it seriously because it has not happened in Singapore… The test will come when a bomb explodes in Singapore, people are killed … What happens, do we tighten our bonding, become a united front of faith or we disintegrate? This is the test that we have to face if the real thing happens. I hope not. Because today when there are disasters in other countries, Singapore came together to help. I am sure were this to happen in Singapore, we will get together, to face it and solve it. I have that confidence… Always be loyal to your country. You’re a Singaporean, you will always be a Singaporean.

His concern over terrorism stems from how he had witnessed first-hand what happens when the races aren’t unified, and boundaries are drawn along racial lines.

After Singapore and Malaysia’s merger, tensions between the Malay and Chinese communities were high, and boiled over.

During the 1964 procession to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, Mr Othman led a contingent of Malay MPs and PAP supporters, but it didn’t end well after riots broke out:


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He told Channel NewsAsia of what he saw that day:

When my contingent arrived at Kallang Bridge, there was this old Chinese man on a bicycle, on the left side. Some Malay youths came from the front, caught hold of him, beat him up with sticks and threw his bicycle into the drain. He was severely injured…

People were being beaten up, houses were being burnt, vehicles being burnt – all pictured in my mind at that time. I was involved in it, I saw it with my own eyes. It is just like a film being played again and again to me. I was very sad. This is racial riot between the communities, the Chinese and the Malays. And before that they were very friendly.

Despite the names people called him, he continued to serve the Malay community. He even distributed aid to families of the victims of the 1964 riots.

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5. He Signed Up To Make Singapore Independent

Mr Othman was one of 10 signatories on the Independence of Singapore Agreement, which was declared on Aug 9, 1965.

Faced with the crucial decision to split from Malaysia, Mr Othman backed the split, saying it was a relief to end 2 years of bickering between Singapore and Malaysia.

Here’s Mr Othman at the National Day parade in 2015, as a member of the “Old Guard” sitting next to a seat symbolically left for the late Mr Lee, in the first NDP after he died in March 2015.

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Rest In Peace

Mr Othman deserves the utmost respect of every countryman; he persevered and survived hardship during one of the most critical periods of Singapore’s history.

So much so that the Prime Minister’s Office released a sombre statement announcing his death, with details on the memorial service, burial and the honour of being borne on a ceremonial gun carriage.

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Mr Othman led a long, fruitful life that was devoted wholeheartedly to the country. May he rest in peace.

Featured image from YouTube

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