Singapore Old Guard leader Othman Wok dies at 92

Othman Wok (left) with Yahoo Singapore journalist Safhras Khan in 2009. Yahoo Singapore file photo

by Rachel Chan and Nicholas Yong

Othman Wok, a member of Singapore’s first Cabinet formed by Lee Kuan Yew and one of the 10 men who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement, has died. He was 92.

Othman, who served as the Minister for Culture and Social Affairs Minister between 1963 and 1977, passed on Monday (17 April). A statement on the People’s Action Party Facebook page called him “one of the earliest proponents of multi-racialism in Singapore” and an integral member of independent Singapore’s first Cabinet.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong also praised him as “one of the multi-racial team of founding leaders who built Singapore”.

Othman Wok was born on 8 October, 1924 to a Malay language-teacher-father and a housewife mother in Singapore. Othman attended Sekolah Melayu Telok Saga, Radin Mas English School, and Raffles Institution. While his grandfather frowned upon his son’s choice of an English education for Othman when the latter was a child, Othman’s bilingualism proved to be very useful later on in his political career.

During the Japanese Occupation (1942-45), Othman avoided being enlisted in the Japanese army by enrolling in a Japanese school. He also worked as a laboratory assistant in a Japanese anti-plague laboratory and as a clerk at the Harbour Board.

In 1946, he was personally offered a position as a reporter by Yusof Ishak, one of the founders of Malay daily Utusan Melayu and later Singapore’s first President.

By the time Othman joined the PAP shortly after its inception in 1954, he was a prominent journalist at Utusan Melayu. He was also the secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees’ Union (SPEU). It was in this capacity that he met Lee Kuan Yew, who was then SPEU’s legal advisor and later became Singapore first prime minister. He helped translate Lee’s speeches into Malay.

In the 1950s, when politics was often fought along racial lines, taking sides with the PAP instead of the Malay-dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) earned Othman the epithet “traitor” from his own community. He lost his first election in Kampong Kembangan, in 1959.

He stood for election again in Pasir Panjang, after Singapore’s merger with Malaya in 1963, and won. He was the only Malay to make it to Lee’s first Cabinet, and was appointed the first Minister for Home Affairs and Social Welfare. In 1965, he became Minister for Culture and Social Affairs, and retained the position until 1977. He was then appointed as the ambassador to Indonesia, but continued as minister without portfolio until his retirement from politics in 1981.

Among his achievements, Othman was involved in the implementation of Administration of the Muslim Law Act 1966, under which the central governing body for Muslim affairs Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) was constituted. Together with Lee and other Malay MPs, he also implemented a Mosque Building Fund in 1975, allowing Muslims to make voluntary donations from their Central Provident Fund towards the building of mosques in new housing estates.

Writing remained a love of Othman. He had a penchant for horror stories, having contributed them to his school magazine while at Raffles Institution, and working as a journalist at Utusan. After retiring from politics, he became a regular writer of horror tales for a Malaysian weekend paper and compiled his previously published short stories. He also published his biography, Never In My Wildest Dreams, in 2000.

Othman is survived by his second wife, Lina Abdullah, and four daughters Saffiah, Dahlia, Lily and Diana. He will be buried at Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery on Tuesday.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Government will accord him the honour of being borne on the ceremonial gun carriage for his final journey from Sultan Mosque to Pusara Abadi at the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery.

A memorial service organised by OnePeople.sg will be held on Wednesday. The Government has ordered that the State flag on all Government buildings be flown at half-mast until the memorial service is over.