Othman Wok: Singaporean first, Malay second

You might not have heard of him but there’re many reasons why you should learn about him.

Mr Othman Wok was probably the only minister in Singapore who was born into a family of Orang Laut – the original settlers of Singapore.

The Orang Laut were sea people – they lived all their lives on boats (via aphindonesia).

While most of only learnt about Sir Stamford Raffles in our history lessons, Mr Othman’s relatives had actually caught a glimpse of the man himself.

He told The New Paper in 2000 that some of his relatives were standing on a beach when Raffles landed in Singapore. This meant that Othman’s family were already living on this tiny island before it got discovered by the British.

Now if this doesn’t make him more Singaporean than any of us, consider this.

From majority to minority

Mr Othman was one of the 10 PAP ministers who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement in 1965.

It was a truly honourable move because he knew that his very own Malay-Muslim community would go from being a majority to a minority on Aug 9, 1695 and yet he didn’t hesitate to endorse the separation.

At that time, Malaysian’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was offering Singapore’s Malays land in Johor.

Ensuring PAP’s survival

In 1961, there was a big split in the PAP. 12 Chinese and one Indian PAP assemblymen left the PAP to join the Barisan Sosialis.

Mr Othman served in Cabinet as Social Affairs Minister from 1963 to 1977 (via The Straits Times).

But under Mr Othman’s leadership and support for PAP’s vision of a better life for all Singaporeans, no Malay PAP member crossed over to Barisan or United Malay National Organization (UMNO).

This was significant because Mr Othman was a journalist with the Malay-language newspaper, Utusan and majority of Utusan‘s stakeholders were UMNO members.

Not only did he not join UMNO, he did not succumb to pressure when UMNO Malay extremists denounced him as a “traitor to the Malay race” and threatened to kill him.

In 1964, UMNO leader Syed Jaafar Albar rallied thousands of Malays in Pasir Panjang to “finish them (Lee Kuan Yew and Othman Wok) off”.

Racial tensions were high as Mr Othman was already serving as Member of Parliament (MP) at Pasir Panjang constituency.

The worst racial riots

It was July 21, 1964 – one of the darkest days in Singapore’s history where 23 people were killed, and 454 others injured.

Mr Othman was then leading a PAP contingent in a procession from the Padang to Lorong 12 Geylang, to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday when the riots broke out.

The Chinese and Malays started hurling bottles at one another and punching the policemen.

Mr Othman believed that the riots were planned and UMNO was smart enough to coincide with a religious procession. So if the PAP stopped the riots, they would be considered anti-Muslim.

Singapore would HAVE beEN different

At Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s 75th birthday dinner in 1998, Mr Lee was tearful when he paid tribute to Mr Othman.

“Because of the courage and leadership you showed, not a single PAP leader wavered. That made a difference to Singapore.”

Mr Othman seated next to Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s seat on National Day (via Gov.sg).

And here’s Mr Othman’s humble reply:

“I was surprised, because not only I, but my Malay colleagues in the PAP stood together and faced the onslaught together with the Prime Minister, because we were fighting for what we believed in.

“So that accolade to me, I thought, was also for my colleagues because they faced the same danger, they faced the same accusation and criticism from the Malay community at that time.”

About the author

Ling

I am a 90s baby and I spent more than 3/5 of my life being a vegetarian. In my free time, I ponder about the greater purpose in life and how i could live life more meaningfully. I enjoy doing yoga and I daydream about doing headstands one day.

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