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Othman Wok - broke the law, risked his life, became a minister, and helped build a nation -
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Sat. Jun 15th, 2024

TL;DR – Debts of gold we can repay, but debts of kindness will be carried all our lives.

Another member of the first generation of Singapore leaders have left us.

Mr Othman Wok was the first Malay member in Singapore’s Cabinet. But to be elected as an MP, he had to first do something illegal. Here’s how it happened.

Fighting for the better pay of workers

Before being an MP, Mr Othman Wok was a journalist. As a journalist, he also led the Singapore Printing Employees’ Union (SPEU). As the leader of SPEU, Mr Othman played a central role in fighting for higher wages and better working conditions for union members and workers.

In 1953, Mr Othman led the union on a strike in the fight for higher wages and fairer treatment for workers of the Malaya Publishing House. His efforts were successful and won better terms for the workers. In 1954, Mr Othman was involved in a dispute between Straits Times workers and the company’s management. That dispute escalated into an illegal strike.

The Straits Times Press was part of the SPEU, Mr Lee Kuan Yew was the legal advisor to the SPEU. It was because Mr Othman was involved in that illegal strike that led to him and Mr Lee Kuan Yew getting to know each other better. So when Mr Lee Kuan Yew set up the People’s Action Party (PAP) in 1954, he invited Mr Othman to join the party. Mr Othman agreed.

But Mr Othman didn’t do it because he had hoped to earn million-dollar salaries. Instead, he probably knew he was getting himself into a pretty precarious position. TNP had collated Mr Othman’s lifetime of milestones quite neatly here.

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Risking his life for a multi-racial Singapore

When Singapore was still part of Malaysia, one of the most contentious issue was whether Malaysia was to be a multi-racial country, with all races enjoying equal rights; or a system based on ethnic politics and racial dominance. PAP wanted the former. UMNO wanted the latter.

Mr Othman, together with other Malay PAP leaders, were abused, threatened and denounced.  They received death threats. UMNO leaders made inflammatory racist speeches that targeted Mr Lee and Othman personally in the most vicious terms.

On 12 July 1964, UMNO organised a hostile rally in Pasir Panjang, Othman’s own constituency. Syed Jaafar Albar, then UMNO Secretary-General and a powerful rabble rouser, told the Malay crowd:

“If there is unity, no force can trample us down, no force can humiliate us, no force can belittle us … not one Lee Kuan Yew, a thousand Lee Kuan Yews … we finish them off … kill him, kill him. Othman Wok and Lee Kuan Yew.”

Less than 10 days later, during a procession to mark Prophet Muhamad’s birthday, racial riots broke out which engulfed Singapore. It is because of those racial riots that Singaporean students observe Racial Harmony Day. But if not for Mr Othman’s efforts, Singaporean students probably wouldn’t need to observe Racial Harmony Day. Why? Because there might never have been an independent, multi-racial Singapore.

This is Mr Othman talking about how Mr Lee Kuan Yew handled the 1964 riots.

And here, this is Mr Lee Kuan Yew paying a tribute to Mr Othman when both men were still alive. Mr Lee was talking about the impact of Mr Othman’s work. As with most, if not all, of Mr Lee’s speeches, this is immensely powerful, and you can see Mr Lee getting emotional towards the end of the clip.

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If Mr Othman and other Malay PAP leaders had left the PAP because of those threats, then PAP would not be able to claim to be a multi-racial party. As PM Lee said in his eulogy for Mr Othman:

“Its (i.e. PAP’s) cry of a “Malaysian Malaysia” would have been exposed as empty. The Federal Government might have been emboldened to suppress the Singapore state government, and bring Singapore to heel. There might never have been an independent, multi-racial Singapore.”

Indeed, if Mr Othman wanted an easy life, he should have abandoned the PAP and joined UMNO. Not only would he not have to put up with the threats, he would also have been richly rewarded. Malaysian’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman was offering Singapore’s Malays land in Johor.

His greatest gift to Singapore

Because Mr Othman and other Malay PAP leaders stood firm and held a sufficient portion of the Singapore Malay ground, they were able to keep the dream of a multi-racial society alive through those terrible dark days. Thanks to them, we now can proudly say We, the citizens of Singapore, regardless of race, language and religion”.

As DPM Tharman said:

” We are indebted to him, and will always be. He made a multiracial Singapore possible, which matters more than anything else we have.”

Indeed, we owe a great debt of gratitude to Mr Othman. PM Lee summed it up well with a traditional pantun at the end of his eulogy for Mr Othman:

“Pisang emas dibawa berlayar,

Pisang emas dibawa berlayar,

Masak sebiji di atas peti,

Hutang emas boleh dibayar,

Hutang budi dibawa mati.”

Debts of gold we can repay, but debts of kindness will be carried all our lives.

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From the bottom of our hearts, thank you, Mr Othman Wok.

By Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!