I have a confession, I had not heard of Othman Wok before Monday – and I’m betting many Singaporeans didn’t either (especially those born after 1980, don’t kid yourself).
Othman Wok passed away on Monday this week on 17 Apr. So who was he, really?
We break down Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s eulogy for him, for you:
- He believed that all races should have equal rights in a country – that was barely a country.
For perspective, this was the 1960s – a time when even the Jim Crow Laws of the great United States of America were upheld (the laws were only overturned in 1965). If you were black, you used a separate toilet from the Whites – and that was perfectly okay.
- For this belief, he put up with a lot of s***, literally. And faced death threats.
Five days after Singapore merged with Malaysia, UMNO, Malaysia’s ruling party (which believe that Malays should have a special position in Malaysia) decided they would contest in Singapore’s General Elections after merger – and try to oust the PAP.
“At stake was what kind of society we wished to live in: A multi-racial society, with all races enjoying equal rights; or a system based on ethnic politics and racial dominance? Malay PAP leaders came under intense and relentless pressure to abandon multiracialism and choose race over nation. Othman and his colleagues – Mahmud Awang, Rahim Ishak, Yaacob Mohamed, Mohamed Ariff Suradi, Rahmat Kenap, Buang Omar Junid – were abused, threatened and denounced. They were called “kafirs” or infidels. They received death threats. Othman recalled that some of his posters were smeared with faeces.”
- He thought Singapore separating from Malaysia was “the best news ever”. He agreed to sign the Separation Agreement immediately.
Othman remained convinced that equal rights for all was the way to go, even when Singapore Malays would become a minority community overnight.
“When the Separation Agreement was being settled in Kuala Lumpur, Mr Lee saw Othman and other ministers in Temasek KL, the Singapore House in Kuala Lumpur. He asked Othman whether he would sign. Othman did not hesitate. He said yes immediately. That was a crucial decision. For once Singapore separated from Malaysia, Singapore Malays would overnight cease being part of the majority race and become a minority community again. If Singapore Malays had not accepted that change, we could not have built a multi-racial society.”
In a 2015 interview, Othman recounted how the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew had passed him the Tungku’s letter which asked Singapore to leave Malaysia.
“As a Malay, he thought I would be very sad about Separation. In my heart, it was the best news ever. We were under pressure for 2 years when we were in Malaysia! He (Lee Kuan Yew) asked me, ‘if I sign it, would you sign it?”. I said yes, I will sign it. Don’t worry about it. ”
- He looked forward, without forgetting the past.
“As we look back on 92 years of Othman’s life, we should also look ahead, to the future of Singapore. That was what he and his colleagues had fought for. At one of his last interviews Othman said: “You cannot just, like Kuan Yew says, go on auto-pilot … Our future generations must continue to build on things. Do not lose focus on sensitive issues such as race, language and religion.”
Fun fact: the word “race” appears 11 times in the eulogy. “Racial” 21 times and of these, “multi-racial” appears 12 times.
Another fun fact: Only two remaining signatories remain alive: former Ministers Ong Pang Boon and Jek Yeun Thong.
I have no idea who they are, but like many Singaporeans today, I’ll probably learn of them only in their death.