By Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, Straits Times
WHEN Japanese planes flew over Singapore on Dec 8, 1941, in the first bombing raid of World War II, most of the nation screeched to a halt.
Families huddled in bomb shelters. Offices emptied. But in a dingy three-storey building in Queen Street, 31-year-old Yusof Ishak, managing director of Utusan Melayu, ignored the air raid sirens, kept his reporters at their desks and posted a lookout on the roof.
Only when the lookout saw planes approaching, would the newspaper’s staff be allowed to dash for the nearby bomb shelters. This continued as air-raids battered Singapore for the next two months, killing almost 9,000 civilians.
Even in war, Mr Yusof was determined that the newspaper he had co-founded – his platform to nurture an educated and progressive Malay community – would be printed on schedule.
So, as the bombs fell around him, the man who would become Singapore’s first President stood his ground. Later, as he helped steer Singapore through the tumultuous years that spanned self-government, merger, separation and, eventually, independence, he displayed that same focus, this time to help citizens build a common national identity.
Former minister Othman Wok, once a Utusan Melayu reporter, said: “He was always focused in everything he did. He’d do things quietly, diligently. That was the man he was. And that was the man Singapore needed then.”
His years as head of state, from 1959 to 1970, roiled with racial tension. There were times when the Malay community eyed the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) with suspicion.
The PAP had in 1959 put itself forward as a party that believed in merger with Malaysia – which Malays, by extension, saw as a sign of support for the community. After separation in 1965, some felt betrayed.
But Mr Yusof walked for hours in the sun, visiting constituents and soothing their fears. He worked with the Government to ensure that Malays had the education and health care they needed, to prove they were not discriminated against.
“It was people like Yusof Ishak who gave people the comfort that the Government had not forgotten about the Malays,” said Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, a former senior minister of state who was classmates with Mr Yusof’s son, Imran.
“He was one of those who made the decision to stay with Singapore, to work and make a success of the country and values he believed in. Of course, it took longer than his lifetime, but those early years were important,” Mr Zainul added.
Among the values Mr Yusof espoused were meritocracy and multiracialism, topics he had written on as a young journalist.
The eldest of nine children, he was born in Perak in 1910. His father, Mr Ishak Ahmad, was a civil servant whose family moved here with him when he was transferred to Singapore to be Inspector of Fisheries.
Mr Yusof studied at Raffles Institution, where he was co-editor of the Rafflesian – the start of a lifelong love affair with newspapers.
At age 29, he co-founded the Utusan Melayu newspaper. He went from kampung to kampung, hawking shares to raise money to set it up. His mother and sisters pawned their jewellery in support.
In Utusan’s early days, he slept in the printing room, guarding the printing presses which he feared would be stolen.
The first issue went to print on May 29, 1939, and sold a few hundred copies. By 1957, the paper had a circulation of 40,000.
Mr Yusof ruled the newsroom with an iron fist.
“He knew what he wanted and he’d work towards it. He didn’t want things done by halves. So when he gave you an assignment, you had to carry it out, by hook or by crook,” Mr Othman recalled.
Once, thinking that Mr Othman had failed to do his job, Mr Yusof fired him. “He told me, ‘Get out, I don’t want to see your face anymore!’ ” But when the misunderstanding was cleared up 20 minutes later, the young reporter was rehired.
But in 1959, Mr Yusof left the paper and moved back to Perak.
Utusan Melayu had been critical of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) – which believed in special privileges for the Malays, a concept Mr Yusof had railed against – but from 1955, Umno members began buying up a bulk of the paper’s shares.
“Mr Yusof couldn’t see eye to eye with the new board of directors. One day, he had enough,” said Mr Othman.
That was when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Singapore’s Prime Minister, came calling.
“He asked me, ‘Where is Cik Yusof?’ I told him, ‘He lives in Malaysia now and grows and sells orchids.’ Mr Lee asked me, ‘That’s what he does?’ ” Mr Othman said.
A month after that, Mr Yusof was back in Singapore and became chairman of the Public Service Commission in July 1959.
Later that year, Mr Lee would again seek Mr Othman’s opinion.
“He told me: ‘We need a head of state. Do you think Cik Yusof fits the bill?’ ” said Mr Othman.
“I said, ‘Of course! He has very close relations with the people, Malays and non-Malays. He mixes very well with them. He’s been walking the ground as a journalist, so he knows what the situation is. He’s the right person for the job!’ ”
In December 1959, Mr Yusof was appointed Singapore’s Yang di-Pertuan Negara. He was to die in office of heart failure in 1970 at age 60.
For a man who would become the face of the Singapore dollar, Mr Yusof was exceedingly thrifty. In his years at Utusan Melayu, he drove an old car that had to be pushed to start.
One of his few indulgences was orchids. It was a costly hobby, so his wife, Madam Noor Aishah, took it upon herself to sew his clothes instead of buying them.
The pair wed in 1948, in an arranged marriage. She was 16 and from Penang. They would have three children – one a daughter named Orkid.
Her husband, said Madam Noor Aishah, had a fondness for loud Hawaiian shirts, a contrast to his severe demeanour.
“If you looked at him, he seemed serious and intimidating, but behind it all, he was very friendly. He really loved people,” said the 81-year-old. “When he was with friends and family, there was always laughter.”
When he became head of state, he chose not to live in the Istana, living instead in a secretarial bungalow on the grounds.
Mr Yusof disliked protocol, said Mr Othman, now 90.
“One day, he told me, ‘Othman, why don’t you move into the grounds? So I stayed in a small house there for some years. When he got lonely, he’d just come walking over. We’d sit down, talk, drink some tea. That’s all he ever wanted. He liked to be around people. He liked being an ordinary person.”
Above all, Mr Yusof wanted to see the success of the Malay community – and of the new nation. Madam Noor Aishah said her late husband was concerned about the country after separation.
He wanted to see the citizens work harder, and educate themselves, she said.
During his Utusan Melayu years, he had urged Malays to improve themselves, and not claim lack of opportunities as an excuse for not doing better.
“Blaming the other races does not help in any way to uplift the status of the Malays within the country,” Mr Yusof wrote in an editorial.
Last Sunday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that to mark Singapore’s 50th year of independence, the nation would honour Mr Yusof by naming a mosque, a think-tank and a professorship after him.
Mr Lee also spoke about the Malay community’s progress, something Mr Othman is sure his old friend would be proud of. “He wanted us to survive, and he wanted us to do it by ourselves, with no special rights or privileges. If he were alive, he’d be very happy to see the Malay community standing on its feet, and to see how Singapore is now.”