As a Singaporean, I would like to appreciate Mr Othman Wok for all he has done for this country and the multiracial country we enjoy. While everyone can look up to his achievements, I feel we should be fair in speaking out about his record.
For all the good Mr Othman has done, he was a PAP yes man who pushed unpopular policies on the behalf of his boss, the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew. Some of these policies were unpopular because they put the Malay community in a difficult spot.
Mr Othman joined Utusan Melayu as a clerk, having been handpicked for the job by Yusof Ishak, and was offered a reporter position in 1946. This was after the war when educated persons were few and rare, especially among Singapore residents. In another lucky break, he obtained a Colonial Development Scholarship in 1950 and returned in 1951 as a news editor before becoming the paper’s deputy editor in 1957.
In 1952, Mr Othman met Lee Kuan Yew when the future prime minister of Singapore came in to the Utusan Melayu office to report a story on the Postal Union strike that year. The two became fast and close friends.
When asked to describe the friendship he shared with Mr Lee, Mr Othman described Mr Lee: “I noticed straightaway [in 1951] that he was a great leader. He had a strong personality and came across as very honest and sincere. He was also impressive and charming, and generally pleasant, as long as you were sincere and honest with him.”
“I an say that our friendship, his and mine, went beyond race, language or religion. We became very close and we would always meet over a meal.”
When the PAP was formed, Mr Othman joined without hesitation. This put him in a difficult position as a minority member in a majority Chinese, leftist political party that seemed uninterested in Malay affairs. As a member of the PAP Malay Affairs Bureau, he helped Lee Kuan Yew craft his speeches in Malay and even advised him on matters about the Malay community.
“That time, he was not well versed in Malay,” Mr Othman had said in an interview. “So whenever he wanted to make a speech in Malay, he would phone me and say, “Come to my house. Bring your typewriter.”
Being the only Malay cabinet minister in the PAP government after their election win in 1963, he had to champion multiracial policies at the expense of the privileged status of the Malays promised by UMNO politicians in Singapore. In pushing the PAP party line, he had to compromise some of the special rights given to his Malay compatriots, a charge that earned him the name of “traitor” and “infidel” among some segments of the community.
In a tribute to Mr Othman in 1998, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, said: “I remembered your staunch loyalty during those troubled days when you were in Malaysia, and the tensions were most severe, immediately before and following the bloody riots in July 1964.
“At that time, the greatest pressures were mounted by Umno Malay extremists who denounced you and Malay PAP leaders — especially you — as infidels (kafir) and traitors (pengkhianat), not to Singapore but to the Malay race.”
Even more difficult on Mr Othman was the sudden break from Malaysia in 1965, which effectively cut off the Malay community in Singapore from their hinterland in Malaysia.
Mr Othman related that on the date when the seperation agreement was sign on 7th August 1965, Mr Lee Kuan Yew called his ministers to his office in Kuala Lumpur. Speaking to Mr Othman, Mr Lee showed Mr Othman a letter from the Tunku asking Singapore to leave Malaysia and asked him what he thought.
Mr Othman replied: “I am a Cabinet minister. I am a PAP man. I am a Singaporean.”
You can argue that it was with these sacrifices that Malays and all other races in Singapore could get along in a multiracial society. I don’t deny that. But it was also because of Mr Othman’s unwavering and nearly blind trust in Lee Kuan Yew that he went ahead with all this. It is all fine because things turned out for the better, but some of his more unpopular moves could have had very different consequences.
Alas, who can predict the future? Rest well, Mr Othman, you have lived full and well.