SINGAPORE – The body of the late Mr Othman Wok arrived at his family home at Kew Drive on Monday (April 17) afternoon, as tributes and condolences poured in for the former minister and People's Action Party (PAP) stalwart.
He was 92. A key member of the Old Guard whose unflinching support for the Government’s multi-racial stand helped the PAP secure the Malay ground during the turbulent 1960s, Mr Othman was also among the 10 leaders who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement on Aug 9, 1965.
"The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues are sad to learn of the passing of Mr Othman Wok and wish to convey their deepest condolences to his family," the Prime Minister's Office said in a statement.
President Tony Tan took to Facebook to post his condolences, saying that he was "deeply saddened by the passing of ... Singapore’s first Malay Minister post-independence".
In a condolence letter to Mr Othman’s wife, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Mr Othman will be remembered as one of the nation’s founding fathers, whose “courage and passion helped set Singapore on a path of peace and progress”.
Noting how Mr Othman channelled his courage and passion in championing a multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore into creating a better life for his fellow citizens, Mr Lee said: “His dedication and courage was most clearly shown during Singapore’s turbulent years in the 1960s, when Singapore was part of Malaysia, and then separated from Malaysia to become an independent republic.”
“In a vicious fight against the communalists, Encik Othman faced great pressure and threats on his life for joining the PAP. If he had faltered, history might have taken a different course. But he stood resolutely by his convictions, and that made all the difference for Singapore,” Mr Lee added.
As Minister of Social Affairs (from 1963 to 1981), Mr Lee said the measures Mr Othman had put in place continue to serve the Malay community today. For example, Mr Othman had set up the Singapore Pilgrimage Office and the system for registration for sheikh hajis and pilgrim brokers in Singapore - a system that remains largely in place.
Mr Lee also noted Mr Othman’s role in developing an active and vibrant sports scene in S’pore. “He took an active interest in building the National Stadium, which would become the home of many shared memories for Singaporeans and our sporting heroes.”
Speaking to reporters after paying his respects at Mr Othman's family home, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said Singapore would be a very different country had Mr Othman not been a part of the old guard. "The courage he gave the Malay community and the confidence he gave all Singaporean, confidence in multi-racialism, that we could make it work. That's what we're in debt to him for," he said.
"He was an individual who rose to the occasion, he decided that his belief in unity was worth fighting for and pitched his wagon to Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and Singapore became what it is. So we are grateful to him for making that difference, and making this country," Mr Tharman added.
Earlier on Monday, Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs and Minister for Communications and Information Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, wrote on Facebook, also paying tribute to Mr Othman's efforts to foster multiculturalism and lift the Malay-Muslim community. He said: "(Mr Othman) was keenly aware that race and religion could become major fault lines and conflicts could arise out of suspicion, misunderstanding and prejudice. As such, he urged Singaporeans to make the effort to strengthen cross-cultural understanding, practice mutual respect, and come together as one united people.
The Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) praised Mr Othman for playing an instrumental role in helping to build institutions which serve the community, such as the development of the Administration of Muslim Law Act and the establishment of the Mosque Building Fund.
"At the juncture when the Malay community suddenly found itself as a minority group after the separation from Malaysia in 1965, Malay leaders such as Mr Othman Wok played a pivotal role in keeping the spirits and unity within the community and Singaporeans at large," Yayasan Mendaki, a Malay-Muslim self-help group, added in a separate statement.
Mr Othman had been a journalist, a union leader, a politician and an ambassador. He was also Singapore’s first Social Affairs Minister from 1963 to 1977.
The Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) praised Mr Othman for championing the “training of social workers and volunteers” and helping to create a “more effective social service ecosystem”.
Minister for Social and Family Development, Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, said that “in a time when a young Singapore was struggling with strikes and unemployment, Mr Othman had the challenge of stretching the limited welfare fund to help Singaporeans in need.”
Here are the other tributes that have come in for Mr Othman: