Othman Wok, the only Malay-Muslim among ten representatives who signed the Independence of Singapore Agreement when Singapore left Malaysia in 1965, was a champion of multiracialism.
The late founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew once said, because of Mr Othman’s courage and leadership, not one People’s Action Party (PAP) Malay leader wavered, and that made a difference to Singapore and its survival as an independent nation.
Mr Othman, one of Singapore’s first generation of leaders, started his career as a journalist. When the PAP was formed in 1954, Mr Othman joined the party because he believed in its policy of meritocracy and multiracialism. Mr Othman won his first electoral battle in 1963 and at the height of racial tensions in 1964, Mr Othman became the target of verbal abuse among the radical segments of the Malay-Muslim community.
When it was imminent that Singapore was going to separate from Malaysia, Mr Lee was worried that Mr Othman would oppose the separation because it meant that the Malay-Muslim community would become a minority. But Mr Othman stood by his belief that a multicultural Singapore would work and signed the agreement.
Other than promoting racial harmony, Mr Othman championed sports among the masses and encouraged athletes to represent Singapore. In 1966, as Minister for Culture and Social Affairs, he set up a Sports department within the ministry. He also oversaw the construction of the former National Stadium at Kallang, Singapore’s first large-scale sporting arena, that opened in 1973.
As Minister for Social Affairs for 14 years, Mr Othman also improved the quality of social welfare services. His ministry not only provided help and rehabilitation to the needy but also focused on social progress for national development.
As the minister overseeing the Malay-Muslim community, Mr Othman’s legacy includes setting up of the Mosque Building Fund as well as the Islamic Religious Council or MUIS, which sees to the welfare of Muslims in Singapore.
After retiring from active politics in 1980, Mr Othman served as Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia and on the board of several organisations, working well into his 80s.
Unity among Singaporeans has always been Mr Othman’s enduring mission, like what he shared in a media interview, “Always be loyal to your country. You’re a Singaporean, you will always be a Singaporean.”
Mr Othman died in 2017, at the age of 92.