FEATURE

Working with Mr Othman Wok

Text by Bridgette See

The Public Service pays tribute to Mr Othman Wok, one of Singapore’s founding fathers, who passed away aged 92 on April 17, 2017.

 

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Mr Othman Wok (right), receiving a token of appreciation from Dr Lee Boon Yang, then Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts, at the inaugural Patron of Heritage awards ceremony in 2007 at the National Museum of Singapore.
Source: Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

You could call Mr Othman Wok an accidental minister. Trained as a technician, he thought he would be “an ordinary Malay chap, working in a radio shop”. Instead, he stumbled upon journalism, became a union leader, and later, a politician. “For me, I never dreamed about what my future would be… I never planned a political career,” wrote the late Mr Othman in his biography, Never in My Wildest Dreams. 
 

 19980000566 IMG0067 
Mr Othman, then Minister for Social Affairs, visiting a boys’ hostel and welfare centre, and fire victims in 1963.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

A lucky break

It was Singapore’s first president, Mr Yusof Ishak, who gave Mr Othman his break, in 1946. Then the managing editor of Utusan Melayu, Mr Yusof personally recruited Mr Othman for clerical duties at the newspaper.

In less than a week, the 22-year-old was offered a reporting job after Mr Yusof fired a journalist. He jumped at the offer.

 19980000607 IMG0069Mr Othman (third from left) presenting the key to a car, a lucky draw prize for the Pesta Sukan (Festival of Sports) 1965 at the Ministry of Social Affairs in Empress Place.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

The young man – often described as dashing and friendly – became Chief Reporter in 1951. That year, he also turned unionist, marking the start of his political awakening.  

Mr Lee Kuan Yew, who was Utusan Melayu’s first legal adviser, was a good friend. When Mr Lee formed the People’s Action Party in 1954, Mr Othman was among the first to join – convinced of the party’s vision to serve the common people.

After winning a seat in the 1963 election, Mr Othman was made Minister of Social Affairs – an appointment he would hold for 14 years even as the scope of the Ministry evolved over time. Overnight, the newsman was placed in charge of a massive ministry that oversaw diverse matters from sports to social issues, and employed thousands. He also grappled with new and tough subjects, including the signing of execution orders to hang death row criminals.

 
 19980005425 IMG0080
Mr Othman, then Minister for Social Affairs , with members of the Central Sports Board in 1967.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

A living example of compassion

Mrs Janet Yee, 83, a veteran social worker who joined the Social Welfare Department in 1955, remembers Mr Othman as approachable and keen to know the problems that officers faced on the ground.

He also made it a point to attend the annual tea party for foster parents and the Sports Days organised by the various children’s homes, she told Challenge.

“He was always friendly,” said Mrs Yee. “He would pay attention to the children, and showed interest towards them. He would ask ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Are you doing well?’”

 19980000354 IMG0090Mr Othman (standing) at a tea party for children from various races under the care of the Social Welfare Department at 25 Nassim Road in 1964.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

In fact, it was at such a tea party in 1974 that he met Khairi, who was to become his adopted son. Mr Othman recalled in the book Helping Hands, Touching Lives that the 18-month-old kept following him the entire afternoon and even held his hand.

Seeing their special connection, Mr Othman’s Permanent Secretary (PS) asked the minister if he would like to adopt the boy, whose parents had given him up to the Social Welfare Department.

Help first

Another veteran social worker, Mr K V Veloo, 83, said his interactions with Mr Othman increased when he became head of the Probation & Aftercare Service in 1971.

“I attended the Heads of Department meeting, which he chaired. As a young officer, I looked upon such meetings with trepidation,” Mr Veloo told Challenge.

“Getting my homework done was one thing, but being able to answer questions raised ad lib was daunting. Minister knew my discomfort. He allayed my initial fears with his usual humane quality of compassion, understanding and goodwill.”

19980002309 IMG0058 Mr Othman opens the Asian Women's Welfare Association Old People's Community Home at Block 228 Avenue 3 Ang Mo Kio in 1977.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Mr Veloo said the minister expressed tremendous empathy and compassion for the underclass and handicapped. 

“He once told me to service the needs of clients without delay wherever possible. Payment and subsidies can come later. That became my maxim as I grew older and more experienced,” said Mr Veloo.

19980000345 IMG0093 Mr Othman on a visit to the Southern Islands to distribute food to the islanders for Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, in 1964.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Building a strong Muslim community

As the only Muslim minister in the Cabinet, Mr Othman also became the de facto minister in charge of Muslim affairs.

His legacy includes the setting of MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) and later, the Mosque Building Fund (MBF).

Mr Asmawi Mashuri, who has been with MUIS since it was set up in 1968, told Challenge: “What was important for Mr Othman was the future direction of the Malay Muslim community.”

But when MUIS was set up, it “was not welcomed by many in the Malay community”, shared Mr Asmawi. People were sceptical of MUIS’ role and feared government control, particularly with the centralisation of zakat collection and distribution.

Mr Othman knew the challenges that MUIS (which had only six to seven staff) faced on the ground. The minister – who knew every MUIS staff by name – encouraged them not to give up.

Recounted Mr Asmawi: “He said to me: ‘Asmawi, work hard for MUIS because MUIS is the only organisation that can bring the Malay community forward.”

19980000345 IMG0044Mr Othman visits a pilgrim ship, Kuala Lumpur, at Gate 2, Singapore Harbour Board in 1964.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

To show support for MUIS, Mr Othman attended every event he could. “One thing he always reminded us was the difficulties of getting donations to build our mosques; that’s why the MBF was introduced,” said Mr Asmawi.

“At that time, the Toa Payoh residents really struggled to build their mosque. Luckily we had him and the support from the Prime Minister to create the MBF. From there, we accumulated funds and successfully built our first mosque, Masjid Mujahirin.”

There were no barriers between the minister and his staff, who would visit him during festive celebrations. “When we meet, we would talk, say hello, shake hands, make jokes,” Mr Asmawi said. “He’s like a friend.”

19980000344 IMG0054 Mr Othman interacting with children at a children’s centre in 1964. Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore 

19980007151 IMG0032 Mr Othman visits the site of the National Stadium at Kallang in 1969.
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore
 

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