Remembrance of Othman Wok (1924-2017), Singapore’s First Malay Minister

One of Singapore’s early Cabinet ministers and old guards (first generation of the People’s Action Party (PAP)), Othman Wok was perhaps best known for his active participation and contributions to the nation’s social development and welfare of the local Malay and Muslim communities.

Born in 1924 to a Malay school principal, Othman Wok, whose full name was Tuan Haji Othman Bin Wok, received English educations at Radin Mas School and Raffles Institution. After graduation, he worked at Utusan Melayu, a Malay newspaper company, where he was gradually involved in union-related activities. He would later be appointed as the Singapore Printing Employees Union’s secretary, and became associated with Lee Kuan Yew, the union’s legal advisor.

Othman Wok joined the PAP when it was formed in 1954, and was elected as an Assemblyman for the Pasir Panjang constituency in 1963. He would continue to serve as a Member of Parliament (MP) for the Pasir Panjang constituency between 1963 and 1981.

But the first real test for Othman Wok came in 1964, when a series of racial riots broke out in July and September between the Malays and Chinese. Singapore had joined the Federation of Malaysia a year before, but political tensions were rising between the two rivaling parties, PAP and the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), in both the Malaysia and Singapore general elections. The UMNO accused the PAP government of oppressing the Malays in Singapore, and condemned Othman Wok and the Malay MPs for betraying the Malay communities. When Singapore split from Malaysia in 1965, Othman Wok’s will was tested once again – but he stood firm in supporting the island’s independence.

In total, Othman Wok served as the Minister for Social Affairs for 14 years until 1977. He would serve another three years as the minister without portfolio and the ambassador to Indonesia until his retirement from politics in 1981.

As the Minister for Social Affairs, one of Othman Wok’s responsibilities was to take note of the needs of the disadvantaged groups, and that included the disabled, elderly, orphans, troubled teens and single parents. He also worked hard for racial harmony, as well as the well-being of Singapore’s Malay-Muslim population.

Othman Wok’s active involvement saw the implementation of the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA), which led to the establishment of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS)) in 1968 to look after the welfare of the Muslims in Singapore. It was followed by the setting up of the Mosque Building Fund (MBF) in 1975. Voluntary contributions were collected, via the Central Provident Fund (CPF), from working Muslims for the building of mosques in new housing estates.

When the Malay communities were resettled in the seventies from their kampongs to the new Housing and Development Board (HDB) estates, they had to live without a community mosque. In 1974, the former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, together with Othman Wok and several Malay MPs, met the members of the MUIS to discuss possible solutions, one of which was the establishment of MBF to fund the construction of mosques.

There were about 1,200 Muslim families living at Toa Payoh in the seventies. By 1977, the first mosque was built with the help of MBF. It was named Masjid Muhajirin, and was officially opened by Othman Wok. Since then, 26 new mosques have been constructed in Singapore using the fund.

Othman Wok also campaigned for the funds needed to develop a national stadium for Singapore in the late sixties. Sports could always unite the people together, especially football, Singapore’s favourite sport. A need to spur the people’s interest in fitness and health was essential too, as many newly conscripted recruits in the early batches of the National Service were deemed lacking in fitness.

Othman Wok passed away at the Singapore General Hospital on 17 April 2017. He was 92 years old. His final journey was honoured with a ceremonial gun carriage from the Sultan Mosque to Pusara Abadi at the Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery.

Published: 29 April 2017

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2 Responses to Remembrance of Othman Wok (1924-2017), Singapore’s First Malay Minister

  1. Despite everything that the mainstream political party in Malaysia said about Arwah Othman in those days, I believed that he did what he did for his love of Singapore and to the people.

    Despite being a Malaysian, I respect Arwah Othman for his contribution to your country.


    May he rest in Peace.

  2. RIP to another Old Guard…

    Singapore’s Government extends condolences after death of PAP pioneer Jek Yeun Thong

    06 June 2018
    Channel NewsAsia

    The Singapore Government has extended its deep condolences to the family of the late Jek Yeun Thong.

    In a statement on Wednesday (Jun 6), the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said Mr Jek, a key member of the People’s Action Party (PAP) Old Guard, “contributed significantly to the building of modern Singapore”. He passed away peacefully at home on Sunday, according to the statement.

    In accordance with Mr Jek’s wishes, his family held a private wake and a funeral, PMO said, adding that the funeral was on Tuesday.

    Mr Jek, a member of Singapore’s first Cabinet, was one of 10 ministers who signed the Separation Agreement in 1965.

    “As a key member of the PAP Old Guard, he served in multiple capacities
    in the Cabinet and in public service, and contributed significantly to the building of modern Singapore,” PMO said in the statement.

    As a mark of respect and in recognition of Mr Jek’s contributions to the nation, the Government has ordered the State Flag on all Government buildings to be flown at half-mast on Thursday, it added.

    Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has also paid tribute to Mr Jek in a letter to his wife. In the letter, Mr Lee said one of Mr Jek’s biggest political contributions was mobilising the Chinese-speaking ground to support the PAP’s vision of a non-Communist, multiracial Singapore.

    He also helped draft and win support for the 1968 Employment Act, which Mr Lee described as a “key milestone in building harmonious labour relations in Singapore, without which we could not have attracted investments and industrialised rapidly in the 1970s”.

    On a personal note, the Prime Minister recalled that when he first entered politics in 1984, Mr Jek – a Member of Parliament for Queenstown – was “friendly and generous” to the younger MPs.

    “After he retired as an MP in 1988, he continued to stay in touch with old comrades, and I was always glad to see him at reunions and gatherings.”

    He wrote in the letter to Mrs Jek: “Mr Jek’s passing is a deep loss to the nation … My thoughts are with you and your family during this time of sorrow.”

    President Halimah Yacob said that Mr Jek had the foresight when it came to building the foundation for Singapore’s foreign policy.

    “Singapore owes much to Mr Jek and the other founding fathers for their untiring dedication and desire to do what is needed for our nation to thrive.

    “Today, we enjoy the fruits of that effort and stand in debt to Mr Jek and the other founding fathers. Our thoughts are with Mdm Huang Kek Chee and the family during their time of grief,” Madam Halimah said.

    Other ministers have taken to social media to pay tributes to the late Mr Jek.

    On Facebook, Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli recalled him as someone who had often raised the issue of wealth distribution when he was a backbencher in parliament, while Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing called him a “pioneer” who was always “dedicated to serving Singapore and Singaporeans”.

    Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said that she will fondly remember him for his “unwavering commitment”. She added that Mr Jek, who had organised Singapore’s first Chingay Parade, had strongly believed in “the power of the arts to transcend barriers, and bring Singaporeans closer together”.

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