Meritocracy, multiracialism, modernism

Meritocracy, multiracialism, modernism
Mr Yusof Ishak.

As President of a newly-independent Singapore, Mr Yusof Ishak went down to the ground to reassure citizens stunned by their sudden ejection from Malaysia, rallying them to forge an inclusive multiracial society as part of their new national identity.

He visited constituencies all over the island, standing upright in an open Land Rover, walking for hours in the hot sun.

"He was a president for all Singaporeans," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told the National Day Rally. "Encik Yusof showed that in Singapore, you can rise to the top if you work hard. He stood for enduring values that underpinned Singapore's success: meritocracy, multiracialism, modernisation."

Born in Perak in 1910, Mr Yusof was the oldest of nine children of a civil servant. He attended Victoria Bridge School before entering Raffles Institution, where he was one of 13 students - and the only Malay - in the Queen's Scholarship class.

He did not win the scholarship, but got a taste of politics as his father was an active member of the Singapore Malay Union, where Mr Yusof would later become a youth leader.

At 29, he started Utusan Melayu, a newspaper dedicated to Malay issues, and which championed the need for the community to modernise and focus on education.

Even as he gave the community a voice, he spent his years as head of state stressing the need for racial harmony and multiculturalism for Singapore to succeed, right up to his death from heart failure in office in 1970.

Said Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs Yaacob Ibrahim this month: "It was his firm belief in respect and multiracialism that held the nation together in our early years, and it was his drive in championing a progressive Malay/Muslim community that rallied our people together."

Mr Yusof said in his 1968 New Year message: "No man need feel that to belong to a particular religion puts him at a disadvantage or gives him an advantage... This is how things are in Singapore and this is how things must always be in our country. Only in this way can a multiracial society like Singapore live in peace and prosperity."

This article was first published on August 18, 2014.
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