PM Lee delivers eulogy for pioneer leader Othman Wok

PM Lee delivers eulogy for pioneer leader Othman Wok
Mr Lee Hsien Loong consoling the widow of Mr Othman Wok, Madam Lina Abdullah, at the end of the memorial service.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

The unwavering commitment of pioneer leader Othman Wok and his Malay colleagues to multiracialism made today's Singapore possible, said Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday.

Speaking at the memorial service for one of Singapore's founding fathers, Mr Lee highlighted how Mr Othman and his Malay People's Action Party (PAP) comrades were steadfast in the face of death threats and racial riots during Singapore's two years in Malaysia.

They also held a sufficient portion of the Malay ground to tilt the scales, he noted: "It is because they kept the dream of a multiracial society alive through those terrible dark days that we are now able to say, 'We, the citizens of Singapore... regardless of race, language or religion.'"

That they were neither cowed nor convinced to break faith with the cause led former Malaysian deputy prime minister Tun Abdul Razak to conclude on a visit after the 1964 riots that Singapore Malays were different from Malayan Malays.

"Singaporeans were an altogether obstreperous people," Mr Lee said of a conclusion that set in train events that led to Singapore leaving the Federation on Aug 9, 1965.

Read also: Former Cabinet minister Othman Wok dies aged 92

A crucial decision, Mr Lee added, was Mr Othman's signing the Separation Agreement and Malay Singaporeans' accepting being a minority in a society based on equal rights for all.

"Singapore Malays would overnight cease being part of the majority race and become a minority community again.

"If Singapore Malays had not accepted that change, we could not have built a multiracial society," he said.

"It was because Malay Singaporeans and Malay PAP leaders in 1965 embraced the nobler dream of a shared identity, 'regardless of race, language or religion', that we are able today to practise in Singapore a form of non-communal politics, based on justice and equality, that is unique in our region and rare in the world."

Mr Othman's dedication to a multiracial, multi-religious Singapore was a "golden thread" that ran through his long life, said Mr Lee. He was the first of six speakers to deliver eulogies for Mr Othman, who died on Monday, aged 92.

"Had he hesitated or wavered in the dark days of our merger with Malaya and then separation, when our history hung in the balance, the Singapore story would have turned out differently," he added.

Mr Othman's dedication to multiracialism was a core theme of the ceremony at Victoria Concert Hall, attended by 600 family members, friends and guests.

It was held a day after the state-assisted funeral, as Muslim custom requires burial as soon as possible. 
Yesterday, speakers paid tribute to Mr Othman's wealth of contributions.

Read also: Final farewell to a founding father

Former MP Abbas Abu Amin and labour MP Patrick Tay spoke of his humility and warmth, and son-in-law Munir Shah spoke of his generosity.

Communications and Information Minister Yaacob Ibrahim said Mr Othman saw in multiracialism "the foundation of a cohesive nation".

He effortlessly balanced his roles as a national and community leader, and ignited a "can-do" spirit in the Malay/Muslim community amid rapid change, Dr Yaacob said.

Minister of State Janil Puthucheary, chairman of OnePeople.sg which organised the memorial, said this approach to building a shared space, where communities were prepared to sacrifice for the greater good, was unprecedented.

He said: "The seeds that Mr Othman Wok planted - multiracialism, an approach to building a shared space... and a willingness to take on the challenges of the world around us - these have grown and the fruits of his labour are visible in the society we live in, the identity we share and the nation we are all proud of."


This article was first published on April 20, 2017.
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