Yusof Ishak: The man and his passions

Yusof Ishak: The man and his passions
Mr Yusof taking the salute at the 1961 National Day celebrations at the Padang. He was Singapore's head of state from 1959 to 1970. Among the values Mr Yusof espoused were meritocracy and multiracialism, topics he had written on as a young journalist.

When Japanese planes flew over Singapore on Dec 8, 1941, in the first bombing raid of World War II, most of the nation screeched to a halt.

Families huddled in bomb shelters. Offices emptied. But in a dingy three-storey building in Queen Street, 31-year-old Yusof Ishak, managing director of Utusan Melayu, ignored the air raid sirens, kept his reporters at their desks and posted a lookout on the roof.

Only when the lookout saw planes approaching, would the newspaper's staff be allowed to dash for the nearby bomb shelters. This continued as air-raids battered Singapore for the next two months, killing almost 9,000 civilians.

Even in war, Mr Yusof was determined that the newspaper he had co-founded - his platform to nurture an educated and progressive Malay community - would be printed on schedule.

So, as the bombs fell around him, the man who would become Singapore's first President stood his ground. Later, as he helped steer Singapore through the tumultuous years that spanned self-government, merger, separation and, eventually, independence, he displayed that same focus, this time to help citizens build a common national identity.

Former minister Othman Wok, once a Utusan Melayu reporter, said: "He was always focused in everything he did. He'd do things quietly, diligently. That was the man he was. And that was the man Singapore needed then."

His years as head of state, from 1959 to 1970, roiled with racial tension. There were times when the Malay community eyed the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) with suspicion.

The PAP had in 1959 put itself forward as a party that believed in merger with Malaysia - which Malays, by extension, saw as a sign of support for the community. After separation in 1965, some felt betrayed.

But Mr Yusof walked for hours in the sun, visiting constituents and soothing their fears. He worked with the Government to ensure that Malays had the education and health care they needed, to prove they were not discriminated against.

"It was people like Yusof Ishak who gave people the comfort that the Government had not forgotten about the Malays," said Mr Zainul Abidin Rasheed, a former senior minister of state who was classmates with Mr Yusof's son, Imran.

"He was one of those who made the decision to stay with Singapore, to work and make a success of the country and values he believed in. Of course, it took longer than his lifetime, but those early years were important," Mr Zainul added.

Among the values Mr Yusof espoused were meritocracy and multiracialism, topics he had written on as a young journalist.

The eldest of nine children, he was born in Perak in 1910. His father, Mr Ishak Ahmad, was a civil servant whose family moved here with him when he was transferred to Singapore to be Inspector of Fisheries.

Mr Yusof studied at Raffles Institution, where he was co-editor of the Rafflesian - the start of a lifelong love affair with newspapers.

At age 29, he co-founded the Utusan Melayu newspaper. He went from kampung to kampung, hawking shares to raise money to set it up. His mother and sisters pawned their jewellery in support.

In Utusan's early days, he slept in the printing room, guarding the printing presses which he feared would be stolen.

The first issue went to print on May 29, 1939, and sold a few hundred copies. By 1957, the paper had a circulation of 40,000.

Mr Yusof ruled the newsroom with an iron fist.

"He knew what he wanted and he'd work towards it. He didn't want things done by halves. So when he gave you an assignment, you had to carry it out, by hook or by crook," Mr Othman recalled.

Once, thinking that Mr Othman had failed to do his job, Mr Yusof fired him. "He told me, 'Get out, I don't want to see your face anymore!' " But when the misunderstanding was cleared up 20 minutes later, the young reporter was rehired.

But in 1959, Mr Yusof left the paper and moved back to Perak.

Utusan Melayu had been critical of the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) - which believed in special privileges for the Malays, a concept Mr Yusof had railed against - but from 1955, Umno members began buying up a bulk of the paper's shares.

"Mr Yusof couldn't see eye to eye with the new board of directors. One day, he had enough," said Mr Othman.

That was when Mr Lee Kuan Yew, then Singapore's Prime Minister, came calling.

"He asked me, 'Where is Cik Yusof?' I told him, 'He lives in Malaysia now and grows and sells orchids.' Mr Lee asked me, 'That's what he does?' " Mr Othman said.

A month after that, Mr Yusof was back in Singapore and became chairman of the Public Service Commission in July 1959.

Later that year, Mr Lee would again seek Mr Othman's opinion.

"He told me: 'We need a head of state. Do you think Cik Yusof fits the bill?' " said Mr Othman.

"I said, 'Of course! He has very close relations with the people, Malays and non-Malays. He mixes very well with them. He's been walking the ground as a journalist, so he knows what the situation is. He's the right person for the job!' "

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