Founding fathers: Othman Wok's quick action saved lives

Mr Othman Wok, Singapore's former cabinet minister.

The 1964 riots, the worst racial violence in modern Singapore, saw 23 people killed and 454 injured.

And the quick thinking of then-Minister for Social Affairs Othman Wok probably saved many lives during the turbulent period.

On July 21, 1964, Prophet Muhammad's birthday, the Malays held a procession and were out in full force.

Inflammatory speeches by Muslim leaders stirred emotions which boiled over into violence.

Mr Othman, who was leading a People's Action Party (PAP) contingent then, said: "As we passed Kallang, the procession suddenly stopped. I saw people running around and shouting that there was a riot in front."

He rushed to a telephone, called then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and suggested a curfew.

"There had been many casualties during the riots. I told him that there should be a curfew."

Curfew was declared at 9.30pm, restoring order and preventing further bloodshed.

As a Malay, Mr Othman was in a tough position when he joined the PAP in 1954.

At a time when politics were fought along racial lines, he was labelled a traitor by supporters of the Kuala Lumpur-based United Malays National Organisation.


"People said horrible things such as 'Go back to your village' and 'Traitor. You joined a Chinese party', Mr Othman recalled.

"Some of my posters were smeared with faeces, but that did not dampen my spirits - even though I was scared that I might be hammered."

Yet, throughout his 27 years in politics, he had the interests of the Malays at heart.

In 1965, a time of great uncertainty following Singapore's separation from Malaysia, he was given the daunting task of convincing the Malays that they would be looked after despite being a minority race.

He swung into action, implementing policies that continue to benefit the Malay community to this day.

He proposed that all Malays be given free education from primary to tertiary level and set up the Mosque Building Fund (MBF), with Muslims contributing a small sum from their monthly salary to build mosques in new towns.

As of 2007, 22 mosques costing $103 million had been built using the MBF.

Having worked so hard to achieve racial harmony in Singapore, Mr Othman perhaps understands the delicate balance in which it hangs better than anyone else.

Speaking to Tampines Junior College students in 1997, exactly 33 years after the fateful riots broke out, he said: "Race, language and religion are very sensitive issues that appeal to the heart.

"These issues are always under a seemingly peaceful surface, but just a small spark will create a big mess and damage our prosperity, racial harmony, stability, peace and tranquillity."

This article was first published on June 8, 2015. Get The New Paper for more stories.