Champion of multiculturalism even in troubled times


SINGAPORE: When pioneer generation minister Othman Wok was a boy, it was his nightly duty to soothe his maternal grandfather’s sore muscles by stepping all over the elderly man’s back.

As young Othman worked on him, the old man would regale his grandson with stories of his own father’s daring feats, such as when the latter fended off a tiger in a thicket near Serangoon with just a parang.

Othman’s great-grandfather, named only as Awang, had been hurt so badly that a village healer had to dress his wounds and pray over him. But he recovered.

Othman never faced a wild animal himself, but he saw plenty of blood spilt in Singapore’s worst race riots on July 21, 1964.

He also suffered a lot of character assassination in his 18 years in politics championing a multiracial Singapore.

The death threats intensified in the months leading to Singapore leaving Malaysia in August 1965.

Around 4.30pm on July 21, 1964, Singapore’s worst racial riots erupted.

Othman was then leading a PAP contingent in a procession to celebrate the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday.

When Chinese and Malays began hurling bottles at one another and punching policemen, Othman led his group to safety and called his comrades in Cabinet to impose a curfew.

A total of 23 people were killed and 454 injured.

Othman mused later in Men In White, the 2010 book on the history of the PAP: “I believe the riot was planned; it did not start spontaneously.”

In the aftermath of the riots, Lee Kuan Yew relied heavily on Othman, his old unionist friend whom he found “capable, dedicated and with integrity”, to defuse tensions among Singapore’s various races. — The Straits Times/Asia News Network

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