Othman Wok picked the dangerous road
By Bertha Henson
OVER the past few days, we’ve been deluged by eulogies on the late Cabinet Minister Othman Wok. Every facet of the man who died at age 92 on Monday (April 17) has been polished to a high shine, whether as a father, Malay leader or national politician.
Threading the eulogies is one theme: his commitment to multiracialism. It is a term that some might take for granted, especially if they belong to the majority race. It is a term some may bristle at, because of perceived discriminatory acts or an unintended racist joke they’ve heard. Doubtless, some would also view the speeches as politically-oriented, to bring together society when race and religion seem to be such potent divisive forces.
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I choose to see Mr Othman a little differently: as a man who placed his convictions above his comfort and convenience. This is no pragmatic Singaporean who jumps on the bandwagon and hitches himself to a rising star. This is a principled man who went against the popular tide.
It must have been so difficult for him to put his lot in with the People’s Action Party in the early days of Singapore. It was far easier to stay within the comfortable confines of the then majority community of Malaya. We’re told about how he was called unmentionable names, had his campaign posters smeared by faeces and faced death threats from communal rabble rousers.
I can hear his fellow Malays accuse him of disloyalty to the community which unlike, the Chinese, is infused with a common religious identity: “Why turn against your community – or your God?’’ I can even hear well-meaning non-Malay friends suggesting that he “take cover’’ and enjoy the benefits of staying put in a place where there was a national commitment to promote the advance of the community. Think of all the racist remarks that can be made against him and multiply its force several times – and think of what such pressure would do to his family.
Why would anyone choose such a dangerous road? It defies pragmatism and common sense.
I raise this because we’ve made such a virtue of pragmatism that we ignore what it means to abide by principles. We hedge principles with compromises and plenty of grey areas. Mr Othman, we are told, had two days to settle his affairs in Kuala Lumpur before receiving a summons to stand in the contentious 1963 elections on the PAP ticket. Then racial riots broke out.
Being a community leader would really mean something in those days. You would have to placate or persuade your own community to your point of view while dealing with suspicions of outsiders who wonder if you have a hidden agenda. To do this at a time when rabble rousers were calling for your head calls for, well, a cool head.
Mr Othman introduced the Administration of Muslim Law Act for Singapore Muslims. And he joined the pioneer National Service contingent. Both made important statements on what it means to be a Muslim Singaporean in secular Singapore.
I think today of the degree of harmony we have here even if we do get the occasional racist remark being made. Compared to Mr Othman, we have very thin skins that are easily pierced by some speech or act. Yet we all gave up something precious for this place called Singapore, whether they are Chinese dialects, open prayer calls or language-medium schools. A give-and-take attitude is hard-wired in our DNA.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong described the people here as an “obstreperous’’ people in 1965, refusing to be cowed by threats or seduced by promises. It is an interesting choice of word, given that Singaporeans are more usually known as sheep these days. Are we still an obstreperous people who would go against conventional and pragmatic wisdom because we have a cause to believe in? Would we risk life and limb? Mr Othman did.
Thank you, Sir.
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