Othman Wok

Othman bin Wok DUNU (Second Class)[2] (Jawi: عثمان بن ووك; b. 8 October 1924 – d. 17 April 2017), often known as Othman Wok, was a Singaporean politician[3] who served as Minister of Social Affairs between 1963 and 1977. After retiring from politics, he was Singapore's Ambassador to Indonesia and served on the boards of the Singapore Tourism Board and Sentosa Development Corporation. For his political, economic and social contributions to the nation building of Singapore, he was awarded the Order of Nila Utama (Second Class) in 1983 by President Devan Nair.

Othman Wok
عثمان بن ووك
Minister for Social Affairs
In office
19 October 1963  30 June 1977
PresidentYusof Ishak
Benjamin Sheares
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byOffice created
Succeeded byAhmad Mattar
Minister for Culture
In office
12 August 1965  15 April 1968
PresidentYusof Ishak
Prime MinisterLee Kuan Yew
Preceded byS. Rajaratnam
Succeeded byJek Yeun Thong
Member of the Singapore Parliament
for Pasir Panjang
In office
21 September 1963  5 December 1980
Preceded byTee Kim Leng
Succeeded byAbbas Abu Amin
Member of the Malaysian Parliament
for Singapore
In office
2 November 1963[1]  9 August 1965
Preceded byPosition established
Succeeded byPosition abolished
Personal details
Born(1924-10-08)8 October 1924
Singapore, Straits Settlements
Died17 April 2017(2017-04-17) (aged 92)
Political partyPeople's Action Party
Alma materRaffles Institution
  • Politician
  • journalist

Early life

Othman was born on 8 October 1924 in the then British colony of Singapore, to a family of Orang Laut origins.[4] His father, Wok Ahmad, had been a school teacher and principal. During the Japanese occupation of Singapore in the Second World War from 1942-1945, Wok Ahmad enrolled Othman in a Japanese school in the belief that doing so would prevent Othman from being conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army. As a result, Othman would come to learn the Japanese language. Following the end of the occupation, Othman would go on to continue his education in Sekolah Melayu Telok Saga before proceeding to Raffles Institution for his secondary education.[5]

Othman's grandfather, a religious teacher, objected to Wok Ahmad’s decision to send Othman to Radin Mas and later Raffles Institution, both of which are English-medium schools. He was afraid that Othman would waver in his religious beliefs in the course of his English-language education, converting him to Christianity. However, not only did Othman stay faithful to his religion, he became an important bridge between the Malay/Muslim community and the new People's Action Party Government from the 1950s. This affirmed Wok Ahmad’s beliefs that an English-language and mainstream education is essential for a brighter future ahead.

Othman, on the other hand, did not hold the same worries as his grandfather. He sent one of his daughters to a Catholic school, CHIJ Katong Convent. His daughter received religious education outside school hours, and remains a Muslim today.[6]

Early career

Othman joined the local Utusan Melayu Malay-language newspaper as a clerk after finishing his education, and was offered a reporter position in 1946 by Yusof Ishak (founder of the newspaper who would also go on to become Singapore’s first president). In 1950, Othman pursued a Diploma in Journalism in London on a Colonial Development Scholarship, and rejoined Utusan Melayu as a news editor in 1951.

Upon his return, Othman was also elected as Honorary Secretary of the Singapore Printing Employees Union (SPEU), which sought to secure better wages and working conditions for its members. This was a significant period in Othman’s early years as it marked the time when he would become acquainted with Lee Kuan Yew, who had been the legal adviser to Utusan Melayu as well as SPEU. This would mark the beginning of a long and enduring friendship between the two.[7]

He would stay in his role of news editor for 6 more years until his promotion to deputy editor of the newspaper in 1957.

Political career

Days after the formation of the PAP in 1954, Othman joined the political party as his ideology of a national policy of multi-racialism was aligned with what the PAP sought to achieve. He took on the role of producing the party’s Petir publication, and was a member of the bulletin’s editorial board. In 1959, he was asked by the then legislative assembly member Ahmad Ibrahim to be the elected chairman of the PAP Geylang Serai/Tampines branch.


Othman became Singapore’s first Minister for Social Affairs after his successful election in the General Elections of 1963, and was at that time the only Malay member in the Cabinet. Othman. He also held the concurrent role of Director of the Malay Affairs Bureau, and has been credited with implementing policies that continue to impact the Malay community today. Under his tenure, he oversaw the setting up of Singapore’s Pilgrimage Office, which was Singapore’s first formal system of registration for hajj activities. The system remains today, and continues to be built upon the foundations set in place by him then.

The Singapore Pilgrimage Office would eventually evolve the Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura (MUIS) entity, which continue to regulate and oversee hajj-related as well as other Muslim affairs.

The Ministry for Social Affairs would also go on to implement the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA) and Mosque Building Fund (MBF) under his leadership.

Othman was branded a traitor to the Malay community for joining the PAP.[8] At the time, they were being courted by the Kuala Lumpur-based United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) to fight for Malay racial favouritism. As a result, Othman lost in the 1959 elections when he was contesting as a PAP candidate for the electoral ward of Kampong Kembangan.

He would go on to contest once more in the 1963 General Elections, when he would then succeed and become the elected representative of the Pasir Panjang constituency. Following his successful election, Othman would go on to leave his job at the Utusan Melayu to focus on developing his political career full-time.

On 7 August 1965, the Parliament of Malaysia successful voted for the expulsion of Singapore from Malaysia. On 9 August, Othman, along with 8 other Singapore ministers, signed the document of separation. On this day, Othman highlighted his concern regarding the communists to Lee Kuan Yew, and only upon assurance did he put pen to paper.[9]

Othman was also known for his active involvement in the development of sports and recreation in Singapore. He was also once a famous tennis player, ranked number 28 in the world. Othman was responsible for setting up a Sports Department within the purview of the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1966, and officiated the groundbreaking ceremony of the first National Stadium.


Having served 14 years as Minister for Social Affairs, Othman was appointed to serve as Singapore’s ambassador to Indonesia in 1977. His term would last three and a half years. He served as Member of Legislative Assembly (1963-1965) and Member of Parliament (1963 to 1980) for the Pasir Panjang Constituency retiring on 5 December 1980 when parliament dissolved on the same day for the 23 December 1980 general election.

Post political career

Othman continued to be active and served in the Presidential Council of Minority Rights as a permanent member. He was also appointed as a member of several companies' board of directors.[10]

Year/Term [5] Appointment and Organisation [5]
1981 Permanent Member, Presidential Council of Minority Rights.
1981–1994 Board Member, Singapore Tourist Promotion.
1981–1987 Board Member, Sentosa Development Corporation.
1981 Director, Overseas Investment Pte Ltd.
1982 Director, Overseas Investment Nominees Pte Ltd.
1983 Director, Bioheath International (S) Pte Ltd.
1987 Director, Autologous Blood Bank (S) Pte Ltd.
1988 Director, Utusan Melayu (S) Pte Ltd.
1989 Director of Sembawang Holdings.
1992 Director, Gainall Pte Ltd.
1993 Director, C. Thru Pte Ltd.
1994 Director, Property Services International.
1995 Director, Hale medical Clinic (Concourse) Pte Ltd.
1996 Director, Mindsets Pte Ltd.
1996 Director, Bright Steel Pte Ltd.
1996 Chairman, Lion Asiapac Ltd.

Personal life

Othman grew up in a humble family. In the first four years of his life, Othman lived with his Uncle, together with his grandparents and parents, in a kampong area dominated by Malays. He recounted that as a boy, different races lived together harmoniously, and he would have Chinese and Indian playmates whom he conversed with in Malay.[6]

In his mid-twenties, Othman went to London to receive further education in a polytechnic.[6]

Othman was married with four children. His hobbies included reading and writing ghost stories, one of his books being Malayan Horror: Macabre Tales of Singapore and Malaysia in the 50s, a compilation of stories written by him. Othman has also penned a biography titled: " Never in my Wildest Dreams", as a memoir of his life experiences.

Othman was considered as one of the 'Old Guard' - the first generation of leaders of independent Singapore.[11][12]

Othman completed military service (called National Service in Singapore) with the People's Defence Force in 1980, holding the rank of major. He also retired from politics in the same year.

On 17 April 2017, he died at 12.22pm local time at the Singapore General Hospital due to poor health. He was buried at Choa Chu Kang Muslim Cemetery the next day.[13]


  2. "PRESIDENTIAL COUNCIL FOR MINORITY RIGHTS". Singapore Government. Ministry of Communications and Information, Singapore Government. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  3. Historical Dictionary of Singapore. Justin Corfield. 2010. p. 2000. ISBN 978-0810873872.
  4. Cheong, Suk-Wai (17 April 2017). "Remembering Othman Wok: A champion of multi-culturalism". Straits Times. Retrieved 18 April 2017.
  5. Omar, Marsita; Saparudin, Kartini. "Othman Wok". Singapore Infopedia. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  6. The story of Singapore's race relation as seen through the eyes of Othman Wok, Straits Times, 25 January 1997
  7. "Remembering Lee Kuan Yew: Trusted friend and political comrade". Straits Times. 24 March 2015. Retrieved 1 April 2015.
  8. Never in My Wildest Dreams, Othman Wok, Raffles, 2000, page 141
  9. Chiang, Hai Ding. "From history with love". People's Action Party. Archived from the original on 9 April 2015. Retrieved 4 April 2015.
  10. "Mr Inche Haji Othman Wok". d’Oz International Pte Ltd. Archived from the original on 6 April 2014. Retrieved 21 April 2015.
  11. "Old Guard pay their last respects". Today. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  12. "List of Old Guard at Special Parliamentary Sitting, 26 Mar 2015" (PDF). Remembering Lee Kuan Yew. Singapore Ministry of Communications and Information. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 April 2015. Retrieved 29 March 2015.
  13. "Othman Wok, member of independent Singapore's first Cabinet, dies aged 92". the Straits Times. 17 April 2017.
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