Othman Wok (born 1924) was a former Cabinet Minister in Singapore for 14 years. He was the Minister of Social Affairs from October 1963 to June 1977. After retiring from active 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, the Singapore President awarded him the Order of Nila Utama (2nd Class) in 1983.
Small spark can create big mess
By Jenny Goh
Source: The Straits Times (Dated: July 23, 1997)
Former minister, Mr Othman Wok, spoke to Tampines JC students on Monday on the occasion of Racial Harmony Day. We publish below excerpts from his speech, which dwelt on his experience with the consequences of racial disharmony in the past.
Be wary of people who bring up sensitive issues for political gain
TODAY, July 21st 1997, is peaceful and beautiful. We live together as one big family in this peaceful, clean and safe environment. There is tolerance, understanding and friendliness among us. We are now enjoying full employment, high income, better homes, good schools, first-class medical facilities and
We have been able to achieve all these because, after the difficult period of the 60s, there has always been peace and harmony in the country. Racial harmony is fundamental to us if we want to make Singapore the best and happy home for us and our future generations.
July 21st, 1964, was a totally different day from today. It was a public holiday - Prophet Mohammad's Birthday. It was an auspicious day for the Malays and Muslims and they were celebrating it with a mass rally at the Padang, followed by a procession about 3km-long to Lorong 12 Geylang, the headquarters of the Muslim Missionary Society of Singapore.
This was the way the Prophet's birthday was celebrated every year and there had never been trouble. The non-Muslims always looked forward to it. They enjoyed the colourful dress, flags and buntings, and the beating of drums by participants. To them, it was like a Muslim Chingay Parade.
But this particular day was also one full of uneasiness. The atmosphere at the rally was very tense. I was there leading the PAP contingent, comprising the party's Malay and Muslim members.
I had a feeling then that something would happen that afternoon. I saw many policemen around the Padang and felt assured that it was unlikely that there would be trouble.
However, speeches made by Muslim leaders at the rally did not at all portray the teachings of Islam and the Prophet, which stress tolerance, understanding, respect and good neighbourliness among mankind, irrespective of their races, cultures and religion. Intermittently during the speeches, there were shouts of "God is Great" from the participants. Their voices were not that of praising "Allah", but of anger.
In fact, communal tension was already in Singapore a few months after we joined Malaysia on Sept 16, 1963. This was created by a group of irresponsible, chauvinist and extremist political leaders of the United Malay National Organisation (Umno) from Kuala Lumpur.
They played up the sensitive issues of race, language and religion purposely, stirred up Malay emotion and sentiments and caused disharmony among the Malays and the non-Malays, knowing well what the consequences would be.
Why did they do this despite the fact that Malaysia was facing a more dangerous external threat of confrontation launched by Indonesia's President Sukarno, who was against the formation of Malaysia?
All Malaysians, irrespective of their races, should unite and fight him, instead of against one another.
Sukarno claimed that the Federation of Malaysia was a colonialist plot to threaten Indonesia's security and that the people of Malaysia themselves were against Malaysia. A disunited Malaysia would have proved that he was right. Yet this small group of racialist Umno political leaders went ahead to
create disunity among the population.
Malays reject communal politics
The reason was, Singapore Malays, for the first time in the history of this country, rejected communal politics. In the September 1963 General Election in Singapore - the first held when we were in Malaysia - all the Singapore Umno Malay candidates who contested in the Malay-dominated constituencies of
Geylang Serai, Kampong Kembangan, Southern Islands and Pasir Panjang, lost to the People's Action Party Malay candidates.
The Malay voters in these constituencies rejected Umno, a communal political party, and supported the PAP, a multi-racial political party. This really upset Umno leaders in Kuala Lumpur.
Two months later, led by Federation Umno secretary-general Syed Jaafar Albar, the extremist leaders descended upon Singapore and proceeded to champion greater rights for Singapore Malays.
They insinuated that Singapore Malays were second-class citizens, discriminated against and oppressed by the Singapore government. They lied and created suspicion and hatred among the Malays that their religion, language and culture were threatened.
The PAP, they alleged, was a Chinese-dominated government that was anti-Malay.
Their inflammatory and fiery speeches were carried by the Malay vernacular press, especially the Utusan Melayu, which was printed in the Jawi script and therefore could not be read by other races.
I worked in this newspaper for 17 years (1946 to 1963) and was its Deputy Editor when I resigned to become a politician. This newspaper had a large circulation and was read widely by Malays all over the Federation.
The Malaysian Constitution provided for special Malay rights in the Federation, and promised equal basic rights and opportunities for all Malaysian citizens. But the Singapore Constitution stood apart on this key
point. No special rights imported from the Malaysian Constitution for anyone in Singapore on the basis of race, language and religion.
This was a sore point for the Umno Federation leaders. The Singapore Government never challenged the Malay special rights as practised in the Federation. It was their business. What we did was to call
for the reaffirmation of the spirit of the Malaysian Constitution, and that was for a Malaysian Malaysia, a democracy based on the principle of non-communalism and equal basic rights for all.
In Singapore, instead of the Special Malay rights, incentives in education were given to all Malay students. Since 1959, all Malay students enjoyed free education from primary to university level. This was to enable them to continue their studies to the highest level that they could achieve without financial worries.
The incentive was also to encourage them to study harder so that eventually, they would be able to catch up with other students. A highly-educated Malay is an asset to his/her family and country. He/she enjoys the same opportunities as the others in securing good jobs and better salary.
Syed Jaafar Albar came to Singapore many times to speak at Umno meetings and he continued with his inflammatory and communal speeches. The situation became more tense and dangerous. About 10 days before July 21st, 1964, he organised an indoor rally in a cinema in Pasir Panjang attended by officials
and members of Umno branches. There were a few hundred of them.
In his speech, among others things, he accused all PAP Malay Legislative Assemblymen of being un-Islamic, anti-Islam, anti-Malays and traitors to their community. He whipped the audience into a frenzy, so much so that angry shouts were heard from outside the cinema: "Kill them, kill them, kill Othman Wok."
One week later, the Singapore Government called a meeting of officials and members of all Malay and Muslim organisations in Singapore at Victoria Memorial Hall.
That meeting was to hear grouses and dissatisfaction, if any, on national issues and to rebut the accusations, lies and insinuations made by Syed Jaafar Albar. The meeting was attended by PM Lee Kuan Yew, Cabinet members, all Malay MPs and senior government officials.
Bloody riots in Geylang
During the three-hour session, none among those present brought up any national issue. Only nitty-gritty matters were brought up and answered promptly. At the end of the meeting, it was clear that the Singapore Malays had no complaint against the government.
The lies and insinuations by Syed Jaafar Albar were exposed. But this angered Umno. The riots took place at about 4 pm along Geylang Road near Lorong 12. By the time curfew was declared by the Federation Ministry of Home Affairs at 10 pm that night, many people had been killed and injured. The violence spread quickly, particularly in the eastern part of Singapore, but mostly at Geylang Serai, Kampong Kembangan, Joo Chiat and Changi.
The violence lasted for a week; 23 people were killed and 454 injured. It was the most severe violence that Singapore had experienced. We had riots and demonstrations before this, mostly caused by the communist-dominated trade unions in relation to industrial problems. But never a racial riot of this magnitude.
Though order was finally restored, great damage was done. There was hatred, fear, suspicion and disharmony among the multi-racial population. The result was a shifting of the population.
Many Malay families who lived in non-Malay dominated areas before the riots moved to Malay-populated areas. Chinese families who lived in Malay areas moved to Chinese-populated areas. The polarisation of the two communities was very dangerous.
This had to be rectified quickly. We took immediate steps to assimilate the population again and restore harmony, trust, confidence, respect, tolerance and good-neighbourliness. It was not an easy task. But it had to be done.
Our public housing scheme was in full swing. We resettled them and mixed them in the HDB flats. We felt that this way, they would be able to learn to become good and friendly neighbours and understand and appreciate one another's customs and cultures. We took the right decision.
There is now more understanding, tolerance, respect and friendliness among the various races. During festive seasons like Hari Raya, Chinese New Year and Deepavali, they celebrate together and visit one another. Today, there is practically no racial problem in the housing estates.
One week after the riots, I was in Kuala Lumpur. A senior Utusan Melayu reporter met me, obviously to find out about the situation in Singapore. He told me that at 2 pm on July 21, 1964, he already knew that the riots was going to happen. I said: "How did you know beforehand when the riots took place at 4 pm?"
He replied: "Oh yes, we knew beforehand. We have our sources, you know." That clicked. Utusan Melayu must have been informed by those responsible
for the impending riots because it was going to be big news.
No attempt was made by the Federation government to institute an official enquiry into the riots until asked for by the Singapore Government.
A Royal Commission of Enquiry to investigate the riots was only established in early 1965. Even before it completed a quarter of the enquiry, Singapore was told to leave Malaysia on Aug 9th, 1965. I was the first person to give evidence before the Commission.
Why Tengku booted S'pore out
In his letter to Dr Toh Chin Chye, who was then Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister and PAP chairman, Malaysian Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman said that he decided on the separation in the interest of friendship, security and peace of Malaysia as a whole. There was absolutely no way out. He said: "I am
not strong enough and able to exercise complete control of the situation."
I believed then, and I still believe now, that his other reason for booting out Singapore from Malaysia was the report of the Royal Commission of Enquiry, if published, would definitely point accusing fingers at those guilty in Kuala Lumpur for the violence in Singapore. With Singapore out of Malaysia, there was no need for the Commission to continue with the enquiry as it was dissolved automatically.
What do we learn from all this? We should not take racial harmony for granted. Race, language and religion are very sensitive issues that appeal to the heart. These issues are always under a seemingly peaceful surface. Just a small spark will create a big mess and damage our prosperity, racial harmony,
stability, peace and tranquility.
Therefore, we must always be wary of people who want to create trouble by bringing up these sensitive issues for the sake of political gain. Any such attempt should be nipped in the bud. Many countries like the US, Northern Ireland, Bosnia, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to name a few, have serious racial problems. We do not want Singapore to be in the same category.
We are now progressing towards nation-building in order to achieve national unity and national loyalty. This will take time. The most important pre-condition towards this goal and our continued success is racial harmony.
All minority races must be made to feel comfortable with the majority. And the attitude of the majority must sincerely show a non-threatening way, not threatening other races, their languages, their cultures and religions. Also by being fair to them by giving them the same opportunities in economic fields, jobs, education, medical services and housing. There must also be a spirit of give and take.
Otherwise the minorities will feel uncomfortable, oppressed and discriminated against. This, inevitably will lead to dissension and disorder because the differences are such that we can never be a homogenous people.
Then we have a situation like in the early 60s and I am sure we do not want Singapore to return to that period.