relations is an issue that will never go away. And
who is better placed to talk about it than former
minister Othman Wok who was in the procession to mark
Prophet Muhammad's birthday on July 21, 1964, when a
race riot erupted? Here is his anecdotal account of
the ups and downs of race relations here, as related
to Ravi Veloo.
people a chance and they will live in peace, but
beware the few politicians who would exploit race
issues for their own purposes -- that's where trouble
almost always begins.
the message from a former Government minister, Mr
Othman Wok, whose family lineage can be traced back
to the first landing of Sir Stamford Raffles, and
whose own life here has been deeply involved with
improving race relations.
in his Shenton Road office, a spry 72-year-old Mr
Othman, now a businessman, draws on his own personal
experiences from early childhood in a Malay kampung
to his years as Social Affairs Minister to trace some
of the fault lines -- and pillars -- of race
relations in Singapore.
: Minister for Social Affairs Othman Wok
(centre) and Mr P. Govindasamy, a Legislative
Assemblyman, at one of the relief centres set
up for riot victims.
Malay/Muslim, perhaps one anecdote from his personal
life illustrates how far this country has come as a
early 1930s, when his father wanted to send him to an
English school as part of the first batch of such
Malay students in a British experiment to bring the
Malays into the mainstream, Mr Othman's grandfather,
a religious teacher, objected.
worried that with an English-language education, the
young Othman would convert to Christianity. That did
not happen, of course, when Mr Othman went to an
English school. Instead, he became a key link between
the Malay/Muslim community and the new People's
Action Party Government from the 1950s.
one of Mr Othman's daughters attends a Christian
school, the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus in
is no issue here. She remains very Muslim. She gets
her own religious education on Islam outside of
school. That's one reason, you see, why the Malays
have grown more comfortable with such matters."
rest of Singapore, the community knows what Mr
Othman's father knew way back when his grandfather
refused to see the light, that the English language
and a mainstream education are keys to a brighter
future, as long as one's own culture and beliefs were
not eroded, he says.
parents recognise the importance of their children
learning other languages too. My cousin sends his two
children to Chinese school, and they speak Mandarin
nephew's daughter is learning French! The more
languages the better your opportunities," he
adds, referring to his sister's son, former Member of
Parliament Zulkifli Mohammad.
Dressed in a conservative greyish-brown
shirt, with a blue tie dotted with red roses, Mr
Othman recalls his own family's history, and draws a
personal sketch of race relations on the island.
"The first four years of my life, I
grew up in a Malay-dominated quarters area, with long
barracks with attap roofs. It was my uncle's quarters
actually, where my grandparents and my parents lived
too, and we had to sleep all over the floor.
"Next door to our kampung were
Chinese farms, vegetables and pigs. They knew that
pigs were taboo to us Malays, so they kept them in
fenced compounds, and there was never any trouble. We
kept goats. Our Indian neighbours nearby kept cattle.
People lived peacefully next to each other.
"As a little boy, I played with all
the Chinese and Indian kids. We communicated in
Bahasa Malay. One day my father brought back a
three-wheeled bicycle, I remember we all climbed on
top of it and rode it around.
"And it was like that as I grew up
and moved to different quarters when my father, a
Malay teacher, was moved around. Malays, Chinese,
Indians, we all went to different schools, but the
rest of the day we played together on the football
"I remember when we were living on
Pulai Brani for a while in the 1930s when my father
taught there, there was once a big fight between the
Malay and Chinese workers of the tin smelting works.
"I remember the adults coming to
our football field and telling us kids, go home, go
home quickly. But that was not a communal riot and it
was not because of religion either. They couldn't get
along at work. The fight was over in a day, and no
one in the kampung itself, whether Malay or Chinese,
"After the war, when I was a
reporter with a Malay paper, there was a riot in
Pulau Bukom. That was also between workers, and
nothing to do with religion. Again, it didn't spread.
"So before the war, there were no
communal riots. The problem was more of gang clashes
between secret societies organised along racial
"Then in 1950, came the Maria
Hertogh case. I wasn't in Singapore, I was in a
The Maria Hertogh riots from Dec 11 to
Dec 13, 1950, were a violent response to a newspaper
campaign which whipped up religious sentiments over a
custody battle between the parents of a Dutch
Catholic girl and the Muslim family which adopted her
when her parents were held by the Japanese during
World War II.
Sentiments turned ugly when the young
Maria's Muslim marriage was declared null, and the
court ruled that she be returned to her natural
parents. Eighteen people were killed in the riots,
and 173 injured.
There were other riots in the country in
the ensuing years, but these were more like clashes
between the authorities and communist-inspired
forces, and although they involved mostly Chinese, it
could be argued they were not truly racial in nature.
"The first really communal riot was
in 1964. Some Malay politicians were upset that the
Malays voted for the PAP, which took all the seats
they thought they could win.
"They told lies, egging the Malays
on, telling them 'you are second-class citizens, your
religion is in danger'. All not true, but they
repeated it over and over again.
"The paper I worked for, Utusan
Melayu, was in the forefront, repeating the lies
every day. And when you repeat lies in the newspaper
every day, people tend to believe it.
"They tried to discourage the
Malays from moving into flats, saying it was against
their culture. And when the Malays were slow to
respond to these kinds of messages, they started this
On July 21, 1964, a Muslim procession to
mark Prophet Muhammad's birthday turned violent.
"There was a big gathering at the
Padang. It was very emotional. I was there. 'Your
kampung is your palace!', they said. In my heart, I
said something was going to happen, but I never
expected a riot. There were uniformed police
"Then the procession began. People
marched in a two-mile long procession through Beach
Road, Arab Street, Lavender Street, right up to
"I was towards the back of the
procession. The riot began in the front. I saw some
Malay youths running towards us, they just bashed up
any Chinese they saw. Somebody shouted in the front,
'Kachau, kachau', which is Malay for 'disturbance'.
"I took my contingent into Old
Kallang Airport, which was empty then. There was a
big iron gate. We moved in, and I closed the gate. I
looked for a phone, and called the Prime Minister to
tell him there was a riot."
Trouble continued for a week, and the
whole country was put under a curfew. By the time it
was over, 23 people had been killed, and 454 injured.
"I discovered later it was planned
by a few people. One week after the riots, I went up
to Kuala Lumpur, and a former reporter from Utusan
Melayu came to see me. He said that at 2 o'clock, he
knew the riot was going to happen.
"I said, 'How come, when the riot
only started at 4 to 4.30?' 'Oh yes, we knew
beforehand,' he said'. " That clicked. They must
have been informed by someone because it was going to
be big news."
Such incidents have shown him the need
to be wary of people who would stoke up trouble for
the sake of political gain, he says, emphasising that
racial sentiments may always boil under a seemingly
"Soon after the riots, we decided
on a housing policy to mix the races together in the
Housing Board flats. The experience of Geylang Serai
and Joo Chiat showed that if the communities were
left apart, there will be endless problems.
"So we made a policy so that in
every block, there should be Chinese, Malays and
Indians. We kept it quiet at first, but we built new
flats and encouraged people to live together. We
induced those in the Government first to do it,
policemen, immigration officers.
"When people moved in and found
they no longer had to queue up for communal toilets
and now had lights and more privacy than before, they
So does he think such riots could occur
"I don't think communal riots as
big as what happened in '64 and '69 can take place.
But there could be dissension," he replies,
adding that the country has acquired some strengths
in the past years.
These included its robust economy in
which there were jobs for all and less to fight
about, as well as higher educational levels, and a
more rational public.
Importantly, the material progress was
shared by all the communities. "These days it is
harder to find Malays living in one or two-room
flats. Many are in maisonettes."
And all the communities had realised the
value of an English education as a link to the world
of commerce, giving them a common playing field too.
He adds: "I think the younger
people of today are closer than we were in the old
days, partly because they share a more common youth
culture. In the old days, we were still a bit shy,
and may not have confided in each other as much as
young people do today."
It was a natural fruit of better
relations between their parents' generation too, says
Mr Othman. His own immediate neighbours in the
private Opera Estate are Christian Indians on the
left and a Buddhist Chinese family on the right.
"We are very close to each other,
and always help each other. Any festive celebrations,
Christmas, Lunar New Year, Hari Raya, we always
invite each other around."
Things are "well and good" in
Singapore all round, says the old hand, completing a
personal survey of the state of race relations, but
warns again of one small "minority", the
politicians who would stir latent communal feelings
for their own purposes. "We must always be on
our guard against the 'minorities' who always want to
rear their ugly heads again. I don't think it will
end with a very big riot in Singapore, but it will
create dissension. Whatever happens, this must be
nipped in the bud."
BORN 72 years ago, Mr Othman Wok
describes himself as "Orang Laut"
(literally, "man of the sea"), a descendant
of one of a few hundred or so Malay families who
lived in Singapore when Sir Stamford Raffles landed
here in 1819.
Mr Othman's father, a Malay
teacher, sent him to English-language school,
beginning in Radin Mas and later Raffles Institution.
He continued his education in England.
His first love was journalism,
but he was also politically inclined and became an
active trade unionist. He was editor of a
Malay-language newspaper, Utusan Melayu, when he
joined the People's Action Party in 1954, a time when
Singapore was being torn apart by communalists and
communists, and politics was a matter of life and
He won a Parliamentary seat on
his second try, becoming the Member for Pasir Panjang
in the General Election of 1963. He spent the next 14
years as Minister for Social Affairs, stepping down
in 1977 to become Ambassador to Indonesia for the
next three years.
He retired after that and became
a board member of the Singapore Tourist Promotion
Board and the Sentosa Development Corporation for a
few years. He is now a director of a handful of
companies, including Overseas Investments. He has
three daughters by his first wife, Cik Dah Mohd Noor,
and seven grandchildren by them. Cik Dah died of
cancer 10 years ago. He has a 15-year-old daughter by
his present wife.
First published in The Straits
Times, Jan 25, 1997
Copyright © 1998 Singapore Press
Holdings. All Rights Reserved.