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Othman Wok: Thanks for the 'scary' memories

APRIL 21 ― I was a little sad when I read of the passing of Singaporean political figure, Othman Wok. To be quite honest, his was not a name I hear on a daily or even yearly basis.

I first came to know of him over two decades ago not through his political activity (which turned out to be quite stellar) but rather from his delicious collection of horror tales, Malayan Horror: Macabre Tales of Singapore and Malaysia in the 50s.

While tributes are emerging for Othman Wok’s political achievements, I will pen a different kind of obituary. One which celebrates his literary genius.

I was a big time collector of local horror fiction during my adolescence. It all began with the True Singapore Ghost Stories (TSGS) collection back in 1991.

I made the mistake of reading one of them alone in a large house on dark, rainy Friday afternoon. By the time my family got home, I was cowering in the corner somewhere!

My brother then obtained the first volume of TSGS and to this day, its last story called “The Night Rider” (about a trio of cousins who drove from Singapore to KL one night) is still a subject my brothers and I recall.

The TSGS series was not our only collection. We had works from Nicky Moey and Damien Sin as well which expanded the genre way beyond the area of personal narratives.

It was during this era that I first obtained Othman Wok’s Malayan Horror: Macabre Tales of Singapore and Malaysia in the 50s. This volume remains part of my prized collection kept safely (I hope) in the family home.

I remember thinking when I first obtained it that it would not be much more than a retelling of Malay horror classics. You know the usual suspects of of ghosts and goblins ― the pontianak, langsuir, toyol and the like but being a collector, I had to get it nonetheless. Needless to say, I was most surprised!

While the same supernatural elements are present in his collection, they manifest in different ways. Gone are the usual scenarios where characters just live in isolated kampungs and occasionally get besieged by demons!

Rather, there are elements of modern life involved in the supernatural encounters. One story, for example, involved a district officer who encountered a ghostly apparition in his colonial accommodation which then turns into a supernatural mystery. This introduces new elements which I believe came from Western influences.

What Othman did was to interweave those stories within a new narrative of the newly independent Malaya and Singapore. As his countrymen have noted, Othman was a true multi racialist (even to the point where Malay nationalists detested him) and this trait shined forth in his stories.

Not only that, he normalised the Malay professional in different scenarios to show how they have truly embraced modernity but have not left their folkloric elements which symbolised their heritage behind. Far from being a mundane collection of tales to give you chills in the middle of the night, this collection can give us much to observe.

Malaysia and Singapore have gone their separate ways, politically speaking, more than 50 years ago. When such a thing happens, our once singular culture slowly extricated from itself two different strands.

The world which Othman wrote about has long since disappeared. However, I am quite fascinated with the Singapore Malay identity and how they manage their “nativeness” alongside being a minority.

I have found several examples in Singaporean literature to highlight this narrative but Othman Wok’s collection (a horror story collection,no less!) remains the most prominent. I congratulate Othman for succeeding in this endeavour. It will be a truly monumental task to replace him. Rest in peace, Othman Work.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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