First President of Singapore

Born in 1910, Padang Gajah, Perak, to civil servant Ishak bin Ahmad, Yusuf Ishak rose from humble beginnings to become the first Malayan-born Yang Di-Pertuan Negara on 3rd December 1959 and subsequently, as President of the Republic of Singapore on 9th August 1965. In his 11 years as Head of State and President, Yusuf Ishak dedicated his life and efforts to the service of his nation and people and provided the moral courage and leadership during the difficult early years of nation-building.

The eldest of nine children, Yusuf Ishak in his youth displayed sterling qualities that marked him for high office in later life. At school, Yusuf Ishak was an exceptional student, excelling in both his studies and sports. At Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School), Yusuf topped the 1927 Cambridge School Certificate with Distinction. At Raffles Institution, Yusuf again scored Distinctions for the Senior Cambridge exams. On the basis of his results, he was admitted into the Queen’s scholarship class – one of the 13 and the only Malay.

In sports, Yusuf Ishak proved himself above others. He represented RI in several events: hockey, cricket, swimming, waterpolo, basketball, boxing and weightlifting. He won the Aw Boon Par cup for boxing in 1932 and in 1933, became the national Lightweight weight-lifting champion. He was in the Scouts and a school prefect too. Yusuf Ishak went on to become the first student in the history of the National Cadet Corps to be made (junior) 2nd Lieutenant. Yusuf was an outstanding individual. As historian Melanie Chew writes in her biography on President Yusuf Ishak, “(he) was already showing a sense of mission, which was to become his life’s greatest achievement. For he was gradually breaking free of a racial stereotype, and proving to his fellow students, and the world around him, that a Malay of common birth was just as intelligent, industrious, and capable as a person of any other race.”

It was in RI that the seeds of his mission were first planted. He was the co-editor of the Rafflesian magazine and co-authored an excellent article on the history of RI. Upon graduation, Yusuf stepped into the world of journalism. He first joined a sports magazine, The Sportsman, started by a few of his former schoolmates. Later, he joined Warta Melayu, a leading Malay newspaper in those days and quickly rose to become its Assistant Manager. But the yearning to start a newspaper, “owned by Malays, run by Malays and dedicated to Malay issues” led to the birth of Utusan Melayu in 1939. Yusuf personally galvanised the Malay community in raising funds for Utusan Melayu – going round the kampungs and speaking to every individual, persuading each to take a share of $10. In all, he raised $13,000. Between 1939 and 1959, the Utusan Melayu became his clarion call for freedom:

“He sought freedom in all its respects. He freed the Malay rakyat from a feudal tradition, which held them in bondage and ignorance. He fought against colonial rule, which made the white man superior and the native inferior. He fought to uplift the Malays, to bring them out of poverty and backwardness, and into the modern world. And he fought against racial prejudice, stereotype and suspicion, seeing them as the greatest threats to the survival of a multiracial society.”

As President of a fledging nation, Yusuf Ishak was a class of his own, setting the benchmark for future presidents of Singapore. As before, his life mission became the nation’s mission. He was committed to bring honour and prestige to Singapore on an international arena, to uplift and inspire his people and more significantly, to instil in Singaporeans that ” survival of (the) nation rests on the ability of all races and religions to live in mutual respect and tolerance.” He was the embodiment of everything that was Singaporean.

During his last term in office, President Yusuf Ishak was often ill. Yet it did not deter him from reaching out to his people – against medical advice, he continued making his presence felt at functions and weekly constituency walk-abouts. On Monday 23rd November 1970, President Yusuf Ishak died of heart failure. He was accorded a state funeral and buried with full state honours at the Kranji National Cemetery, where masses came to his funeral service to pay their last respects to the man who had become loved and respected by all communities. President Ishak had spent his life in the fight for freedom.

Adapted from Melanie Chew’s, “A Biography of President Yusuf bin Ishak” (SNP Publishing Pte ltd, © 1999 Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore)