By Marsita Omar written on 27-Jul-2006
National Library Board Singapore
Comments on article: InfopediaTalk
Inche Yusof bin Ishak (b. 12 August 1910, Padang Gajah, Trong, Perak – d. 23 November 1970, Singapore) was Singapore’s first president when Singapore became a republic on 9 August 1965. The presidency was a natural transition as Inche Yusof had been the Yang di Pertuan Negara or the Head of State of Singapore since 3 December 1959, after Singapore achieved self-rule. Inche Yusof became Singapore’s Head of State six months after the PAP won the first election in self-government Singapore on 30 May 1959. He replaced the first Yang di Pertuan Negara and last Governor of Singapore, Sir William Goode.
Yusof Ishak was of Minangkabau descent. His ancestor was a Minangkabau nobleman, Datok Janaton, who together with his brother, Datok Setia, and 80 followers, migrated to Kedah in 1789 and swore allegiance to the Sultan of Kedah.
Yusof’s father was Ishak bin Ahmad, the eldest of nine children. Being English-educated, Ishak found work in the Malayan Administrative Service, serving as clerk in the District office in Taiping and later in the Fisheries Department. In 1923, Ishak was transferred to Singapore to assume the position of Assistant Inspector of Fisheries. He was the first non-European to be a Director of the Fisheries Department.
Yusof’s education started in the Malay school in Kuala Kurau, Perak, and later at the Malay School at Taiping. In 1921 he began his English studies at King Edward VII School, Taiping. In Singapore, Yusof attended Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School) for his primary education and Raffles Institution (RI) for his secondary education. He excelled both in the academic and extra-curricular fields. He scored Distinctions in both the 1927 Cambridge School Certificate and in the Senior Cambridge Exams. Yusof was admitted into the prestigious Queen’s Scholarship Class at RI, a group of only 13 and Yusof was the only Malay. He missed the Queen’s Scholarship by a few points.
Outside the classroom, Yusof was a school athlete, representing RI in many games including hockey, cricket, swimming, water polo, basketball, boxing and weightlifting. He emerged champion in boxing, winning the Aw Boon Par cup in 1932, and weightlifting, becoming the national lightweight champion in 1933. Away from the court, Yusof was the co-editor of Rafflesian, a prefect, and the first student in the history of the National Cadet Corps to be made a Second Lieutenant. His years in RI exposed him to a multi-cultural environment where he learnt to appreciate the aspirations and hopes of the other communities.
Yusof was interested in law but his father could not afford to send him to England to further his studies. Yusof joined the Police Academy in Kuala Lumpur but due to some disagreements left the Academy and returned to Singapore. There, he started a magazine, Sportsman, with friends Ong Chin Beng and Soh Swee Tuck but the magazine failed commercially. At the invitation of another school friend, Syed Hussein bin Ali Alsagoff, he joined the Alsagoff-owned newspaper, Warta Malaya, as a clerk. He rose rapidly to be Assistant Manager, running the company’s finances. Warta Malaya was the voice of the Arabs in Singapore and was influenced by the developments of the Middle East. But Yusof’s calling was for a truly Malay newspaper that was owned by, run by and dedicated to the Malays. When he was Manager of Warta Malaya, he seriously formed the idea of turning this vision to reality.
In early 1938, together with some 20 Malay leaders in Singapore including Yahya Abdul Rahman, Yunos Haji Daim, Osman Hassan, Embok Soloh, Sudin Abdul Rahman and Abdullah Abdul Ghani, Yusof established the Utusan Melayu Press Ltd, located at 64 Queen Street. The Press published a Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu, which first circulated on 29 May 1939. True to Yusof’s vision, Utusan Melayu was the first paper to be owned and financed by the Malays. Yusof was wholly dedicated to this newspaper; sourcing for capital to start the paper as well as competent journalistic staff, acquiring machines and advertisers, and looking after company accounts and its general administration.
WWII and Post-War
The Japanese Occupation disrupted Yusof’s newspaper activities. The Utusan Melayu Press was closed and its equipment requisitioned to publish the Japanese paper, Berita Malai. Yusof sold off his camera and with the money moved to Taiping where he lived quietly and ran a provision shop. When British took over Malaya in 1945 ,Yusof rushed back to Singapore and resumed Utusan Melayu.
The post-war climate was changing with the Malays awakened to their political rights. Yusof through Utusan Melayu fanned this fervour which culminated in the formation of United Malay Nationalist Organisation (UMNO) in 1946. But soon UMNO’s vision (restoration of the Sultan) and Yusof’s democratic ideals clashed and tension between them erupted repeatedly in Utusan Melayu.
In 1957, Yusof moved from Singapore to live in Kuala Lumpur. The headquarters of Utusan Melayu also shifted to Kuala Lumpur and started to publish the newspaper from there in February 1958. Yusof’s hold on Utusan Melayu started to loosen as UMNO began buying shares in Utusan. Yusof resisted but eventually sold all his shares in 1959 and resigned from the newspaper. He moved to Singapore in the same year to assume the position of Chairman, Public Service Commission of Singapore, at the invitation of Lee Kuan Yew.
When PAP won the election and formed the government in May 1959, Yusof was a leading choice for the Head of State. Yusof was chosen because he was a man of integrity, dignity, honesty, and had high moral principles. On 3 December 1959, he was appointed as the Head of State of Singapore, representing the Queen of England. When Singapore gained independence on 9 August 1965, Yusof Ishak became the first President of the Republic of Singapore.
It was a delicate task for Inche Yusof as Singapore was at a very challenging period of political, social and economic development. He was steadfast in promoting multi-racialism. He worked very hard, going out to meet people of different races and helping to bring trust and confidence in the new republic. On 28 February 1966, in appreciation of Inche Yusof’s interest in the Singapore Arts Society, the latter commissioned a white marble bust of Inche Yusof in suit and tie, which was presented to him in a ceremony at the Istana.
Inche Yusof’s health started to deteriorate in 1968. He had been hospitalised for heart trouble and other illnesses. On 23 November 1970, during his third term in office, he passed away due to heart failure.
To commemorate Singapore’s first president, Singapore launched a new series of currency notes bearing the portrait of Inche Yusof Ishak at the turn of the 21st century.
1929 : Started sports publication, Sportsman
1932 : Joined the Malay newspaper, Warta Melayu, achieving Assistant Manager and Acting Editor rapidly
1938 : Established a Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu Press Ltd (Syarikat Utusan Melayu), which launched the Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu, on 29 May 1939. Yusof Ishak was the company’s first Managing Director
1942-1945 : Remained in Taiping during most of the Japanese Occupation years
3 Sep 1945 : Returned to Singapore. Immediately resumed Utusan Melayu.
1948 : Visited Britain as a member of the First Press Delegation.
1948 1950 : Served on the Film Appeal Committee.
Jul 1959 : Chairman, Public Service Commission, Singapore
1 Dec 1959 : Appointed by Queen Elizabeth as Yang di Pertuan Negara
2 Dec 1959 : Moved to Government House (the Istana)
3 Dec 1959 : Sworn-in as Yang di Pertuan Negara of Singapore
Apr 1963 : Visited Cambodia together with his wife, Puan Noor Aishah. Performed Haj in Saudi Arabia where they were the State Guests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
May 1963 : State visit to Ceylon.
3 Jul 1965 : Chancellor of the University of Singapore.
9 Aug 1965 : Became the first President of the Republic of Singapore
Nov 1960 : First Class Order of the Darjah Kerabat (The Most Esteemed Royal Family Order of Brunei).
Nov 1963 : Darjah Kebesaran Sri Maharajah Mangku Negara (S.M.N.) by the Yang di Pertuan Agong of Malaysia.
Wife, Puan Noor Aishah (m. 1948)
Children : Three, one son (Imran) and two daughters (Kamariah, Zuriana).
Ainon Kuntom. (1973). Malay newspapers, 1876-1973: A historical survey of the literature (pp. 27-32).
(Call no.: RSING q079.5951 AIN)
Ang. H. S. (1991). Dialogues with S. Rajaratnam, former Senior Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office (pp. 132-145). Singapore: Shin Min Daily News.
(Call no.: RSING 320.95957 RAJ )
Chew, M. (1996). Leaders of Singapore (pp. 180-186). Singapore: Resource Press.
(Call no. RSING 920.05957 CHE )
The presidential notes (Vol. 2). (1999). Singapore: SNP Publishing.
(Call no.: RSING q769.5595957 PRE)
Singapore Chronicles (pp. 48-49). (1995). Hong Kong : Illustrated Magazine Pub.
(Call no.: RSING 959.57 SIN -[HIS])
Board of Commissioners of Currency, Singapore. (1999). The portrait notes. Retrieved May 26, 2005, fromwww.starsgroup.com/singaporecurrency/portraitnotes.html
President’s Office, Republic of Singapore. (1999). Istana archives. Retrieved May 26, 2005, from www.istana.gov.sg/history.html#yusof
Straus, S. (n.d.).Polymer bank notes of the world: Yusof bin Ishak. Retrieved May 26, 2005, from www.polymernotes.org/biographies/SGP_bio_binishak.htm
The information in this article is valid as at 2005 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.
Yusof Ishak, 1910-1970
Law and government>>Political process>>Leadership
All Rights Reserved. National Library Board Singapore 2006.