Yusof bin Ishak

Singapore Infopedia

by Marsita Omar


Yusof bin Ishak (b. 12 August 1910, Padang Gajah, Trong, Perak1–d. 23 November 1970, Singapore), commonly referred to as Yusof Ishak, became Singapore’s first president on 9 August 1965 when gained independence as a sovereign state. The presidency was a natural transition as Inche Yusof had been the Yang di-Pertuan Negara (head of state) of Singapore since 3 December 1959 after Singapore was granted self-rule that year. Yusof became Singapore’s head of state six months after the People’s Action Party (PAP) formed the government following its victory in the Legislative Assembly general election on 30 May 1959. He replaced the first Yang di-Pertuan Negara and last governor of Singapore, William Goode.2

Education and early life
Yusof was a Malay of Sumatran descent, with Minangkabau ancestry on the paternal side.3 His ancestor was a Minangkabau nobleman, Datok Janaton, who, together with his brother Datok Setia and their followers, migrated to Kedah in the mid-18th century and swore allegiance to the sultan of Kedah.4

He was the eldest of nine children and his father, Ishak bin Ahmad, was a civil servant. 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.5

Yusof’s education started in the Malay school in Kuala Kurau, Perak, and later at the Malay School in Taiping. In 1921 he began his English studies at King Edward VII School in Taiping. After he moved to Singapore with his family, Yusof attended Victoria Bridge School (now Victoria School) and Raffles Institution (RI) for his primary and secondary education respectively. He excelled in both academic and extracurricular fields, scoring distinctions in the 1927 Cambridge School Certificate and Senior Cambridge exams. Yusof was admitted into the Queen’s Scholarship class at RI, which comprised 13 students, and Yusof was the only Malay.6 However, Yusof did not receive the Queen’s Scholarship.7

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 as the champion in boxing and weightlifting, winning the Aw Boon Par Cup in 1932 and becoming the national lightweight champion in 1933.8 Away from the court, Yusof was the co-editor of the school magazine, Rafflesian, a prefect and the first student in the history of the National Cadet Corps to be made a second lieutenant.9

Early career
Yusof was interested in law but his father could not afford to send him to England to further his studies. He then joined the Police Academy in Kuala Lumpur, but left the academy due to some disagreements and returned to Singapore.10 There, he started a fortnightly magazine, Sportsman, with friends Ong Chin Beng and Soh Swee Tuck,11 but the magazine did not see commercial success.12 At the invitation of another school friend, Syed Hussein bin Ali Alsagoff, he joined the Alsagoff-owned newspaper, Warta Malaya, as a clerk.13 He rose rapidly to become the assistant manager and then acting editor of the paper.14 Warta Malaya was established in 1930 by the Anglo-Asiatic Press and helmed by Onn Jaafar (who later founded the United Malays National Organisation, or UMNO). It was the largest circulating newspaper at the time and its content often highlighted the socioeconomic conditions of the Malays. However, it was owned and controlled by an Arab family, the Alsagoffs, and therefore represented the opinion and aspirations of the Muslim community in general rather than the Malays in particular.15

Malay journalists like Abdul Rahim Kajai (dubbed the “Father of Malay Journalism”) and Yusof were motivated to set up a newspaper strictly owned and run by Malays.16 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,17 located at 64 Queen Street.18 The press published the Malay newspaper, Utusan Melayu, which first circulated on 29 May 1939.19 True to Yusof’s vision, Utusan Melayu was the first paper to be owned and financed by the Malays. Yusof not only sourced for capital to start the paper but also formed a team of competent journalists.20

World War II and postwar years
The Japanese Occupation (1942–45) disrupted Yusof’s newspaper activities. The Utusan Melayu Press was closed and its equipment requisitioned to publish the Japanese paper, Berita Malai (The Malaya News). Yusof sold his camera and with the money moved to Taiping where he ran a provision shop.21 When the British returned to Malaya in 1945 after the war, Yusof returned to Singapore and resumed operations of the press.22

The postwar climate was changing with the Malays awakened to their political rights. Yusof, through Utusan Melayu, fanned this fervour which culminated in the formation of UMNO in 1946.23 But soon UMNO’s vision to restore the sultanate and Yusof’s democratic ideals clashed, and tension between them erupted repeatedly in Utusan Melayu.24

In 1957, Yusof moved from Singapore to live in Kuala Lumpur. The headquarters of Utusan Melayu also shifted to Kuala Lumpur, and from February 1958 the paper was published from there.25 Yusof’s hold on Utusan Melayu started to loosen as UMNO began buying shares in the company. Yusof resisted, but eventually sold all his shares in 1959 and resigned from the newspaper.26 He moved back to Singapore that same year to assume chairmanship of the Public Service Commission of Singapore27 at the invitation of Lee Kuan Yew.28

Political career
When PAP won the election and formed the government in May 1959, Yusof was a leading choice for the head of state. On 3 December 1959, Yusof was appointed as Singapore’s head of state, representing the queen of England.29 When Singapore gained independence on 9 August 1965, Yusof made the natural transition to become the first president of the Republic of Singapore.30

It was a delicate task for Yusof, as Singapore was at a challenging period of political, social and economic development. He promoted multiracialism, meeting people of different races and helping to bring trust and confidence in the new nation.31 On 28 February 1966, in appreciation of Yusof’s interest in the Singapore Arts Society, the latter commissioned a white marble bust of Yusof in suit and tie, which was presented to him at a ceremony held at the Istana.32

Yusof’s health started to deteriorate in 1968 and was hospitalised for heart trouble and other illnesses. On 23 November 1970, he passed away due to heart failure.33

Yusof Ishak Secondary School, which was opened by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on 29 July 1966, is named in his honour.34 To commemorate Singapore’s first president, in 1999 Singapore launched the Portrait series of currency notes bearing the portrait of Yusof.35

At the 2014 National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that, in recognition of Yusof’s contributions to Singapore, a new mosque, a leading think-tank and a professorship would be named after him.36 Masjid Yusof Ishak (or Yusof Ishak Mosque), located at Woodlands, was completed and opened on 14 April 2017,37 and the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) was renamed in 2015 as ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.38 In November 2015, the National University of Singapore launched the Yusof Ishak Professorship in Social Sciences, which aims to promote research in multi-ethnicity and multiculturalism.39

Launches the sports publication, Sportsman.40
1932: Joins Malay newspaper, Warta Melayu, as assistant manager and subsequently becomes acting editor.

1938: Utusan Melayu Press Ltd (Syarikat Utusan Melayu) is established with Yusof Ishak as its first managing director.41
29 May 1939: First issue of Utusan Melayu is published.42
19421945: Remains in Taiping during most of the Japanese Occupation years.
3 Sep 1945: Returns to Singapore and resumes publication of Utusan Melayu.43
1948: Visits Britain as a member of the First Press Delegation.
19481950: Member, Films Appeal Committee.
Jul 1959: Chairman, Public Service Commission, Singapore.44
1 Dec 1959: Appointed by Queen Elizabeth as Yang di-Pertuan Negara.45
2 Dec 1959: Moves into the Istana Negara (formerly known as Government House).46
3 Dec 1959: Sworn in as Yang di-Pertuan Negara of Singapore.47
Apr–May 1963: Visits Cambodia together with his wife, Puan Noor Aishah. Performs the haj in Saudi Arabia, where they were the state guests of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.48
May 1963: State visit to Ceylon.49
3 Jul 1965: Appointed chancellor of the University of Singapore (later known as National University of Singapore).50
9 Aug 1965: Becomes the first president of the Republic of Singapore.51

Nov 1960:
First Class Order of the Darjah Kerabat (The Most Esteemed Royal Family Order of Brunei)52

Nov 1963: Darjah Kebesaran Sri Maharajah Mangku Negara by the Yang di Pertuan Agong of Malaysia53

Wife: Puan Noor Aishah (m. 1948)

Children: Son, Imran, and daughters, Kamariah and Zuriana.54

Marsita Omar

1. Melanie Chew, Leaders of Singapore (Singapore: Resource Press, 1996), 180–86. (Call no. RSING 920.05957 CHE)
2. “Farewell in the Rain for Goode,” Straits Times, 3 December 1959, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
3. “Yusof Head of State,” Straits Times, 2 December 1959, 1, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Muhammad Haji Salleh, ed., Early History of Penang, trans. Leelany Ayob and Ng Wai Queen (Palau Pinang, Malaysia: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia, 2012), 27–28. (Call no. RSEA 959.5103 EAR)
5. “Encik Yusof Ishak,” President’s Office, accessed 22 March 2016,  https://www.istana.gov.sg/The-President/Former-Presidents; Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 180–86.
6. Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 180–86.
7. “President Yusof,” Straits Times, 24 November 1970, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
8. Sinnathamby Rajaratnam, Dialogues with S. Rajaratnam, former senior minister in the Prime Minister's Office (Singapore: Shin Min Daily News, 1991), 13245. (Call no. RSING 320.95957 RAJ)
9. President’s Office, “Encik Yusok Ishak.”
10. Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 180–86.
11. “Right Man for the Right Time,” Singapore Monitor, 2 September 1983, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
12. Singapore Chronicles, (Hong Kong: Illustrated Magazine Pub., 1995), 4849. (Call no. RSING 959.57 SIN-[HIS])
13. “Yusof Head of State.”
14. “Right Man for the Right Time.”
15. Nik Ahmad Bin Haji Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 36, no. 1 (201) (May 1963): 61. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
16. “The Rise of Malay Newspapers,” Straits Times, 7 November 1988, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press,” 37–78, 63.
18. William R. Roff, The Origins of Malay Nationalism, 2nd ed. (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1994), 176. (Call no. RSING 320.54 ROF)
19. Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press,” 65.
20. Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press,” 64–65.
21. Singapore Chronicles, 48–49.  
22. “Yusof Head of State.”
23. Nik Hassan, “The Malay Press,” 70, 72.
24. Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 180–86.
25. Singapore Chronicles, 48–49.  
26. Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 180–86.
27. “Yusof Head of State.”
28. Rajaratnam, Dialogues with S. Rajaratnam, former senior minister in the Prime Minister's Office, 13245.
29. “Yusof Head of State.”  
30. “Yusof To Be the First President,” Straits Times, 15 December 1965, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
31. Chew, Leaders of Singapore, 180–86.
32. “Bust and Painting Gifts for President,” Straits Times, 1 March 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
33. Cheong Yip Seng et al., “Cabinet Pays Last Respects,” Straits Times, 24 November 1970, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
34. “3 Schools To Be Opened Next Week,” Straits Times, 21 July 1966, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
35. The Presidential Notes Vol 2: Know Your Portrait Notes (Singapore: BCCS, 1999), 16–17. (Call no. RSING q769.5595957 PRE)
36. Nur Asyiqin Mohamed Salleh, “Naming Honours for First President Yusof Ishak,” Straits Times, 18 August 2014, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
37. “A New Jewel for Muslim Community,” Today, 12 April 2017, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
38. Chan L. E., “Institute of Southeast Asian Studies Renamed in Honour of Yusof Ishak,” Channel NewsAsia, 12 August 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
39. Lim J., “Yusof Ishak Professorship in Social Sciences Raises More Than S$7 Million in Funds,” Channel NewsAsia, 28 November 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website)
40. “Right Man for the Right Time.” 
41. “Yusof Head of State.”
42. Christine Khor, “A Literary Stroll Down Memory Lane,” Straits Times, 22 November 1989, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
43. “Yusof Head of State.”
44. “Right Man for the Right Time.”
45. “Historic Years,” Straits Times, 24 November 1970, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
46. “All Set for Big Day,” Straits Times, 2 December 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
47. “Unity and Loyalty,” Straits Times, 4 December 1959, 8; “Singapore Rejoices,” Straits Times, 4 December 1959, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
48. “Off to Cambodia,” Straits Times, 7 April 1963, 11; “Cambodia Visit Before Trip to Mecca,” Straits Times, 28 March 1963, 5; “The CJ To Be Acting Head of State,” Straits Times, 4 April 1963, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
49. “Yong and Wife Off for Yusof Visit to Ceylon,” Straits Times, 11 May 1963, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
50. “Yusof To Be New Chancellor of S’pore University,” Straits Times, 24 July 1965, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
51. “Yusof To Be the First President,” Straits Times, 15 December 1965, 13. (From NewspaperSG)
52. “Inche Yusof Gets Highest Brunei Award in S’pore,” Straits Times, 29 November 1960, 16. (From NewspaperSG)
53. “Inche Yusof Becomes Tun Yusof,” Straits Times, 13 November 1963, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
54. “Singapore’s First Lady: She Wins Friends By Gentle Nature,” Straits Times
, 3 December 1959, 3. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2016 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.


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