Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak giving a speech in 1962. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Yusof Ishak (b. 12 August 1910, Malaysia – d. 23 November 1970, Singapore) is the first President of Singapore. He tided the republic over a period of uncertainty following the separation with Malaysia in 1965. His values and beliefs in meritocracy, multiculturalism and modernisation underpinned Singapore’s success through the nation-building years and left a lasting legacy with the nation.
Portrait of the first President of Singapore, Yusof Ishak on 9 August 1965. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Yusof Ishak was born on 12 August 1910 in Perak, Malaysia. His father served in the Malayan Administrative Service, before working as a clerk in Taiping’s district office. In 1923, his father was transferred to Singapore to assume the position as assistant inspector of the Fisheries Department.
In Singapore, Yusof Ishak attended Victoria Bridge School
(today’s Victoria School) for his primary education and Raffles Institution
for his secondary education. He scored distinctions in both the 1927 Cambridge School Certificate and the Senior Cambridge examinations. He co-edited Rafflesian and was also the first student in the National Cadet Corps’ history to be a second lieutenant.
Victoria Bridge School (today’s Victoria School) along Victoria Street. This was where Yusof Ishak received his primary education. (Image from National Museum of Singapore) The former Raffles Institution, where Yusof Ishak received his secondary education. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)
Yusof Ishak also excelled in sports. He was an active athlete who represented Raffles Institution in hockey, cricket, swimming, water polo, basketball, boxing and weightlifting. He emerged a boxing champion in 1932, winning the Aw Boon Par cup, and became the national lightweight champion in weightlifting a year later.
Career & Accomplishments
In 1938, Yusof Ishak and 20 other Malay leaders, established the Utusan Melayu Press Ltd, and co-founded Utusan Melayu, a Malay newspaper. This was the first newspaper that was wholly owned, financed, and ran by Malays. Yusof did everything from sourcing for capital and journalists, to the acquisition of equipment and the management of accounts and administration. Utusan Melayu was first circulated on 29 May 1939, and often championed the need for the community to modernise and to focus on education.
In 1959, Yusof Ishak resigned from Utusan Melayu, and assumed the position as chairman of the Public Service Commission of Singapore, at the invitation of then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. When the People’s Action Party won the election in May 1959, he became the leading choice as the Head of State. On 3 December 1959, Yusof Ishak was appointed as the Yang di-Pertuan Negara, or Head of State.
When Singapore gained independence on 9 August 1965, Yusof Ishak became the republic’s first President. He was steadfast in his duties, and often visited constituencies around the island to reassure citizens affected by the separation.
The newly appointed Yang di-Pertuan Negara Yusof Ishak delivering his address at the City Hall steps during the launch of National Loyalty Week on 3 December 1959. (Image from National Archives of Singapore)
Yusof Ishak passed away on 23 November 1970 to heart failure during this third term in office. The Yusof Ishak Secondary School, which opened on 29 July 1966, remained the only school named after a President of Singapore. The Singapore Portrait Series currency notes bearing the portrait of Yusof Ishak was launched in 1999.
This is a souvenir plate commemorating the 1959 self-government. Yusof Ishak succeeded the former British Governor, William Goode, and became the Yang di-Pertuan Negara in December 1959. (Image from National Museum of Singapore)