Monday, 1 June 2015

Singapore sports stars of the SEA Games

A tribute to stars past and present
By Marc Lim, Sports Editor, The Sunday Times, 10 May 2015

In life, and perhaps especially so in sport, one cannot truly appreciate the present without acknowledging the deeds of the past.

We now cheer swimmer Joseph Schooling and his gold-medal exploits. But before him, Pat Chan, who would retire with 39 SEA Games titles, was the original golden one.

High jumper Michelle Sng may be aiming for SEA Games gold now but her path to success was aided by the 61 Asean track and field champions before her.

It is why, with the SEA Games returning to our shores for a fourth time next month, we collected SEA Games champions, icons from four different generations, to discuss the journey their sport has taken.

Here was footballer Seak Poh Leong, 62, telling Irfan Fandi, 17, what it was like to play before a packed National Stadium four decades ago, when Singapore had hosted its maiden regional games in 1973.

Here was Joscelin Yeo, 36, winner of 40 SEA Games swimming golds, discussing what it takes to be a champion with Quah Zheng Wen, 18, who is aiming for titles of his own next month.

Here was experience and youth, wisdom and ambition, legends and rising stars all in one place.

In this tracing of sporting journeys, we chose four sports:

Swimming, sailing and athletics because they have been successful, winning 1,020 medals, including 377 golds, between them since 1959.

The fourth sport was football, which has not won a gold, yet remains a sport that is tightly connected to our sporting culture.

And so these athletes, from various generations, met on a track and by the sea, by the pool and on a field.

Youngers ones were teased for "having it good" by the old-timers from the era when running spikes were actually nails hammered into a shoe.

There were fierce debates and laughter. But always, no matter young or old, there was passion and a genuine love for the game.

In a year when Singapore celebrates its Golden Jubilee, there will be many tributes paid to the country's pioneers.

But the best ones will probably be heard in sporting arenas across the island next month, when we roar on the present.

It is the perfect way to honour those who have left their footprints on the Games, ones that have helped the present generation take bigger, bolder strides.

Singapore athletics

1970s: THE RISE

The 1970s was a golden era for Singapore athletics. Track stars C. Kunalan and Chee Swee Lee bagged medals at both the Southeast Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games and Asian Games.

Farrer Park was the hotbed where it all took place. There, legendary athletics coach Tan Eng Yoon moulded the talents of Kunalan, Glory Barnabas and Noor Azhar Hamid, among others.

1980s: THE FALL

The 1980s marked the start of the decline of Singapore athletics. The Republic had only K. Jayamani's 1983 marathon gold to show for participation in five SEA Games, compared with 18 from 1971 to 1979.

The late 80s was also dominated by events off the track, as sprinter Haron Mundir took the Singapore Amateur Athletic Association to court over his 18-month ban. It would prove to be a recurring theme in the 90s.


With the track athletes struggling to break through in the 90s, James Wong provided respite in the field events, winning consecutive SEA Games discus golds from 1993 to 2005, including a discus-hammer double in 1997.

Clashes within the Singapore Amateur Athletic Association and between its officials and athletes saw the likes of Ong Yeok Phee, Muhamad Hosni Muhamad and Hamkah Afik leave the scene either temporarily or for good.


The turn of the millennium saw more improvement in the field. James Wong continued his dominance in the discus, and he was joined by Du Xianhui, Zhang Guirong and Dong Enxin, producing a four-gold haul at the 2003 SEA Games. The trio became citizens under the foreign sports talent scheme. Only Zhang is still competing for Singapore.

Highlights on the track included U. K. Shyam breaking C. Kunalan's 33-year-old 100m mark in 2001 and the men's 4x100m team going under the 40-second barrier for the first time in 2009. In 2013, Mok Ying Ren became Singapore's first men's marathon champion at the SEA Games.

Singapore athletics stars over the decades
In pursuit of those Glory days
The first of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes. Next week: Sailing
By Chua Siang Yee, The Sunday Times, 10 May 2015

On a clear and sunny day in 1973, an excited teenager took her place among thousands in the new National Stadium's grandstand.

She had risked the wrath of her parents, skipping school to watch her ageing idol's swansong at the Southeast Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games.

In that moment of juvenile impudence, Singapore's next track star took her first step towards greatness.

A decade later, K. Jayamani would replicate Glory Barnabas' 200m win in 1973, winning the women's marathon at the 1983 SEA Games.

Wanting to be like her idol, said Jayamani, was one of her biggest motivations.

Nobody told Jayamani to chase the feats of Barnabas. But nobody had to, because the 1970s was a time when a culture of excellence pervaded Singapore athletics.

From 1970 to 1979, track and field yielded 18 golds from five Seap Games.

On the continental stage, Singapore harvested one gold, two silvers and four bronzes from three Asian Games.

Training at the famed Farrer Park track, alongside C. Kunalan, Chee Swee Lee, Barnabas and Heather Siddons, Jayamani recalled, was like admission into an exclusive club, an insignia to be displayed with pride.

But the scintillating 70s were swiftly followed by two decades of mediocrity - only seven Asean golds from 1981 to 2001.

It went against conventional wisdom - sports science and better facilities should have taken the sport to the next level.

After all, "sports science" for Barnabas in the 1960s was vitamins from her coach, the late Tan Eng Yoon. For Jayamani, it was ginseng chicken prepared by coach Maurice Nicholas' wife.

Their "spikes" were running shoes with nails hammered in by a cobbler at Selegie Road - long nails for grass tracks, short nails for rubber.

Now, athletes have an army of biomechanists, psychologists, nutritionists, while talks are held regularly by the Singapore Sports Institute.

Barnabas, a physical education teacher, and Jayamani, a fitness instructor at several schools, believe one big factor is that youngsters have too many distractions these days. Few, they mused, would choose a monastic life with only the scent of synthetic rubber for company.

Furthermore, as society progressed, parents rather preferred their children chase paper qualifications than personal bests.

In 1990, the Singapore Amateur Athletics Association even sent senior official Lim Jit Imm to investigate the high dropout rate of schools champions, but it proved a fruitless exercise.

A look at the Schools National Track and Field Championships' B Division, hotly contested by secondary schools nationwide, tells its own story.

Of the 38 B Division records, only 12 were set before the millennium, suggesting a steady influx of talent.

But, at the national level, half of the 50 records were set before 2000.

James Wong, who won the first of his 10 SEA Games golds at 24, said athletes need time to toughen up and "develop that steel" in them.

The discus kingpin added: "It takes years to develop their psyche, become fearless and make winning and breaking records a habit."

Other problems the veterans cite include the lack of a strong inter-club environment and the closure of the Singapore Business Houses Leagues, which had encouraged companies to be flexible with their athletes-employees.

As this year's SEA Games high jump medal prospect Michelle Sng lamented, at the end of the day the bills need to be paid. Sng, in fact, hung up her spikes in 2010 to focus on her teaching career. After all, leaping high was not pegged to her performance bonus.

But the 28-year-old made a decision to come back in 2013, and appears to be on the way up. Last month, she bettered her 2006 national mark of 1.8m with a 1.84m effort at the Philippines Open.

Yet, despite the drying up of medals and talent, there is hope.

With renewed investment in sports by the Government, such as a $40 million war chest set aside to fund the ambitions of elite athletes and the possible knock-on effects of a home SEA Games, the veterans are hopeful that Singapore athletics can mirror Sng's trajectory.

Encouraging performances from youngsters back their belief.

Shanti Pereira, 18, set three national records in the last 12 months, while Zubin Muncherji, also 18, broke Godfrey Jalleh's 40-year 400m record last June.

Yesterday, 19-year-old Eugenia Tan shattered Yu Long Nyu's 22-year national women's long jump record.

Dipna Lim-Prasad, who lowered her national 400m hurdles mark in March, sprinter Calvin Kang and marathoners Soh Rui Yong and Mok Ying Ren have also served notice of their potential. Aside from Mok, who is recovering from injury, all will join Sng in next month's SEA Games.

Said Jayamani: "It's not that we've stopped producing talented athletes. The challenge, with all the funding and facilities we have now, is to make sure we can keep them in the sport and give them everything they need to succeed."

Next month, Sng will be making her SEA Games debut in the new National Stadium. The hope is that somewhere in that crowd there will be another teenager waiting to be inspired.


- 100m
SEAP Games silver (1969)
- 200m
SEAP Games gold (1973)
- 4x100m
Asian Games silver (1970)
SEAP Games gold (1973)
- 4x400m
Asian Games silver (1974)

In 1962, Glory Barnabas was a trainee teacher at the Teachers Training College (TTC).

It was short of one runner to form a 4x100m team for an inter-college meet. Barnabas, whose prior experience was running for her primary and secondary schools, gamely agreed to be a last-minute stand-in.

Tasked to run the anchor leg, she was second when handed the baton. But her raw talent shone through and TTC finished comfortable winners.

Her astonishing feat was spotted by the late athletics coach Tan Eng Yoon, and Barnabas was recruited into the national set-up.

The rest, as they say, is history, as she won medals at the Southeast Asia Peninsular (SEAP) Games and Asian Games.

The 1973 SEAP Games on home soil was her final meet at the top level. But the physical education teacher never stopped running and continues to participate in veteran meets.


- 800m
SEAP Games bronze (1977)
- 1,500m
SEAP Games gold (1977, 1979)
- 3,000m
SEAP Games gold (1977, 1979)
- Marathon
SEA Games gold (1983)
- Sportswoman of the Year
(1977, 1981)

A five-time SEA Games gold medallist, K. Jayamani enjoyed an illustrious career on the track. But she has one regret.

In 1980, Jayamani, then 25, was told that she would be representing Singapore in the 3,000m event at the Moscow Olympics.

But her dreams were dashed when Singapore joined the United States-led boycott of the Olympics, a move to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

She said: "I don't have many regrets in life but that was one of them. The Olympics are the pinnacle of sport. It was the only major meet that I missed out on."


- Discus
SEA Games gold (1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2011)
- Hammer
SEA Games gold (1997)
- Sportsman of the Year

Few exerted as much dominance in one event as Wong, who won the SEA Games discus gold nine times, including seven straight from 1993 to 2005.

His golden streak began on home soil in 1993. But just two years earlier, he almost fell out of the sport.

A favourite in 1991, he failed to land a medal and entered what he called a "dark place".

"I kept asking myself why did I fail, and what I was doing wrong," recalled the 1.9m-tall Wong.

Five months before the '93 Games, sponsors gave him an ultimatum: win a medal or find other ways to pay for his education in the United States.

He responded the only way he knew how to.

He said: "I didn't change the way I train but, whenever I competed, I threw like there was no tomorrow.

"I became fearless because everything was on the line."

A brief retirement hardly affected him as he came back in 2009 to win two more discus golds.


High jump
National record of 1.84m

In their quest for records and perfection, athletes can be fiercely competitive.

That was evident with high jumper Michelle Sng from a young age - even if it sometimes led to hilarious outcomes.

When she was three, she was part of a dance group tasked to perform at an event. Alas, one of her fellow toddlers had forgotten the moves and was messing up the routine.

In a fit of anger, Sng stomped off the stage and left the audience in stitches.

This rage for perfection also made Sng, who was a promising school netball player, give up the sport.

She said: "I got upset whenever I felt that some of my team-mates were not pulling their weight during games.

"When the ball was going out, I'd be screaming 'dive for it!'"

But this allowed the 1.72m-tall athlete to zero in on high jump, an individual event, which gave her a kick because it felt like she was "defying gravity".

- Track and field is where one can find some of Singapore's oldest sporting records. They include Chee Swee Lee's 400m mark (55.08sec) as well as the men's (3:10.55) and women's (3:43.85) 4x400m records. All three were set at the 1974 Asiad in Teheran.
- Thailand are traditional favourites in the sprint relays now but it was Singapore who gave them a leg up.
In the 1970s, they came here to learn the art of baton-passing.
- In 1948, athletics produced Singapore's first Olympian, Lloyd Valberg. He competed in the high jump in London and finished 14th in the final.
The late Valberg is also the granduncle of current Singapore swimmer Joseph Schooling.

Singapore sailing
The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015


This was the decade in which Singapore consolidated its status as a sailing nation. Off the back of a successful campaign at the 1969 Seap Games when sailing was contested for the first time, the 1970s was when the sport's culture of excelling began.

With pioneers such as Julian Yeo, James Tham and Lock Hong Kit leading the way, it began with two silver medals at the 1970 Asian Games in Thailand. The sport also accounted for three golds and one silver when the Seap Games were held here for the first time in 1973.


The late 1980s saw the rebirth of the Optimist programme, a cause championed by Ng Ser Miang, who took over leadership of the association in 1989.

Despite some measure of success, Singapore still had a rather limited pool of potential national sailors and there was therefore a need to groom sailors from junior ranks as well. The Optimist, a dinghy meant for those aged 15 and under, sparked a wide and strong pool of talent, proving integral to the solid youth development programme for which SingaporeSailing is today widely recognised.


The 1990s was when elite sailing in Singapore really took off, and no year was more of a watershed than 1994. That year, the late Kelly Chan became the Republic's first world champion when he won the Masters title at the World Boardsailing Championships in Canada. Ben Tan then went on to win gold at the Asian Games in Hiroshima with one race to spare, ending a 12-year drought for Singapore at the quadrennial event.

The success continued at the 1998 edition in Thailand, when the duos of Siew Shaw Her and Colin Ng and Joan Huang and Naomi Tan won both the men's and women's 420 events.


After suffering disappointment at the 2002 Asiad in South Korea, SingaporeSailing overhauled its high performance framework led by Ben Tan, now the association's president.

It bore fruit quickly. Starting with Calvin Lim in the Byte class in 2004, the next decade saw Singapore churning out world-beaters on the waters. There was at least one world title won every year after that until 2014, in classes like the Optimist, Laser 4.7 and the 420. Singapore's dominance was especially felt in the Optimist, where it held the world individual and team titles from 2011 to 2013.

Winds firmly in their sails
The second of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes | Next week: Swimming
By May Chen, The Sunday Times, 17 May 2015

Four decades on, Lock Hong Kit's memories of the 1975 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games have become a little blurry.

The 68-year-old takes a moment to recall where the Games were held that year.

Ah, yes, it was in Thailand so he must have sailed with old pal Tan Tee Suan on the Fireball that year.

But Lock remembers clearly his competition attire that day.

Taking a big transparent plastic bag, he cut two holes in the corners, snipped a larger opening at the bottom, then draped the sheet over himself.

It was not pretty but the makeshift windbreaker did its job of keeping the sailor warm.

"Those were the poor days," the two-time Seap Games gold medallist reminisced. "Some of our other sailors even used garbage bags."

Never mind that sailing has traditionally come with a "rich man's sport" label attached to it.

Old-timers like Lock will tell you otherwise about the sport's humble beginnings here.

Siew Shaw Her remembers being ridiculed by rivals at a regatta in England. Quivering in the chilly conditions yet unable to shell out £40 - around S$160 then - for proper headgear, he could only pull a used shower cap over his ears in a frail attempt to keep them warm.

"It was cold as hell," said the 57-year-old. "We were the only ones who did that and everyone laughed at us."

With competitive sailing still in its infancy, the sport was nothing more than an afterthought in the 1970s and 1980s when the glamour belonged to sports like football and athletics.

Only a handful of clubs offered sailing opportunities so the fraternity of local sailors was a small one.

Pioneers like Lock and Tan, both of whom were school teachers, stumbled into the sport in their late 20s only as a form of recreation.

Said Tan, now 73: "We started sailing just by taking a boat overnight to a nearby island. We enjoyed, we fished... we sailed because we liked being on the water.

"It's so different for the youngsters these days. They start as young as seven or eight, and they follow a structure - learn, sail, race.

"We had no intention of competing."

Still, these men are the ones who penned the first chapters of Singapore sailing's success story.

It is a tale of winning at least a gold medal at every edition of the regional Games since 1973, a feat few other sports - if any - can hold claim to.

The streak has earned the sport much. Resources, for one thing.

Garbage bags and shower caps have long been replaced by top-of-the-line jackets and microfleece beanies.

Sailors spend months on end travelling from Hyeres in France to Palma in Spain, honing skills with and against the best in Europe.

Reputation, too. With sailors stamping their authority in the region and even in Asia in recent years, the sport is now among a select group seen as traditional goldmines at multi-sport events.

With a haul of five golds, three silvers and two bronzes, Singapore were the top sailing nation at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha.

Even on the global stage, this tiny nation has much to shout about - 29 world titles from youth classes starting from 2004.

The Optimist class, in particular, is where the Republic reign supreme, winning the individual and team titles at the world championships from 2011 to 2013. The first time Singapore triumphed at any Olympic event, winning two Youth Olympic golds in Nanjing last year, was also in sailing.

None of these came by chance.

It took foresight to adopt the Optimist programme early.

It took guts too, for sending sailors to world championships in the 1980s - in the name of exposure and experience - was then a mammoth expense.

But it helped give Singapore a headstart in the Under-15 class, leading to the vibrancy of the inter-school sailing competition, which attracts more than 300 entries.

Said Tan: "Even the big countries struggle to get the kind of numbers we have at the inter-schools.

"The standard is there for us (at the junior level) because we have a wide base. The junior programme is our strength.

"We've earned it. Because of the results we've consistently produced, you get more."

Said 18-year-old Yukie Yokoyama, who is partnering Samantha Neubronner, 17, in the 420 event at next month's SEA Games: "We're fortunate. We have a solid system today to help us pursue our dreams and that is a result of the effort and voice of the sailors who came before us."

But despite the titles, Singapore sailing is still awaiting a breakthrough in the Olympic classes. Colin Cheng's 15th-place finish in the Laser Standard at the 2012 London Olympics remains the best showing at the senior level so far.

The burden to steer Singapore sailing forward, at least, is accompanied by belief. Said Yukie: "We believe that we are the generation that will make it.

"The SEA Games are important but we want to look further. Our main goal is the world championships and the Olympics. We know it's going to be hard and there's going to be a lot of hard work but it is the ultimate goal."

The pioneers will be there on the waters next month - Tan serving as a member of the jury and Lock following the races up close from his boat.

It may stir up again the muddled memories of the 1970s but it will also create new ones for the men, as they watch those who have come after them, sail to a steady wind.


- 470
Seap Games gold with Jimmy Chua (1973)
- Fireball
Seap Games bronze with Tan Tee Suan (1975)
- Lark
SEA Games gold with Leow Cheng Hong (1983)

Lock Hong Kit has seen success as an athlete, coach and even as a race judge recognised by the International Sailing Federation.

He has competed in no fewer than six classes in international regattas. He was team manager and coach at the 1994 Asian Games, where Ben Tan won Singapore's first sailing title at the quadrennial event.

For him, sailing is about not giving up. At the 1983 SEA Games, a bad start left him and partner Leow Cheng Hong dead last in a particular race. A huge downpour also meant poor visibility and the duo were unable to see the next marker they had to round.

He said: "Fortunately for us, we had a compass in the boat and we remembered the bearings so we sailed just by the bearings alone.

"By the time the storm abated, all the boats were scattered all over the place - but we had gone from last to first."

The pair won a gold that year.

Said Lock: "Sailing is like that.

"Never give up, no matter how bad your position is. It ain't over till the fat lady sings."


- Fireball
SEA Games silver with Siew Shaw Her (1985)
Hobie 16
SEA Games gold with Edwin Low (1983)

Of the countless regattas he competed in, none left a deeper impression on Tan Tee Suan than the 1983 SEA Games at home.

That year, sailing in the Hobie 16 with Edwin Low, the duo were neck and neck with their rivals from Thailand.

They wanted gold, but they needed a win from the last race to get it.

They had just one problem - there was no wind. Their sails limp and their boat barely drifting, helmsman Tan spotted a storm brewing in the distance.

Throwing caution to the wind, quite literally, Tan and Low sailed away from the next marker they were due to round and into the storm.

That gamble paid off. They caught the wind first, well ahead of the rest of the fleet, to finish first and clinch the gold.

"We didn't care about the storm and we were on the verge of capsizing by the end. But we got to the finish line," said Tan, who calls himself a "utility player" when it comes to sailing.

"That's sailing. If you want to win, you've got to go for it. That's the way to do it."


- 420
Asian Games gold with Colin Ng (1998)
- 470
SEA Games gold

With Khor Chek Leong (1983);

With Joe Chan (1987);

With Wong Chiu Yin (1989);

With Charles Lim (1993, 1995);

With Anthony Kiong (1997)

Asian Games silver with Charles Lim (1994)
- Sportsman of the Year (1999)
Two Asian Games medals, nine SEA Games outings, and the only Singapore sailor to have competed at three Olympics - but still Siew Shaw Her thinks he did not dream big enough.

"In my time, the only realistic dream I had was an Asian Games medal," said the 1999 Sportsman of the Year. "I was at three Olympics, but all I wanted was to be there because (anything else) just seemed too unrealistic."

It is why the 58-year-old, whose daughter Savannah is competing at this year's SEA Games, feels today's sailors must be bold enough to believe an Olympic medal is not a far-fetched hope.

In fact, he feels that Olympic success can come as soon as 2020.

"Sailors today start from a very young age, so the skill level is different. The ingredient that is sometimes missing in the big events is the hunger. They must be bold enough to dream big."


- 29er
10th at Isaf Youth World Championships (2014)
- 420
18th at 420 World Championships (2014)

Kieler Woche Regatta: 7th, 3rd in girls' category (2014)

Born just four months apart, Yukie Yokoyama and Samantha Neubronner have sailed together since their Optimist days.

Standing at 1.46m and weighing just 46kg, helm Yukie needs a much heavier crew in order to meet the ideal combined crew weight of at least 110kg for the double-handed 420 dinghy.

Said Samantha, who is 1.65m and weighs 54kg: "I had to bulk up and I'm still trying to now. Our weight works against us and makes it tough in countries where the wind can get really strong."

To make up for their lack of weight, the duo clock extra hours in the gym, in order to be "super fit". They also spend hours tuning and customising their boat.

Weight will likely continue to be an issue for the duo, especially when they progress to the Olympic 470 class. But they are focusing on short-term goals for now: Victory at the SEA Games and podium spots at this year's 420 World Championships and Isaf Youth World Championships.

- The first sailors to represent Singapore at the Olympics competed even before the country gained independence.
Jack Snowden, founding president of the then-Singapore Yachting Association, took part in the 1956 Melbourne Games in the Finn class, while former commodore of the Royal Singapore Yacht Club, Edward Holiday, led a team who included Kenneth Golding and Robert Ho on the Dragon.

Holiday, incidentally, is the oldest Olympian to represent Singapore. He was 56 at the 1956 Games, and competed again at Rome 1960 when he was a month shy of turning 60.

In gusty conditions in Port Phillip Bay, Snowden finished 14th out of 20 while Holiday's team placed last out of a 16-strong fleet.
- Many of Singapore's pioneer generation of sailors have helped nurture their children into elite sailors too.
Three-time Sports Girl of the Year (1991-93) Ng Xuan Hui is the daughter of International Olympic Committee member Ng Ser Miang, who himself won a silver at the 1969 Seap Games.

Tan Wearn Haw, who competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is now chief executive officer of the Singapore Sailing Federation, is the son of Yeok Keong, the Republic's national Optimist coach in the early 1990s.

Lock Hong Kit and daughter Joanne, Wong Ming Chee and daughter Maye-E, and Khor Chek Leong and son Teck Lin are among other parent-child pairs in sailing.

Singapore swimming
The Sunday Times, 24 May 2015

1960s and 1970s: THE GOLDEN ERA

A period of dominance for Singapore swimming, with 69 golds won at the South-east Asian Peninsular Games.

Patricia Chan, Tan Thuan Heng, and then Junie Sng led the way, backed by legendary coaches Chan Ah Kow and Kee Soon Bee. Sng’s two golds at the 1978 Asian Games were also Singapore swimming’s first golds at the Asiad since Neo Chwee Kok’s four-gold haul at the 1951 edition


Sng continued her dominance with 17 of Singapore’s 45 golds at the SEA Games.

But it was also during this decade where male swimmers Ang Peng Siong, David Lim, Oon Jin Teik and Oon Jin Gee rose to the fore, bringing success at both the Asian and SEA Games.

Ang famously clocked a world-best 22.69sec in the 50m freestyle in 1982. He also won an Asian Games gold in the 100m freestyle that year.


An era defined by the aquatic brilliance of Joscelin Yeo. From 1993 to 1999, she won or had a hand in 25 of Singapore swimming’s 29 golds at the SEA Games.

But gold eluded the Republic at the Asian Games, with only one silver and two bronzes in three Asiads.


The early 2000s was marked by boardroom controversy, with calls for the management, some of whom having served for more than two decades, to step down.

But in the pool, Singapore’s swimmers continued to deliver, with 82 golds from seven SEA Games. In this time, Tao Li won two Asian Games golds, and finished fifth in the 100m butterfly final at the 2008 Olympics.

Last year, Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first Commonwealth Games swimming medal with a silver in the 100m fly, behind world champion Chad le Clos. He went on to win one gold, one silver and one bronze at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon.

Inheriting the golden DNA
The third of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes Next week: Football
By Rohit BrijnathThe Sunday Times, 24 May 2015

Sporting history, so you may think, should not just be preserved but paraded in the athlete's home. Shining trophies in glass cases. Certificates framed like law degrees. Medals draped on a wall like golden paintings.

Except that the four athletes gathered in a room at the OCBC Aquatic Centre, who own 100 SEA Games golds between them, do not flaunt their treasure.

Joscelin Yeo swears, err, umm, that her mother used to keep her 40 golds. Quah Zheng Wen, 18, says his mum doesn't like clutter, so his single one is in a vase in the attic. Ang Peng Siong insists his 20 are in his old house somewhere. Patricia Chan says her 39 are safely stored in a special box.

Maybe what they're trying to tell us is that it's not the medals that matter, it's the winning of them that they cherish. Medals may lose their polish but never the memories of what these athletes did and where they came from.

Chan, 61, can still remember being nine, climbing onto the bonnet of a car at 5am, then across a seven-foot fence - with the aid of her coaching father - and into the unlighted pool at the Chinese Swimming Club "steaming with chlorine". Think of it as a beautiful desperation.

Ang, 54, dived into more glittering waters, as a boy "mucking around" in pools where he found coins and gold chains stuck in old filtration systems. That gold had to be returned; but gold that he later earned he would keep.

Chan swam in a no-Speedo era; Yeo swam in a no-YouTube time where she had to record the Olympics at home on video. Time separates these swimmers but excellence unites them.

When a measured Yeo, 36, speaks of swimming she sounds like a mermaid: "I loved being in the water. I found swimming challenging because it doesn't come as naturally as walking or running. The challenge of mastering a stroke intrigued me."

Quah is a child of the present, as lean as a Malacca cane, his motivation as pure as the water that must run in his veins. He's had the benefit of covered pools and sports science, yet it's not perks that drive him but perseverance. "Even without all this," he says with grave intensity, "I would still be in the sport."

Swimming - a bit like gymnastics - allows for multiple medals to be won in a single Games. In weightlifting you can win only one at each Games. So, too, in hockey. Yet it is still astonishing that swimming has won roughly 37 per cent of Singapore's total golds and has only once not won a gold at a Games. These people, and their sport, have set the standard.

In this room, cramped with talent, the swimmers dissect their waterworld into brilliant parts. Even now you can feel Chan's ambition as she describes her attitude on the blocks: "Take no prisoners. Silver and bronze medals never interested me." She only won gold.

Yeo talks eloquently of her preparation, describing a visualisation - where she is able to see where she is in a race - so vividly it is almost eerie. Think of it this way. Think of her imagining her race and holding a stopwatch. Think of her swimming the perfect race in her mind and stopping the stopwatch as she touches the wall. The time she sees in her mind is exactly the time on the stopwatch.

All of them swam at a SEA Games at home, all of them are stuffed with memories. Ang, a man of gravitas, can still see "crowds standing on the rooftop of Toa Payoh (stadium). You could feel the intensity, it was electrifying. You know all these people are watching and wanting to hear Majulah Singapura." This is the power of athletes, to have a national anthem played just because of you.

Quah, 18, listens to stories of history even as he readies to make his own. Singapore swimmers have owned the SEA Games, had scattered success at the Asian Games and still dream of Olympic glory. We have more pools yet need a wider pool. We have science yet, says Quah, perhaps we need a hardier spirit.

What he found in a trip to America was foreign swimmers "who could just step up and race under any conditions. Here we're very comfortable in our element. They can race up to three times in three weeks and swimmers here, me included, are not as accustomed to this multiple shaves-and-race culture".

Quah, who has 12 events at these SEA Games, knows what he has to do in the water and he knows what he doesn't like about his life in the water. It's those 4.50am wake-up calls long before daylight even shows up. Yeo and Chan, both of whom rose at 4.30am, laugh in agreement, grateful that they at least are no longer prisoners of their alarm clocks.

Ang's pet peeve wasn't a clock but the cold, especially the chilly waters he dived into to train in Mexico City in the early 1980s. But perhaps he should be grateful the water was clean. After all, at the 1969 Seap Games in Rangoon, Burma, Chan can remember pieces of algae floating in the water, the sort of seaweed sandwich swimmers would rather avoid as they surface for air.

Ah well, on the way to greatness all sorts of challenges must be devoured.


- SEAP/SEA Games
1965-1973: 39 golds
- Asian Games
1966: 100m back, 200m IM,

4x100m free bronzes

1970: 400m free, 4x100m free 4x100m medley silvers; 100m free, 200m free bronzes
- Sportswoman of the Year
1968, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972

Forty-plus years later you can still hear the disappointment echoing in Pat Chan's voice. By 1972, she had won the Sportswoman of the Year award five times consecutively. Which is when, she says, a new rule was instituted: No athlete could win the award more than five times.

To her, it didn't make sense: it was like telling a champion there is a ceiling on winning, a limit to achievement. Disappointed, she decided to stop swimming in 1972: "It stripped the joy out of breaking barriers, it negated the whole point of setting new goals and standards. I'd had enough, so I walked away."

Except Singapore was hosting the SEA Games the following year and Chan says she received a phone call from a senior person asking that she return to the pool.

In what was the "hardest year" of her swimming life, both mentally and emotionally, she competed again.

One last SEA Games.

Six more medals.

All gold, but of course.


- SEA Games
1977-1993: 20 golds
- Asian Games
1982: 100m free gold,

100m fly bronze

1986: 100m free bronze,

4x100m free bronze

1990: 50m free silver, 4x100m free bronze
- Sportsman of the Year
1983, 1984 and 1985

Strong, sober, swift, Ang Peng Siong wears pride more comfortably than he does regret. In 1982, he did what no swimming Singaporean has done: He set the fastest time on the planet. Unequalled on the earth that year in the 50m freestyle. Two years later was the Los Angeles Olympics, a medal was possible, except the event was not included.

But Ang just shrugs, his memories are happier ones. Of the 1983 home Games and the 100m freestyle.

He was in Lane 4, compatriot Tay Khoon Hean in Lane 3, and Indonesian Lukman Niode in Lane 5. The Singaporeans stitched together a strategy: If Ang - who was always going to win - swam at the right speed, and did not get too far ahead, he could block Lukman's view of where Tay was on the way back to the finish.

Ang did exactly that, Tay won silver, and this is what the great man remembers most: Teamwork.

And just by the way: that 22.69 sec he swam on Aug 20, 1982 in the 50m free. It's still the national record. Thirty-three years later.


- SEA Games
1991-2005: 40 golds
- Asian Games
1994: 100m fly bronze

2002: 100m fly bronze
- Sportswoman of the Year
1994, 1996 and 2000

Joscelin Yeo's memory is full of gold. So many years and Games and races and 40 victories. And yet she also has style and grace. For when asked to pick a memory, a moment, from a Games at home, she reaches for Ang Peng Siong's 50m freestyle.

"I think it ended up being his final race. He was our team captain, we all knew what was at stake and what he was trying to do. And we were all up there behind him, everybody in the stands was up there behind him, just kind of willing him on.

"Sometimes I think about it and I can still see the race and it gives me goose bumps. That's the kind of effect you have swimming on home ground. Everybody there cheering you and willing you on."


"There's always pressure. Athletes have to deal with pressure. But I see the crowd as an advantage."

Evidently she did. Ang Peng Siong won his gold in 50m that year. Yeo simply won nine.


- SEA Games
2011: 1 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze

2013: 2 golds, 3 silvers, 1 bronze

- Sportsboy of the Year

Eventually, finally, Quah Zheng Wen doesn't want to just "go to an Olympics and be a participant". He doesn't want to be there just "for the experience". He doesn't want to be "somebody standing by the pool".

He wants to be somebody.

At 18, he is learning. About himself and the competition. About how American swimmers - as he discovered on a trip there - travel across their country, compete in different weather, in uncovered pools, in varying environments.

And they are always ready to race: "No matter what, they try their best."

It is a sort of mental conditioning Singapore swimmers have to find. For as Quah says: "Here I have seen first-hand with some of our swimmers that when they're faced with a little bit of difficulty they just kind of back down. They see someone faster and can't really comprehend it. But you just have to get over that mental barrier to beat someone who is faster."

In a way, when he says these words, he's also reminding himself of what he has to do.

Fast Facts
- Swimming is one sport which has seen many siblings compete alongside each other.
There were the famous Chan siblings Vicky, Bernard, Alex, Patricia, Roy and Mark, the Oon brothers Jin Teik and Jin Gee, as well as Desmond and Gerald Koh.

The current team also boasts the three Quah siblings Ting Wen, Zheng Wen and Jing Wen.
- In 1982, Ang Peng Siong won the 50m freestyle at the US National Championships in a world-best time of 22.69sec. It is currently the oldest national record.
- In 2009, Speedo invented the now banned full-body rubber suits, which led to many world records falling. Singapore records were not spared, and 12 of the 40 national marks set in 2009 remain unsurpassed. The suits were outlawed just a year later.

Singapore football
The Sunday Times, 31 May 2015

1960s and 1970s: THE HURT LOCKER

Midfielder Majid Ariff made the Asian All-Stars team in 1966. But he remains the only local footballer to have featured for that team.

When Singapore hosted the 1973 Seap Games, Dollah Kassim and Quah Kim Song led the Lions to the semi-finals, but they fell 3-5 on penalties to South Vietnam. They shared bronze with Burma in 1975 after the match ended 2-2.

The hurt was curtailed somewhat in 1977, when the Lions tasted Malaysia Cup success for the first time in 12 years following an epic 3-2 win over Penang.


Singapore came close to the gold on three separate occasions, but lost the final each time in 1983, 1985 and 1989.

In the 1983 edition on home soil, Salim Moin and Fandi Ahmad starred for the hosts, only to be edged out 2-1 by Thailand in the final.

Two years later, the War Elephants were triumphant yet again, this time by a 2-0 margin in Bangkok. The 1989 final proved to be the most painful, as Singapore were humiliated 3-1 by arch-rivals Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.


Singapore faced disappointment in the semi-finals for three straight editions, settling for the bronze each time in 1991, 1993 and 1995.

But there was glory in Malaysian tournaments, which culminated in the unforgettable year of 1994 - the birth of the Dream Team. Powered by forwards Abbas Saad and Fandi Ahmad, Singapore stormed to a historic Malaysian league and Cup victory.

The decade ended on a high, when defender R. Sasikumar's "Shoulder Blade of God" goal sealed a maiden Asean Football Federation (AFF) title.


Singapore continued their poor run at the SEA Games (by now an Under-23 event) with group-stage exits in 2001 and 2003, bowing out before the official opening ceremony.

Another group exit followed in 2005 before bronzes in 2007, 2009 and 2013 provided some consolation. While the Young Lions struggled, the seniors tasted unprecedented success. Aided by the services of naturalised citizens, the Lions won the AFF Cup again in 2004, 2007 and 2012 under Serbian coach Raddy Avramovic.

But beyond the region, the senior team were forgettable. Despite making it to the third round of the World Cup qualifiers for the first time in 2007, Singapore slipped to a record low of 165 in the Fifa rankings in 2013. They are now 162nd.

Wanted: Fit and disciplined Lions
The final of a four-part Sunday Times SEA Games series tracing the journey of four sports through the athletes' eyes
By Sanjay Nair, The Sunday Times, 31 May 2015

Four decades have passed, but Seak Poh Leong clearly remembers the day he tried to outsmart national football coach Mike Walker - and failed miserably.

The then-Lions captain, along with team-mate Mohamad Noh, had arranged job interviews (the players were all amateurs) to coincide with the Englishman's gruelling fitness session in the build-up to the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games.

They returned at lunchtime, just as their team-mates staggered back from training to their temporary accommodation in Toa Payoh.

But the only item on the menu for the duo was a personal workout with Walker, who dished out his favourite drill - running 20 laps of 400m, under 60sec each time, with minimal break in between.

"It was noon, scorching heat, but Mike said if we didn't do it, we wouldn't be back in the team," recalled Seak, still sprightly and with little sign of greying hair at 62.

As with most regional teams at the time, the mantra was "fitness first, egos second", a benchmark set by the 1973 Games gold medallists Burma.

Sitting next to Seak as he recounts the story, national Under-23 striker Irfan Fandi chuckles wryly at the prospect of a run under the sun.

"I'd probably fail badly - I have a problem running laps," said the 17-year-old son of former Singapore hotshot Fandi Ahmad.

"Most of our fitness work is on the field, and involves a ball. The game has changed so much now."

Yes, it has.

But one cannot help but wonder how the current crop would cope with legendary Singapore coach Choo Seng Quee's training regimen, which harnessed 1960s talents like Majid Ariff and Lee Kok Seng.

Perhaps 1.87m-tall Irfan would boost his aerial prowess heading leather footballs soaked in water.

Or would Young Lions captain Al-Qaasimy Rahman be even more vocal if he had to lead his squad in singing the National Anthem at the top of their lungs at sunrise?

Today, a mini-army of sports scientists, nutritionists and physiotherapists surround Irfan and his team-mates.

Instead of stop-watches and weathered boots that require the studs to be screwed on, they don lightweight shoes and special vests that track heart rates, distance covered and average speeds during training.

The times are a-changing. As Seak put it succinctly, football in the 1970s was about "discipline, long balls, and running... plenty of running."

And, of course, the Kallang Roar.

The cauldron of noise at the old National Stadium was fuelled by an iconic Lions line-up.

In between bites of curry puff and crackers, the fans' appetite was sated by "gelek" dribbler Dollah Kassim, acrobatic forward Quah Kim Song and "banana kick" specialist S. Rajagopal - all heroes of the 1977 Malaysia Cup-winning outfit.

They adopted an attacking 4-2-4 formation, pressing high up the field to win the ball back and pounce on retreating backlines.

Sometimes, they left gaps in their own half.

"The crowd didn't mind us losing some matches as long as we stuck to attacking football," said Seak, the Lions' youngest captain at 20.

"I remember fans being happier with a 4-3 defeat than a 0-0 draw."

As the game got faster, tactics evolved to place greater emphasis on midfield superiority.

With a nascent attack of Fandi and V. Sundramoorthy spearheading a 4-4-2 set-up, Singapore reached the SEA Games final in 1983, 1985 and 1989.

Twice, they fell to Thailand, led by wondrous striker Piyapong Pue-on, and once to Malaysia, boasting hit-men Mokhtar Dahari and Dollah Salleh.

"Those were some of the most intense games I've ever played," said Sundram, 49, whose full-bodied mullet has been replaced by a short haircut with greying sideburns.

"Even as forwards, we had to drop back to pack the midfield because the more players you had there, you generally controlled the game better."

Try as they might, the Lions could never get their paws on the SEA Games gold, making their last appearance in the final in 1989.

Still, whether it was two in midfield during Seak's days or a pack of four when Sundram dazzled, there was one constant.

The Singapore team those days never backed down from a fight.

Following in the bootsteps of Syed Mutalib and Robert Sim in the 1970s, the next decade witnessed more unforgiving tacklers like Borhan Abu Samah, Sudiat Dali and Malek Awab.

"Something that I think that's missing among our footballers today is the pride and passion," said midfielder Malek, 54, who featured at seven different SEA Games.

"When I put on the national jersey, I was willing to bleed and break bones for my country."

He was first to tackles, but the ever-affable Malek was nearly an hour late for this interview at the Singapore Sports School, earning a gentle rebuke from former team-mate Sundram.

In their prime in the 1990s, the duo featured in matches worthy of repeat YouTube viewings.

Few will forget Fandi's diving header that sank Kedah, sparked by two ferocious tackles from Malek. Or Sundram's overhead kick against Brunei, where the ball was played out from the back.

"We played as a team - everyone pressed to win back the ball, and everyone was involved in our build-up play," Sundram noted.

Nodding in approval, Seak added: "Unless you have Messi or Ronaldo, you can't just depend on one or two players to win matches."

Today, intricate 4-2-3-1 and 3-3-3-1 formations are in vogue.

Full-backs are expected to cross like wingers, goalkeepers must have two good feet, and centre-forwards should be both mobile and powerful.

With Thailand's re-emergence as regional kingpins, Singapore - once again - find themselves playing catch-up, not helped by a stagnating youth pipeline.

Only three of the eight local S-League clubs run youth programmes, while the National Football Academy has been criticised for its limited outreach and inconsistent curriculum.

Seak, formerly the director of coaching at the Football Association of Singapore, wants to see more kids playing the game regularly, and at a younger age.

He said: "This is, by far, the country's most popular sport.

"We religiously follow European leagues, yet can't get our very own game right.

"Right now, for the most part, we don't have the right people or the right programmes to run football."

Finding more uncompromising coaches in the vein of Walker would be a good place to start.


- Seap Games
Bronze: 1975

He was the tireless dynamo in midfield who allowed his more skilful team-mates to flourish.

As Dollah Kassim and Arshad Khamis skipped past one opponent after another, and Quah Kim Song threw his body at odd angles to connect with diving headers at the end of crosses, Seak Poh Leong stationed himself near the centre circle.

He was the protector of the backline, using his keen football sense to intercept through-balls and close down dangerous adversaries.

As former Singapore coach Trevor Hartley aptly put it, Seak "held things together".

The midfielder, who was the Lions' youngest captain at age 20, may have never tasted success at the international level. But he has fond memories of being part of the team that inspired the Kallang Roar.

"I wouldn't swop my experiences with guys like Dollah, Kim Song and Mat Noh for any medal or trophy," said the 62-year-old businessman, who also served the game in various youth coaching roles at the Football Association of Singapore and Geylang International.

"It was a joy to win back the ball and pass it to those talents.

"I had a front-row seat to their magic show."


- SEA Games
Silver: 1983, 1985, 1989

Bronze: 1991, 1993, 1995
- Malaysia Cup
Champion (with Kuala Lumpur): 1987, 1988, 1989

Champion (with Singapore): 1994
- Malaysian League
Champion (with KL): 1988

Champion (with Singapore): 1994

Before he became a firm crowd favourite as a tireless midfielder, Malek Awab was heckled by fans at the National Stadium - for blocking their view.

As a 15-year-old with big dreams but a small wallet, he sold kuachi (melon seeds) at the storied Kallang venue during football matches to earn a living.

Although he was scolded as he went about his job in the terraces, a dream to become a professional player was born.

In school though, he was forced to play badminton as teachers told him that he was too small to play football. But a trial for Farrer Park United's youth team would change his life.

He may stand at a mere 1.66m, but Malek's energetic displays made him stand tall on the pitch.

"There were some people who didn't believe in me, even later in my career, so I played to prove them wrong," the 54-year-old says with his trademark toothy grin.

"There's always a smile on my face. But I like to think that I was a beast on the field."


- SEA Games
Silver: 1983, 1985

Bronze: 1993
- Malaysia Cup
Champion (with Kedah): 1990
- Malaysian Super League
Champion (LionsXII coach): 2013

Mention V. Sundramoorthy's name to Singapore football fans and the memory of his overhead kick against Brunei in 1993 inevitably crops up.

But for "The Dazzler" himself, the goal that stands out in his 17-year career was scored against Malaysia's "Spider-Man" at the 1983 SEA Games.

In front of 55,000 raucous fans at the old National Stadium, Sundram fondly recalls his 47th-minute strike against goalkeeper R. Arumugam, who earned the nickname for his exceptionally long arms and reflex saves. The custodian was tragically killed in a car crash in 1988.

Sundram's strike proved to be the decider in a 2-1 group-stage win over their arch-rivals, who boasted top Malaysian stars like Santokh Singh, Zainal Abidin and Lim Teong Kim.

Sundram, whose team went on to claim the silver, said: "Fandi (Ahmad) challenged for the ball in the box. I anticipated the second ball, beat my marker to it and volleyed it into the top corner. It was the one time I saw Arumugam helpless."


Picture this: You are the youngest player of a team charged with ending Singapore's long chase for a first SEA Games football gold.

You are playing in front of an expectant home crowd, wearing the same jersey number of your father, arguably the country's most famous player.

Oh, and it doesn't matter that your dad never won the gold - you are expected to.

Welcome to the pressure-cooker world of 17-year-old Irfan Fandi.

The public first caught a glimpse of his talent at the 2013 Lion City Cup at the Jalan Besar Stadium.

Faced with the pressure of living up to Fandi Ahmad's legacy, the teenager struck against the Under-15s of Arsenal and German club Eintracht Frankfurt.

Apart from his finishing, the 1.87m striker has impressed with his physical strength, aerial power and sound technique.

"Honestly, I'm quite used to the pressure and expectations people have of me," says Irfan, who has been attached to Chilean top-tier outfit Universidad Catolica since 2013.

"I just don't want to let my team down. Coach Aide (Iskandar) has picked me in spite of my age, so my aim is to prove him right."

Fandi picked 17 as his lucky number because one and seven adds up to eight, which means prosperity in Chinese. With Irfan taking on the same digits, Singapore fans hope this will translate into goals and gold.

- Hariss Harun became the youngest player to don the national team jersey after coming on as a substitute in a 2007 friendly against North Korea, aged just 16 years and 217 days.
The central midfielder was a key figure at the last SEA Games in 2013, scoring a brace in the 2-1 bronze-medal play-off victory against defending champions Malaysia.
- Singapore's biggest wins and losses have both been against Asean opposition.
At the 2007 Asean championship, Noh Alam Shah netted seven times in an 11-0 rout of Laos.

But, back in 1969, then-powerhouses Burma thumped the Lions 9-0 in the Merdeka tournament.
- The host nation has failed to reach the semi-finals of the SEA Games football tournament on only four occasions: 1981 - Philippines, 1999 - Brunei, 2005 - Philippines, 2013 - Myanmar.

Want to catch the Games on the go? Download the 28th SEA Games TV app at or stay tuned to our YouTube channel here:!
Posted by SEA GAMES 2015 on Monday, June 1, 2015


Lifetime of memories for this 'kampung boy' writer
By Peter Siow For The Straits Times, 30 May 2015

1973. It was a time when foreign talent was unheard of. And overseas training still a novelty. When four-room Housing Board flats averaged $15,000 and mid-sized saloon cars much less.

It was also the year when Singapore first opened its doors to an international multi-sports event - the 7th South-east Asian Peninsular Games. The new National Stadium laid out the red carpet for 1,600 competitors from seven countries. In the next eight days, they crossed swords in 16 sports.

The modern stadium was a dream venue to go faster, higher and stronger. Built at a cost of $32 million, it could seat 55,000 and had first-class facilities. Lush football pitch, tick. Eight-lane tartan running track, tick. Auditorium, tick. Weights room, tick. State-of-the-art electronic scoreboards, tick. And many more.

When the biennial event came to our shores 42 years ago, I was a 23-year-old reporter who had never been abroad before. No kidding. So I was both amused and puzzled to hear so many foreign languages spoken. It was all Greek to me. But their supreme human endeavour spoke volumes and transcended languages.

Frankly, I don't remember the intense action much. I can't say for sure if their eyes were popping or their mouths wide open and gulping for air to fuel their muscles as they streaked to the finish line. Neither can I recall if they cried unashamedly. Or hugged their coaches till they turned blue.

What sticks in my mind were their accomplishments. Together, the foreign athletes and locals helped lift the human spirit and we who witnessed them were enriched.

Among them was home-grown Patricia Chan, who interrupted lives all over the island whenever swimming was screened on television. Her thirst for success was insatiable as she added six more gold medals to the 33 already sitting prettily in her trophy cabinet.

Then there was Elaine Sng, Chan's team-mate and the older sister of Junie. The unassuming freestyler kept the success wheels turning briskly with five golds, including an Asian Games record in the 400m freestyle.

Together with other swimmers, a diver and the water polo team, they contributed 23 of Singapore's 45 golds - just two short of champions Thailand.

The Land of Smiles did not exactly look at their rivals with a kindly expression in track and field. Anat Ratanapol was their meanest machine. He gunned them down in the mother of all races of any athletics competition: the 100 metres sprint, crossing the line in 10.5sec with hardly any hint of sweat.

He added the 200m for good measure. Anat's reign of terror began in 1967 and ended in 1977 and brought him 13 golds in all.

Two other foreign athletes who remained on top of their craft for what also seemed like aeons were Burma's indestructible Jimmy Crampton and the evergreen Jennifer Tin Lay.

Crampton, the undisputed middle distance king, amassed 12 golds from 1969 to 1979. Not to be outdone, Jennifer heaved and huffed to success in shot put (nine golds from 1967 to 1983) and discus (six golds from 1973 to 1983).

But it was home-bred hurdler Heather Merican - she of the drop-dead glamorous looks and model figure - who set hearts fluttering. It did not matter that she was already a mother of two when she claimed the 100m and 200m hurdles double. Just thinking of her poise and technique as she cleared the hurdles effortlessly still gives me goose bumps.

Also memorable was the Games Village, featuring four 25-storey blocks in Toa Payoh. It was the first time that the Games athletes were housed in high-rise apartments. Previously, they were put up in school hostels or low-rise accommodation.

But it was not all cold bricks and mortar. The warm kampung feeling was everywhere. Look out the windows, and the athletes could see patches of vegetable gardens beside many ground-level residences of the estate and dogs, cats and chickens roamed freely.

The media were taken on a tour of the flats before the athletes' arrival. The experience was both frightening and exhilarating for a kampung boy like myself. Seeing cars and buses reduced to matchbox size from the penthouse was thrilling even though my knees were knocking furiously.

I've suffered from vertigo ever since. But I will put up with this slight inconvenience all over again for the rich legacy of the event and the Grand Old Lady of stadiums left me.

Thank you for the memories.

The writer joined The Straits Times in 1967 and over the next four decades, covered the Olympics, Asian Games and SEA Games for ST and other SPH publications like Streats and The New Paper. He retired last year.


Ten golds turn Singapore Games into Sng Games
By Suresh Nair For The Straits Times, 30 May 2015

SINGING in the rain was the four-word headline on the front page of The Straits Times as the slippery skies cruelly opened up to almost mar President C.V. Devan Nair declaring open the 12th SEA Games at the National Stadium on May 28, 1983.

What looked more like the "Umbrella Games" got under way after an hour's delay in front of 35,000 (much less than the expected 60,000) spirited Singaporeans. And Alan Hubbard poignantly described the wettest-ever opening ceremony with these words, "the only dampness most of us were aware of was around the eyes".

It was, in accordance to the renewed alphabetical rotation of hosting duties, Brunei's turn. But because it was preparing for its independence from Britain, Singapore took over, with the Games Village extraordinarily set at the Nanyang Technological Institute in Jurong - present-day NTU.

Almost like a wet blanket, 1983 stood out for political significance too; Cambodia returned, as the People's Republic of Kampuchea after an eight-year absence since the Khmer Rouge seized power.

I remember the late sprint champion Tan Eng Yoon, Singapore's first gold medallist at the 1959 South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games. He was then 55 years old, drippy and drizzly, as he sprinted up the 145 steps to plunge the flaming torch into the stadium cauldron.

But over the next 10 days, tears welled in the eyes, as a Singaporean swimmer made unparalleled waves with 10 golds. The singular icon of the 1983 Games: 19-year-old Junie Sng Poh Leng.

Like the crest of a tsunami, she swept past 1,823 athletes in the 18 sporting events from eight countries - Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Burma, the Philippines, Thailand, Kampuchea and Singapore.

Having covered sports for close to three decades, I'd rank her as the most serious Singapore-born world-beater, if not for her unusual early retirement.

She made her SEA Games debut even before finishing primary school at 11, in 1975.

Eight years later, she retired in perhaps the best grandstand finish ever, after winning 10 gold medals over 10 days. In the process, she became the first woman in Asia to swim the 800m freestyle in under nine minutes.

She is, in a nutshell, my Singapore idol. Simply because no athlete, on home soil, has ever emulated her feat, not before in 1973 or later in 1993, or I ever doubt even in 2015 or thereafter.

She was, like Singapore's first "Golden Girl" Patricia Chan (who took to the pool at 11 at the 1965 Kuala Lumpur Games and retired at 19), a supreme symbol of swimming Singaporeans: young, disciplined and determined to succeed.

Junie's feat was a mermaid-like meridian, rarely to be repeated unless another tsunami strikes. In today's sporting climate, at 19, the athletes are just about to rise to the big occasion, like what US-based Singaporean swim prodigy Joseph Schooling may well be doing this time.

Yes, I remember, too, Junie accounted for close to a third of Singapore's final medal haul, which was 38 golds (38 silvers and 58 bronzes, too) to finish fourth in the standings.

Another 19-year-old regional wonder who burned the tracks with a golden sprint show was Lydia de Vega, ranked Asia's fastest woman in the 1980s. Likewise, another pin-up girl from the Philippines, the sexy four-time world bowling champ Olivia "Bong" Coo proved unbeatable.

Other local stars were Henry Tan, Ronnie Ng and S.Y. Loh, who broke the world record in the trios with 3,620 pinfalls, and Wong Shoon Keat, who shocked the region's best singles shuttlers.

Football, unfailingly, garners the loudest roar and after the drenched opening ceremony, the much-awaited Causeway clash with neighbours Malaysia should have made it a water polo duel!

The Lions warmed thousands of hearts with a 2-1 win, courtesy of Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy, the only two Singaporean footballers who made their European professional mark.

But the Kallang Roar was disappointingly muted, on the last day of the Games on June 6, when they went down 1-2 to Thailand in the final, continuing the curse of never winning the gold.

Thankfully, the water polo wonders proved to be Singapore's biggest team face-savers, continuing their extraordinary unbeaten stint since the sport's debut in 1965.

And, in my mind, what opened the heavens in a flood of memories, 32 years ago, was a made-in-Singapore 10-gold hero, who rightly used home-ground advantage to splash the 1983 event as the "Sng Games".

The writer made his writing debut at the 1979 SEA Games in Jakarta and, over more than three decades, covered multiple international sporting events for the SPH stable of newspapers


Not even Yeo's feats erased the anguish of Lions' loss
By Marc Lim Sports Editor, 30 May 2015

JUNE 17, 1993 is a night I will never forget. It was when I saw grown men cry, a night when I discovered just how powerful and wonderful sport can be.

The SEA Games football semi-final match between Singapore and Myanmar was the event of the 1993 Singapore SEA Games.

Young swimmer Joscelin Yeo may have been making waves at the Toa Payoh swimming pool, but Kallang was definitely the place to be.

Standing on the steps of the stadium's East Entrance pre-match was as surreal an experience as any. It was as if the National Stadium was a giant magnet, sucking in fans on foot, in cars, on motorbikes, in every direction, from as far as the eye could see.

The mood was one of optimism. Could this finally be the team to win SEA Games gold?

After all, this was a side boasting the predatory powers of Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy and the best footballers of a generation.

For a 17-year-old brought up on the Malaysia Cup football fever, the atmosphere was one to savour. For a budding reporter interning for The Straits Times, it was a dream come true.

The match started well enough for Singapore, who raced to a 2-0 lead after 23 minutes. But then disaster struck.

Two own goals by Lim Tong Hai stunned a packed Kallang into silence. Yet the drama was far from over.

In extra time, Win Aung gave Myanmar the lead, only to see Steven Tan equalise for the hosts to force a penalty shoot-out.

But there was no joy in the ensuing spot kicks as the Lions lost 4-5.

Joy, jubilation, sorrow, despair, relief and finally just emptiness. To see an entire stadium go through such a range of emotions in just three hours made me realise that capturing the drama of sport was what I wanted to do for a career.

Public apologies made the news in the following days. And although the manner of defeat did take away some shine of an otherwise glittering Singapore performance on home soil, there was still much to celebrate.

Swimmer Yeo, only 14, was undoubtedly the star of the Games, winning nine gold medals to stake her claim as the queen of South-east Asian swimming.

Her haul helped the hosts bag a record 50 gold medals to finish fourth among eight countries.

But swimming was not the only sport which delivered.

Wushu was a surprise top performer as the exponents, led by Picasso Tan, who would later pursue a career in acting following his Games success, harvested seven golds.

Bodybuilding was also the toast of the town as it muscled its way to six golds, with Azman Abdullah, who won the 1993 World Amateur Bodybuilding Championships middleweight crown, among the winners.

The Singapore Games would also announce the arrival of another future world champion.

Malaysian bowler Shalin Zulkifli was only 15 when she made her SEA Games debut in Singapore. Yet the London-born kegler, who would win the World Tenpin Masters title in 2001, won two golds, including the women's masters, dethroning home favourite Grace Young along the way.

It would be another 22 years before Singapore would host another SEA Games. But the feats of Yeo and the mistakes of Lim are still a much talked-about chapter in SEA Games history.

Marc Lim was a Straits Times intern during the 1993 SEA Games. He became the paper's sports editor in 2012

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