The ending of Singapore’s winning streak in SEA Games waterpolo is noteworthy. For all our leaders’ much vaunted belief in the virtue of team work, at the expense of individualism, it will be the local individuals who will carry the flag for this country. Teamwork does not seem to work so well in Singapore sports. Looks like individuals who dare to excel, challenge and be different – in spite of pressure to give up or conform – may save the country from group-think stagnation.
But, first, let’s talk about winning streaks in local or regional sports. The ending of the 54-year winning streak in waterpolo – hitherto Singapore’s safe deposit gold in the SEA Games – was inevitable. Question of when. Nothing can be taken for granted. Our neighbours have huge populations. The Indonesians are the new kingpins.
I recall Malaya’s dominance in the Thomas Cup badminton tournament. Right up to 1963, the Cup had never left Malayan hands. Then came the Indonesians in 1963. In the Malayan team were players like the Choong brothers from Penang – Eddie and David – the all-conquering heroes in the All-England championships. Few people gave the Indonesians a chance.
As a Geylang kid, I happened to be at the Singapore Badminton Hall in Guillemard Road during the historic finals. I somehow sneaked into the stadium – when the security guards were not looking – to watch Indonesia’s Ferry Sonneville and Tan Joe Hock overwhelm the Malayans. Only Teh Kew San, together with Tan Yee Khan/Ng Boon Bee in the doubles, put up any kind of resistance against the Indonesians who beat the Malayans 6-3 and brought the Cup to a tumultuous homecoming in Jakarta. Eddie Choong, who came into the tournament as the All-England individual champion and men’s doubles champions with David, was weeping away after the collapse. Sonneville had to go over to console his erstwhile opponent.
The Indonesians went on to dominate – with their legendary stars like Rudy Hartono and Liem Swie King – until the Chinese appeared on the scene and snatched the throne. And, in turn, the Chinese supremacy was later punctured by Japan and South Korea and even Denmark.
I’m afraid, apart from a mini-spell in regional squash during the time of Zainal “Bunga Gigi” Abidin and Peter Hill, water polo may well be the last time true-blue Singaporeans were champions in any kind of “team” sports. So a million thanks to Tan Eng Liang, Tan Eng Bock and Eric Yeo for the fantastic memories. You were the real heroes to whom true-blue Singaporeans salute in eternal awe.
And I’m also afraid that from here on, Singapore waterpolo will take a dive and become part of coffeeshop conversations among sports aficionados about the good old days, like the way older Singapore soccer fans place the Malaysia Cup years.
Let’s hope not. Otherwise, the SportsHub will be a white elephant, whoever the CEO is because no one can perform miracles trying to attract mainstream sports lovers.
Singapore has to reboot its sports at every level. Whatever new plans or programmes it develops, it must bear in mind a number of things.
Only mainstream sports can draw crowds or enthuse people
With all due respect to Paralympians and people good at elitist, ethnic or esoteric sports, it is the traditional hot item sports which will bring out sports fans. Do whatever it takes to get our soccer team back on the regional map. We don’t have other mass sports like baseball, Australian football or basketball to talk about.
Olympians or Asian champions inspire
First, it was Ang Peng Siong. At one time the world’s fastest swimmer in the men’s 50m freestyle, he represented Singapore at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, where he won the ‘B’ consolation final in the 100m freestyle which was no mean feat. Next came Joseph Schooling, our first Olympic gold medallist, who beat a strong field in the 100m butterfly final in Rio de Janeiro.
Tan Howe Liang lifted Singapore’s first ever Olympic medal in Rome. The weightlifter came in second in the lightweight category, becoming the first Singaporean to bring home an Olympic Games medal.
Stop creating fake imported sports stars
If we are so obsessed about jumpstarting the process of putting ourselves on the mainstream world sporting map, we may as well follow the footsteps of Peter Lim (Singapore boss of Italian team Valencia) and buy Everton, the mostly mid-table Premier League soccer team, or, if we really want to splash our Temasek reserves, their hugely more successful and famous city rivals, Liverpool. Even Liverpool’s youth teams can fill the SportsHub, I think. Not PRC ping pong transplants whose names our non-Chinese citizens or local Chinese do not know how to pronounce.
Make Made-In-Singapore a non-negotiable requirement in every sports-development policy
Everything starts from here. That does not mean we have to look inward all the time or at certain ethnic motherlands to make up the numbers. No. Singapore has a diaspora across the globe. Our people migrate or marry non-Singaporeans, non-Asians. Tap this vigorously – Made-In-Singapore or Made-In-Singapore-Plus pool.
Name places after our sports stars
I do not know what our sports or heritage people are waiting for. The SportsHub is already up. There are small side roads and lanes on the site which can be named after our champions. No need for a memorial. Just choose some of the lanes and name them after our sports personalities, even those who are still alive – Howe Liang Lane, Kunalan Street, Swee Lee Crescent, Schooling Avenue, Jalan Awang Bakar, Seng Quee Road, Fandi Close, Peng Soon Drive.
And while we are at it, the SportsHub should bear the name of Singapore’s most famous patron of sports – Eddie Barker, the late Law Minister who was, for all purposes, the Republic’s only genuine sports minister. No others can match him for his contributions.
Post Waterpolo (post team sports), go solo
For the time being, as we rebuild the sporting culture, concentrate on nurturing our sports individuals. Identify these talents, give them some leeway and, once confident, offer them total, unquestioning support. We will make mistakes, probably. But money spent on even misfiring sports talents is money spent on our own Singaporeans.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of The Independent Singapore, is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.