WHEN he walked on the hockey field, you could feel the ground shake. When he spoke, there was absolute silence as he delivered his thoughts without fear or favour. When he shakes your hand, you feel the blessed touch of genuine friendship.
And when Gangadharan Surajan passed on Tuesday morning, due to prolonged illness, he left the sporting fraternity in absolute awe and shock. Close to speechless!
The famous line, “big, strong and friendly”, precisely fitted the former Republic of Singapore Navy (RSN) retired Major. He was a true-blue role-model, in every sense of the word, as I remember him when I first took to the stick-and-ball more than four decades ago.
Absolutely awesome in distinguished personality, he commanded instant respect with his overall professional and personal mannerism. He was held in highest regard, from teenagers to senior citizens, simply because he was a “mountain of a man”.
Former SEAP Games 1973 vice-captain Arul Subramaniam, also a senior SAF officer, who played in the same gold-medal-winning team, says: “His presence just fires you. I vividly remember the final match in the SEAP Games when we shocked Malaysia 2-0, where I scored the first goal through a penalty flick.
“When I was about to take the penalty-flick he calmed me down tremendously when he told me to focus on where I should flick the ball, just like I endeared during daily practises. I followed his quick advice and when I scored, he ran and hugged me. The team was in tears at the opening goal against the world-class Malaysians. Surajan was simply an outstanding inspiration to our team.”
Award-winning football coach Jita Singh (the SNOC ‘Coach of the Year’ 1981) remembers Surajan from Serangoon English School (SES) days in the mid-1960s when they played in the same hockey team. He says: “We were the powerhouses of schools hockey as majority of the players were experienced teenagers from Jansenites.
“Surajan was like a ‘Don’, from the famous ‘The Godfather’ movie-sequels, very assertive in leadership, outstanding team player and, most importantly, very unassuming, off the field. He garnered tremendous respect from everyone with his gentleman mannerism.”
Veteran journalist and former The Straits Times sports editor Godfrey Robert recognises Surajan as “one the best defenders I have played against in the SHA (Singapore Hockey Association) Premier League”. Robert was then the goalkeeper for Indian Association (IA).
“Strong, talented and a natural, I always admired Surajan’s power hits, some of which whizzed past me when I was in goal for IA in the early 70s,” he recalls. “For me, Surajan offered two different personalities: His stern, unfriendly look provided a put-off at first glance, but when you sat down and talked to him, you will discover his other side. Such a lovable, joking, easy-going character and one you can sincerely call a friend.
“Singapore has lost a true sporting son, one who did proud for our flag in sports and career.”
Never afraid to speak his mind, Surajan roared endlessly on umpteen ways to lift the dwindling standards of hockey and how to get more fiery support among the hockey grassroots.
FOUNDER LEADER AT JANSENITES
An annual nostalgic get-together of past and present hockey stalwarts is usually organised at Indian Association in June and last year, even in declining health, Surajan came in a wheelchair and inspiringly fraternised with his mates.
A former founder leader at Jansenites, one of the oldest hockey “kampong” clubs, he was a rare SEAP Games 1973 hockey gold-medallist. He rose, academically, from Serangoon English School (SES) and Raffles Institution (RI), where he was an all-rounder schoolboy legend.
Award-winning rugby coach Natahar Bava (SNOC ‘Coach of the Year’ 1978) recalls Surajan from Raffles Institution days as a “remarkably influential sports personality who could almost single-handedly fire up the team”.
“His presence on the hockey field was legendary, everyone looked up to him with his 100 per cent discipline, character and commitment. His performances were simply awe-amazing, especially as a power-blasting short-corner specialist, whose shots usually won the big matches.”
Colonel (Retired) Gurcharan Singh, a former Vice President of the-then Singapore Hockey Association (SHA), says: “Surajan was a hockey mega-star. I knew him as a schoolboy and later we were in the uniformed services together. He was, in a nutshell, a close-to-perfect officer and gentleman. I’m very saddened at his sudden loss.”
Surajan’s no more in pain, says ex-Singapore icon striker T. Nanthakumar, now in Mooroolbark, Melbourne, noting how he endured, rather silently, a string of prolonged illnesses for more than a decade. He says: “He’s in a better place now. May he rest in peace. I will always cherish how funny, intelligent and an absolute leader he was from the 1973 SEAP Games days. In a nutshell, he’ll die for you, on and off the field. I will really miss his friendship.”
Professionally, after retiring from the RSN as a decorated sea-faring major, Surajan started Major’s Pest Management Services, always setting the highest standards towards pest-control industry-improvement.
PEST CONTROL SPECIALIST
Surajan says on his website: “When I joined the Pest Management Industry in 1984 after 14 good years in the Singapore Navy as a Naval Officer, I was saddened by the poor image of the industry. It was classified similar to menial labour and carried a very low profile in the service industry.
“This was very disturbing as trained Pest Control Technicians handle toxic chemicals and also handle equipment that can harm people and the environment if in the hands of untrained personnel. In 1989, I took over the Presidency of the Pest Control Association (PCA) which had only 10 members then.
“In the 18 years as President, we grew our Membership to 75 members. We took on the task of upgrading the industry and hence conducted In-house courses and organised a few International Pest Management Conferences that were fully supported by the National Environment Agency (NEA) and attracted more than 500 participants each time from some 24 countries.
“With these achievements, the authorities permitted the Association to change the name from Pest Control Association (Singapore) to Singapore Pest Management Association (SPMA) in 2001 as we truly represented the industry by that time.”
Surajan’s younger brother Prakash says: “He performs pest control with the same military precision he used as a naval officer. He built Major’s Pest Management to be the best for bed bug control services in Singapore. At Major’s, no pest problem is too small or too large. He led his employees to deliver their best in every assignment.”
Oh yes, Surajan, nearing 70 years, was the sixth in a family of eight hockey-fanatic brothers and sisters from Jansen Road, which was the traditional heart-bed of the famous Jansenites kampong-styled team, which was always regarded as the gutsy underdogs in the SHA Premier League.
I remember Surajan once telling me of his pest-control work: “Bed bugs are easy to get and hard to get rid of. They can travel on your clothing or hop into your luggage. You may not even realise that you have bed bugs until you wake up with bites on your body.
“If you want to save money and get rid of these pesky little creatures, then you need Major’s Pest Management Services for the best bed bug control services in Singapore.”
Former Singapore goalkeeper Rajagopal Jegathesan, the ex-sports editor at The New Paper, recalls the last two messages Surajan sent to his mates on December 29 last year at 10.54pm and 11.18pm.
Surajan wrote: “Hi I’m currently in Philippines for medical treatment and will be indisposed. I only have limited access. Hence, I will have to get out of this chat room and will reconnect when I get back. Thanks for understanding. Wishing all a Happy New Year. May all of you be blessed with all the good things in life. Take care, Surajan.”
Tear-jerkingly, he added: “Thank you buddies. You guys have been a great inspiration to me. I will be back, God willing.”
In my mind, we have lost a gem of a Made-in-Singapore sports personality, who deserves the biggest salutes for holding the spirit of sportsmanship and gentlemanship.
There will never be another Gangadharan Surajan. An officer and a gentleman.
RIP the ‘Don’ of Singapore hockey.
• Please note: The wake is scheduled at Mount Vernon Sanctuary with funeral on Saturday. Confirmed details to be announced in The Straits Times.