By Tan Bah Bah
It is an injustice to the memory of the late E.W. Barker to have the National Stadium named after any other person. Sports in Singapore had no more fervent champion than the Law Minister. There was no one even anywhere near him.
In his school and university days, Barker represented his institutions in athletics, hockey, cricket, rugby and soccer. He was a national cricketer and hockey player. Which People’s Action Party leader today, especially at that senior level, has such sporting credentials?
Sports was the passion of Barker. He carried that flame brightly throughout his career as a first-generation People’s Action Party leader. Practically anything noteworthy in Singapore’s sports development until the Ng Ser Miang era could be traced to Barker.
He was President of the Singapore National Olympic Council for two decades. He led Singapore’s successful hosting of the 12th and 17th South East Asia Games.
He was an honorary member of the SEA Games Federation.
For his contributions to the development of sports in Singapore, Barker was presented the Olympic Order (Silver) by the International Olympic Committee in 1985, and the Distinguished Service Award of the USA Sports Academy in 1983. He was recognised at the world stage at a time when Singapore’s international profile was not all that high.
It seemed strange, therefore, that there have been suggestions that the National Stadium be named after Lee Kuan Yew.
No, Lee has never quite been associated with sports as a national leader the way that Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tengku Abdul Rahman was. The Tengku was keen on soccer and even owned some successful race horses. Few Singaporeans have ever seen Lee publicly embracing any local sports champion or sportsmen or women.
A more appropriate institution or place to perpetuate the name of Lee would be Changi International Airport. The first Prime Minister has had a personal interest in the development of Singapore Airlines and Changi Airport throughout his years in power. Although he would act vigorously to ensure the success of the airline, he has said that if he had a choice, he would opt for Changi over SIA. Changi, like the port, is a major lifeline for Singapore’s survival and growth, more indispensable than the airline.
That was how important Lee regards Changi and how closely identified he is with our world-renowned airport. The precedents for naming airports after prominent national leaders: Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The American airport was, in fact, renamed from the original Idlewild Airport in1963 to honour the assassinated Kennedy.
We can also rename Orchard Road and call it Lee Kuan Yew Avenue, since he spent so much of his life in his family home in the area and at the Istana.
Lee’s only public link with the National Stadium was that he officially opened the National Stadium in 1973. But it took some time and persuasion by E .W. Barker to convince him that the country needed a stadium for sports and other national activities such as National Day Parades. The pragmatic Lee – at least the Lee Kuan Yew of old that we knew – was against the idea because he feared it might turn out to be a white elephant. This was Singapore in the pre-ministerial high salaries days.
Barker successfully argued for the building of the stadium. The government put aside land and money for the project. The stadium cost $50 million which would sound, by current construction price standards, almost laughable or a bargain. Compare that amount to the $1.1 billion for the Gardens By The Bay which may well turn out to be the real white elephant!
Because of its strategic location and ability to get things done, Singapore has seldom had any problem bidding to be the venue for international sports events. Not many Singaporeans may recall. But we actually bid successfuly to hold the Asian Games many years ago. The lack of facilities in the end forced the Singapore National Olympic Council to surrender the organising right. Luckily, India stepped in to hold that particular games in New Delhi.
The multi-purpose sports hub will help take care of the infrastructure challenge. We should be able to hold games the size of the Asian Games. With new stadiums also springing up in Asean countries, Asean should be in the position in the near future to hold the Fifa World Cup.
No one would be prouder of the hub and the major events that will grace the venue than E.W. Barker who had presided over many sports ceremonies at the old National Stadium.