From Silver to Gold in Singapore: Tan Howe Liang to Joseph Schooling

Kunalan, Tomizawa, Haque and Hamid
Canagasabai Kunalan, the writer, Anwarul Haque and Hamid Supaat at the Singapore Cricket Club
We gathered at the prestigious Singapore Cricket Club on May Day, and enjoyed fish and chips and beef Guinness pie reminiscing about 1964. I had the honor of having lunch with three Singaporean Olympians who went to the Tokyo Olympiad:

  • Canagasabai Kunalan, who held the fastest 100-meter time in Singapore for over 30 years, and competed under the Malaysian flag at the 1964 Olympics, as well as under the Singaporean flag in 1968,
  • Hamid Supaat, who competed in the grueling individual cycling road race in the chilly hills of Hachioji at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, as written about here, and
  • Anwarul Haque, who was a goalie on the 1964 Malaysian field hockey team, went on to become a lawyer, as well as serving eight years as president of the Singapore Cricket Club, where we ate and reminisced.

In 1964, Singapore was undergoing political upheaval, having gained independence from Britain in 1963, and joining a federation of states that became Malaysia. Previous to that, Singapore had been a colony since Stamford Raffles arrived on the tiny island in 1819 to claim it as a trading post for the East Indies Company and the British empire.

Before independence, Singapore was a bustling harbor town, its population growing quickly, but still relatively small at 1.5 to 1.8 million in the first half of the 1960s. So it’s quite understandable that in the sports history of Singapore, only 5 medals have been won by Singaporeans in the history of the Olympics, the first one – Singapore’s first silver – in 1960 and the last one – Singapore’s first gold – in 2016.

Tan Howe Liang wins silver at Rome
Tan Howe Liang wins silver at Rome
Tan Howe Liang migrated with his family from southern China to Singapore and at an amusement park saw an exhibition of weightlifters and was hooked. He joined a weightlifting club, and soon became internationally competitive, finishing ninth in the lightweight category at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, and then gaining confidence by winning gold at the 1958 Commonwealth Games, the 1958 Asian Games and the 1959 SEAP Games. In Rome, Howe Liang brought glory to Singapore with a silver medal in the lightweight category.

Lloyd Oscar Valberg

Even earlier, at the 1948 London Olympics, Singapore had a representative as a part of British crown colonies. His name was Lloyd Oscar Valberg, and he competed in the high jump as Singapore’s sole athlete in the first Olympics after the Second World War. Valberg came in 14th. But he set the Singapore record for the high jump at the age of 17, and is a symbol of how far Singapore has come. Valberg’s nephew was Colin Schooling, and his son saw his famous relative as a role model.

Inspired by his grand uncle, Joseph Schooling went on to take gold in the 100-meter butterfly in one of the most dramatic races at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Schooling beat a very strong field, including his childhood idol, Michael Phelps to win Singapore’s first gold medal.