It was the summer of 1964 and Singapore was in crisis.
Singapore’s leader, Lee Kuan Yew, had brokered a deal with the British Government and the leadership of Malaya to be included in a nation called Malaysia, established in 1963. This was not a match made in heaven. Racial tensions were part and parcel of the daily lives in the region between Singapore, which was a mixture of Indian, Malay and Chinese, but had a predominant population of ethnic Chinese, and the rest of the Malaya Federation, which was primarily Bumiputra and Islamic.
In July and September, Singapore felt the political tension born of the delicate balancing act that brought Singapore and Malaya together, and at times, the tension boiled over. Race riots broke out where shophouses were burned down, police and military were called out to restore order and enforce curfews, and people were beaten and killed.
This is the atmosphere in which athletes in Malaysia and Singapore were preparing for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Canagsabai Kunalan was a promising 21-year-old sprinter, talent spotted only a year before by the Malaysia track coach, Tan Eng Yoon. After a successful sprinting debut in 1963, Tan believed Kunalan was ready for the Tokyo Olympics, and recommended him for the 4X100 relay team, along with Mazland Hamzah, John Daukom, and Mani Jegathesan.
But the make-up of the 4X100 relay team did not sit well with Wong Fey Wan. Another talented sprinter, Wong defended his record, and called out Kunalan publicly in the press:
I beat Kunalan in the 100 m finals in the national championships in which I finished second to Jegathesan, and I beat him again in the Government Services Meet in the 100 m final on Saturday in which I finished third…. I am willing to race against Kunalan again to prove I am the better man over 100 m. If I am wrong I will quit athletics.
Coach Tan did favor Kunalan, perhaps for his work ethic, perhaps for the belief that Kunalan was stronger around the curves and a better choice as back up for the relays. Maybe Wong did not have the political support as he was self-taught and did not have the benefit of a coach lobbying his case as Tan did for Kunalan. Maybe race was influential. As explained through Kunalan’s state of mind at the time in the biography, “C. Kunalan – Singapore’s Greatest Track and Field Athlete”, Kunalan was unhappy.
Whatever the true reason for Wong’s exclusion – be it sporting or political, this incident affected Kunalan, who regarded this as “one of the saddest moments” of his running career. He never knew for sure whether he had been chosen on the basis of merit, but he wished that Wong had been chosen instead, knowing how much Wong had been looking forward to competing at the Olympic Games.
It was Kunalan instead who went to Tokyo. Just three days before his 22nd birthday, the Malaysian 4×100 team finished last in their round one heat, and that was that.
While Kunalan had no control over the make-up of the 4×100 Malaysian relay team, during a period of racial and political strife in his country, he did indeed have control over more important, personal decisions – with whom he would marry.
Teammates in track, Kunalan first met Chong Yoong Yin, captain of the Raffles Girls School track team, and a member of the Malaysia national track team. They had track in common, but to their parents, little else. Kunalan was ethnic Indian and was brought up in the Hindu religion. When Kunalan had returned from the Tokyo Olympics and his parents realized that his relationship with the ethnic Chinese woman, Yoong Yin, was still intact, they gave their son an ultimatum: “leave that Chinese girl or never return home again.”
Kunalan walked out.
Yoong Yin received the same ultimatum from her father and her uncle. And she too left home, joining her mother, who was estranged from her father.
Distraught after being shunned by their own families, they struggled momentarily, wondering what would happen. But Kunalan in the end was resolved. “We’ll have our own friends who will accept us.”
Engaged in October 1965, with a wedding date set for October 1966, the parents of Kunalan and Yoong Yin eventually saw that there was no fighting the bond between the two. Kunalan’s father surprised his son with a visit, and said he would bless the union, but only if Yoong Yin would take on an Indian name and convert to Hinduism. Fortunately, that was not a problem for Yoong Yin, and the two sprinters were married in a Hindi ceremony. Subsequently a Chinese wedding dinner was held by Yoong Yin’s mother.
Fifty-two years later, Kunalan and Yoong Yin are still happily married. And Kunalan proudly proclaims that diversity and the need to be inclusive of all races and nationalities is vital to world peace. “I am not nationalistic,” he told a Singaporean magazine. “I am more of an internationalist.”
His children, a blend of Indian and Chinese DNA and heritage, have lived their parents’ creed, marrying members of other nationalities. Kunalan is proud of to be an inter-racial grandparent.
He remembers 1964. He recalls seeing the worst in the race riots of Singapore, and the best in the gathering of the world’s best athletes in Tokyo. And he believes that we are capable, through sports, to co-exist in peace and love.
Canagasabai Kunalan is living proof.