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.

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Singapore’s Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu pose with their silver medals on the podium after the table tennis women’s team finals of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Singapore has been aggressive in recruiting foreign athletic talent. Trying to punch above its weight, this nation of 5.6 million has a government program called the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) in which the government recruits foreign athletes with promises of income and training support. In exchange, the incoming athlete takes up Singaporean nationality and represents Singapore in international sporting events.

In 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that the FST is one tactic in a strategy to bring the world’s best talent to Singapore, and thus continue to raise the capability bar.

In the Olympics contingent, there are 25 members, half of whom are new Singaporeans. Why do we need them? Make a single calculation. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. Singapore has a population of four million … If we want to win glory for Singapore and do well not only in sports but in many other areas, we cannot merely depend on the local-born. We need to attract talent from all over … Look at the Beijing Olympics. Tao Li, the swimmer, she’s done very well. The women’s table-tennis team … they have won an Olympic medal. We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team, and we can reduce our constraints. So let us welcome and let us encourage them.

When Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu won the team bronze medal for Singapore at the 2012 Olympics in London, it was a moment of mixed feelings for Singaporeans. Yes, Singaporeans won an Olympic medal. But were they Singaporean, or mercenaries? According to this 2012 blog post, this did not resonate as a Singaporean victory.

According to a poll by Yahoo! Sports, 77 per cent of the 17,227 respondents polled over three days said they would not be proud if a foreign import won an Olympic medal for Singapore.  It is not clear if the respondents had in mind Singapore’s table tennis teams, which were almost entirely made up of China-born athletes, but they were the only athletes representing Singapore with any real chance of winning any medals.

However, when swimmer Joseph Schooling triumphed over legend Michael Phelps of the US, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary in the 100-meter butterfly finals in Rio this past August, Singaporeans went mad over the hometown boy who beat the very best in the world. Schooling is a third-generation Singaporean, and that makes all the difference in the world, according to this blog post from The Online Citizen.

Whenever someone from this little Red Dot goes overseas to represent the country, be it sports, music or arts, people want to feel a part of themselves being represented. Someone whom they can relate to, someone who can speak Singlish, someone who knows his la, lor and leh, someone who loves fried carrot cake, like Joseph Schooling, someone who went through the rigorous Singapore education system. Basically, the Singaporean Identity.

When we bring in foreign players to represent the country, I have no doubt they are going to go to the Olympics to play their hearts out (so those who comment that they will not give their 100%, I think that’s uncalled for), but there is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. The Singaporean Identity. These players do not speak like us, they spent their childhoods somewhere else, they do not have to serve National Service, which is a very integral part of being Singaporean. They may be carrying the pink IC and the national flag, but deep within, where is the Singaporean Identity?

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Joseph Schooling Celebrated in Singapore

What’s interesting to me is that Schooling did not develop his world-class skills in Singapore. He did so at the University of Texas in the United States, where he competed among the very best, including Phelps. According to this article in Today Online, some of the comments in support of the Foreign Sports Talent scheme were Singaporean athletes, who “called on the universities to improve on and emulate the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association’s competitive environment by attracting top athletic talents to local institutions to compete and train among local athletes.”

Here’s how Singapore Sailing Federation president Benedict Tan and Minister for Social and Family Development argued the point.

By attracting world-class talents here and being in the system, it raises standards, and when you have real competition, they really level up. (Local) universities have been very forthcoming. But whether we create an (sporting) atmosphere or culture … it’s whether we have a critical mass of athletes.

This debate between head and heart is like a ping pong rally, back and forth…hopefully unending….

syschooling28

Singapore exploded. The Southeast Asian nation of over 5 million, affectionately self-proclaimed as the Little Red Dot, blew up their part of the Twitterverse with exaltations of pure bliss – one of their boys took gold at the Rio Olympics.

And it wasn’t just any gold. It was one destined to land in the hands of Michael Phelps, arguably the most successful Olympian ever.

Joseph Schooling, a 21-year-old third-generation Singaporean, lept to a great start in lane 4 of the 100-meter butterfly finals. Schooling quickly took the lead, held it at the 50-meter turn, and never relinquished it. He led from start to finish and defeated the favorites by a clear margin. Phelps, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary finished in a tie for second, 0.75 seconds behind the University of Texas third-year student.

Schooling Sets Olympic Record

“I’m really honored and privileged to swim alongside some of these great names, people who changed the face of our sport,” he told Channel News Asia. “I can’t really tell you how grateful I am to have this chance to swim in an Olympic final and to represent our country.”

Phelps did not add to his treasure trove of gold, instead settling for silver. But as noted in this wonderful New York Times article, Phelps has no one to blame except himself. Ever since Phelps began collecting gold medals at the 2004 Athens Games, he has inspired young swimmers all over the world. Le Clos idolized Phelps as a child, and had the umbrage to defeat Phelps in the 200 meter butterfly at the 2012 London Games, albeit by a mere .05 seconds. Phelps came back to defeat Le Clos in the same race at the Rio Games.

Phelps and Schooling
Schooling, age 13, meets his idol, Michael Phelps in 2008
Schooling is no exception, as he explains in this article. “As a kid I wanted to be like him,” said Schooling, who got his photograph taken with Phelps before his eight-gold medal performance at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “It’s crazy to think of what happens in eight years,” Schooling said, adding, “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”

While most casual observers of the sport wondered who the heck Schooling was, his competitors were aware. After all, Schooling is the reigning NCAA champion in the 100- and 200-meter butterfly in the US. And the fact that Schooling was in lane 4 indicated he was fast in the heats leading up to the finals. Two days prior, Schooling had won his heat, defeating Phelps. In the semis, he posted the fastest time of all competitors.

But even so, with Le Clos and Phelps in the mix, Schooling’s victory was not a given. And as the winner of Southeast Asia’s first gold medal in swimming, Schooling’s victory is significant, as all trailblazing accomplishments often are, and will no doubt impact the dreams of millions of young athletes in Asia for years to come.

Phelps Le Clos and Cseh celebrate silver
Phelps, Le Clos and Cseh celebrate silver, while Schooling awaits his golden reward.
Schooling’s father, Colin, was ecstatic, but also aware of the responsibility his son now carries.

Singapore, he did what you all wanted and he did it in style. The most important thing is to be an ambassador for all our children in Singapore that gives them hope that they also can do it. There’s nothing special about him, just a boy who is interested in the sport.

Yes, just a boy…a boy who would be king.