From ‘Foreign sports talent..There’s a difference’, 4 Aug 2012, ST Forum
(Tan Boon Keng): THERE is a difference between Singaporeans who were born and raised here and those who were recruited to win medals for the country (“Simply Feng-tastic” by Mrs Eunice Ang-Choo Sok Ee; yesterday). While paddler Feng Tianwei is a Singaporean who made history by winning the country its first individual Olympic medal in more than 50 years, she is unlike the first Olympic medallist, weightlifter Tan Howe Liang, who was a home-grown sportsman.
Mrs Ang-Choo’s remark that she, too, is a foreign import by virtue of her heritage is puzzling because she was born here. My grandparents arrived from China, but I do not consider myself an import, because I was born in Singapore. Certainly, I shall feel proud if Feng’s children win medals for Singapore, provided they are born here.
As a former Chinese citizen, Feng can opt to return to China. For us, Singapore is home.
As long as there are immigrants in our Olympic squads, there will always be people making comparisons to ‘home-grown’ Tan Howe Liang (He was actually born in Swatow China and came to Singapore when he was 4 years old). You can argue all day about what exactly makes one Singaporean enough for one to be fully satisfied with the victory, and even if Feng could cram a user manual on all things Singaporean and recite the pledge in all 4 languages, she still wouldn’t hold a candle to our much lauded Silver Olympiad because, according to the writer, she just wasn’t here long enough. Even if Feng continues to participate in ping pong until she’s 70, there will be critics who’ll continue to go ‘Meh’ at her well-deserved Bronze award. It’s also easy to forget that during Tan’s time, hardly anyone of us were true-blue Singaporeans in the first place.
Tan Howe Liang didn’t just win ONE silver medal and called it a day. He accomplished it despite cramping in the legs, and walked out a hero without a SINGLE CENT. He was a world record breaker, once hailed as the BEST at his weight in ASIA and made it into the GUINNESS BOOK of Olympic records in 1972. That is why Feng (now $250,000 richer) and her gang can’t compare to Howe Liang, not because they’re not ‘localised’ enough, but Tan is probably the greatest athlete Singapore has ever produced, or will ever have. Like Feng, Tan had his share of critics too, that he wasn’t the humble boy from Chinatown as everyone thought he was. His post-medal refusal to participate in the Rangoon SEA games trials got him labelled as a ‘prima donna’ and a ‘spoiled child’. Still, it’s easy to heap praise and remember Tan’s sporting achievements fondly, or make him a flag bearer and curate his photos and stories in the National Archives, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t FORGOTTEN as a person.
In the 80′s, Howe Liang was appointed national coach for the SEA games, but suffered from a lack of participation in the event. I thought any professional athlete who has spent his entire life mastering a single sport could slide easily into a coaching post, like what paddler Jin Junhong and Ang Peng Siong have, but apparently not in the case of a niche and severely gruelling sport like weightlifting. According to a Today letter writer, Tan also spent some of his post-glory years as a CARETAKER in the National Stadium (More likely he was a gym instructor i.e glorified caretaker. A ST headline in 1982 reads ‘Olympic hero PERFECT for gym job’ 4 Nov 1982). He was last reported to be earning his keep as a gym supervisor at the Singapore Sports Council, struggling to pay medical bills for his cancer-stricken wife, a little known fact overshadowed by his past Olympic success. Ironically, if it weren’t for our foreign-talent paddlers and reporters, few would have heard of Tan at all, and it seems like it was only in the mid 2000′s when somebody, in the midst of the Olympic ping pong glitz, suddenly remembered ‘Hey, didn’t we have whats-his-name win a Silver medal in 1960?!’ Which is all the more inexcusable because we’ve only ever had ONE guy winning at the Olympics. I have to admit I had trouble recalling his name myself during a recent argument with a friend about Singapore’s Olympic history.
In a Today piece, Tan had this to say about his so-called Olympic fame:
..The problem is Singapore sport. After you represent your country, they will CHUCK you to one side. Who will remember you? At least I’m lucky. Some people still remember me.
Instead of being made to languish as a convenient afterthought in obligatory tributes to local sportsmen or as a standard trivia question on a game show like We Are Singaporeans, more should be done not just to TELL the story of Tan’s ascent and quick decline, but to make sure that our legends continue to contribute by fulfilling the dreams of subsequent generations of sportsmen, like how they have fulfilled the entire nation’s during their glory days. The story of Tan Howe Liang is the story of Singapore’s sporting dilemma, where the quest for excellence and the pursuit of passion at the expense of academic success gives one diminishing returns. That the worst thing that could happen to any committed sportsman here is to get a debilitating injury, or RETIRE. That the fact you’ll be the only benchmark against which all other local sportsmen will be compared is proof of how popular sports is as a career choice. That winning an Olympic medal is like the brutal curse that is the Best Actor/Actress award at the Oscars. It goes all downhill from there.