Ajit Singh: The three treasures of Singapore’s oldest Olympian

The oldest Olympian to have represented Singapore - Ajit Singh is one of three surviving members of the 1956 field hockey team – the only time that Singapore had ever participated in the sport at the Olympics. (Photos: Ajit Singh)

29 Jan 2019

By Justin Kor, photos courtesy of Ajit Singh

Former hockey player Ajit Singh has led a life that should be made into a movie.  Singapore’s oldest Olympian has been through a world war, came to Singapore alone to train as a teacher, and has participated in the pinnacle of all sporting events. At home, he keeps three treasures that have defined his life. What are they, and who is this tenacious man, who even at 90 years old, is still charging ahead in life?

 

A row of wooden cabinets line one side of Ajit Singh’s living room, laden full of trophies that the 90-year-old has won over 60 years of playing golf, hockey, cricket and even athletics.

Some of them are extremely ornate, adorned with detailed figurines of golfers or cricket bats. But these awards, despite shining brightly in the spotlights, are not his most prized possessions.

Instead, one is kept hidden away in the dark, safely secure inside a box. “It’s too valuable to display here, I keep it upstairs,” said the diminutive man, pointing upwards.

It is the participation medal that he had received as a hockey player competing at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. At first glance, it is nothing more than a palm-sized copper disc encased in a plastic case.

But to Ajit, its value is immense, for that simple medal represents the pinnacle of his sporting career. “It is the best souvenir that I’ve had.  There, you were among the best in the world, and you were going to compete with them,” he said.

Today, he is the oldest Olympian to have represented Singapore. The former fullback is one of three surviving members of the 1956 field hockey team – the only time that Singapore had ever participated in the sport at the Olympics.

He has two other prized trinkets from his Australian adventure. The first is a carefully preserved inflight menu of that memorable flight to the Olympics, while the other is arguably the most important item of his life.

It is the proposal ring that he bought for his then-girlfriend from the gold mines of Ballarat, a city just a 90-minutes drive away from Melbourne.

Today, the proposal ring is now a wedding ring, and that girlfriend, Surjit Kaur, has become a wife of 61 years and mother to his five children.

These three treasures would define the life of a man who grew up in rural plantations outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaya – a boy who had almost nothing.

Ajit and his wife Surjit

Forging an iron will through war 

Although Ajit turns 91 in March, the wizened man exuberates an energy that belies his advanced years. He walks with a vigour in every step, and even drives on his own to golf three times a week.

As a hockey player, his strengths lay in a seemingly endless reservoir of stamina, and a tenacious attitude, despite his small size. He never stopped running until the game ended.

But it was not always like this. As a child, he was very weak, suffering badly from asthma. To build up his fitness, he turned to sport, playing cricket and hockey with children from the kampong.

When he was 13, the Japanese occupied Malaya. To provide for his family, he would occasionally take a train to Singapore to procure wares from the now defunct Sungei Road Market.

After heading back to Kuala Lumpur, he would cycle 60 to 80km to the surrounding countryside to sell his wares. Slowly, but certainly, his stamina began to build up.

He was already disciplined from a young age. Throughout his life, he has shunned cigarettes and alcohol. They are vices he simply describes as “nonsense”. This steely discipline, forged during his tumultuous early years, would be the anchor that led him to sporting glory.

 

Through the darkness of night 

Ajit and his teammates at the Olympic village

As a hockey player trialing for the Singapore Olympic team, Ajit would relentlessly pound the slopes of Mount Emily, near where he stayed, every night. He had come to Singapore in 1951 to train as a teacher.

His days were long, attending lectures in the morning and teaching classes in the afternoon. Training could only be done in the darkness of night.

Quiet and peaceful after sundown, Mount Emily was an ideal training spot. He would run past the lavish colonial-era mansions and charming terrace rows that lined the place, or do laps around a playground opposite the now demolished Mount Emily swimming pool. It was a far cry from the rural Malaysian countryside where he came from.

“My father used to say, ‘Hard work doesn’t kill you’. There are no shortcuts in life. You have to work hard,” he said.

When he finished running, he started dribbling. With hockey stick in hand, he would proceed to practise his ball control along the slopes. A session could last up to two hours.

His performances on the pitch reflected the tireless amount of work he put in off it. When India – then regarded as the strongest team in the world – played Singapore in 1954, local papers credited the hard-hitting fullback for keeping the score respectable. The minnows only lost 1-3.

“My stamina pulled me through everywhere. I was very fit – 101 per cent fit,” he said.

 

Reaching the pinnacle 

Ajit (left) in his 1956 Olympic Games blazer with 2018 Sportsman of the Year and Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling

His long nights of training paid off, when the Singapore Hockey Association selected him as a member of the 18-man team for the Olympics.

He remembered laughing for several minutes with tears streaming down his cheeks after receiving the news. “I was yelling like Tarzan when I received the news. I could hardly sleep the night before I went to the airport,” he recalled.

Singapore performed admirably in their debut at the Games, finishing eighth out of 12 teams, with two wins and four losses. Ajit would then receive that significant copper medal which he has kept so securely since.

And most importantly, he bought the ring that Surjit still wears on her finger to this day. Because of new family commitments, the Olympics would be the last time that Ajit picked up a hockey stick competitively.

Australia left a deep impression on him. In 2006, he would be one of only two athletes from that 52-strong Team Singapore contingent to return to Melbourne to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Olympics. It is still the largest number of athletes that Singapore has sent to an Olympics.

 

An insatiable appetite for sports 

The 1956 Qantas souvenir menu with Team Singapore Olympians’ autographs remain a treasured souvenir in Ajit’s collection

After Melbourne 1956, he put down his hockey stick, and promptly picked up a cricket bat instead. “With hockey you have to train everyday, but I could play cricket only on the weekends,” he said with a sly smile.

And he was good at it too, becoming a national cricketer. When he had enough of swinging cricket bats, he starting swinging golf clubs instead. “Last time I used to run behind the ball, now I walk after it,” he said with a laugh.

He also participated in athletics, completing the 3,000 metre event at the Singapore Masters Athletics as recently as 2017. But a heart condition has forced the avid sportsman to take life a little easier since.

Sports has always been an integral theme all his life. “It’s the best way to keep fit, and it inculcates values, and builds character,” he explained.

But perhaps more than that, it has offered him the three treasures of his life. Back in his living room, he gingerly unfolds that in-flight menu of 63 years ago with utmost care, for a sentimental look.

The airline Qantas had emblazoned the menu with the five Olympic Rings and Australia’s iconic boomerang. Ajit then added his own touch, by getting the entire Singapore hockey team to sign it.

Although the paper has already yellowed with age, the autographs remain as clear as ever. He gazes upon it, reflecting the look of a man that has accomplished everything.

“I have no regrets, I feel at top of the world,” he said.