Singapore’s Chef de Mission for the Doha Asian Games, Annabel Pennefather was moderately optimistic in November 2006 when she forecast six gold medals for the country’s athletes at the Games in December—just one gold better than 2002 in Busan. As it turned out, Singapore’s athletes surpassed all expectations and won eight gold medals, seven silvers and 12 bronzes. Singapore’s previous record was in Busan, Korea in 2002 when it won 17 medals (5 golds, 2 silvers and 10 bronzes).
Singapore sent its largest-ever contingent to the Doha Games: 134 athletes. Sailing dominated the results, picking up five golds, three silvers and two bronzes. Prior to the Asian Games, Mr. Low Teo Ping, president of Singapore Sailing Federation, had predicted that every sailor would win a medal. He was almost right: of the 20 sailors who went to the Games, 19 stood on podiums when their events were done.
I am always proud when I get to represent my country…Both the 1998 and 2002 Asian Games, despite their very different outcomes, mean a lot to me… I’ve given up my junior college education to pursue my sporting dream and there is no turning back.” Sailor Roy Tay, gold medalist at 2006 Doha, bronze medalist at the 1998 Asian Games and 2008 Olympic hopeful.
Athletes in other sports also put up tremendous efforts against fierce opponents. Bowler Remy Ong led his men’s team to the Team silver in addition to winning a silver in the men’s masters. The reigning World Champion was under tremendous pressure from the Korean bowlers who were hoping to sweep the podium. However, Remy and the team ensured that Singapore’s colours flew over the men’s event. In women’s doubles, Michelle Kwang and Valerie Teo held the line to win the gold medal. Valerie also picked up a bronze in the womens all event, and the women’s five-player team claimed a bronze.
In swimming Tao Li, who had made a strong debut at the SEA Games in 2005, surprised spectators with a golden performance in the women’s 50 metre butterfly and a bronze medal in the 100 metres. Bodybuilder Simon Chua picked up another gold medal for Singapore while his team mates added two bronzes to the total.
In shooting, the women’s air rifle team of Adrienne Ser, Jasmine Ser and Vanessa Yong came through with a silver medal. The women’s table tennis team, which has been one of Singapore’s most consistent medal winners for the past five years, also picked up a silver medal. Li Jiawei settled for a bronze medal in singles and in mixed doubles with Yang Zi.
The badminton Ladies team fought hard to a bronze medal. Goh Qiu Bin won a bronze medal in Wushu. Peter Gilchrist won a bronze medal in cuesports. Ibrahim Sihat and Mohd Ismail Muhammad added to their collection of bronze medals as well in bodybuilding.
Singapore’s achievements at the Doha Games were the best the country had ever achieved and far better than they had expected. When the athletes returned from Doha, they were met by exuberant fans at Changi International Airport. The country’s appreciation and respect for its athletes was no longer in any doubt. It had been a long time in coming but there would be no turning back.
Highlights of Singapore’s history at the Asian Games
The end of the Second World War brought great change across Asia, including independence for many Asian nations. As countries successfully rebuilt their economies, their leaders also saw the value in strengthening their ties across the region in a spirit of cooperation rather than conflict. In 1947 Indian Prime Minister Jawahalal Nehru first raised the possibility of an Asian sports meet. Earlier in the century, the Far East Championships had been held 10 times from 1913 to 1934. However, the Championships had been suspended with the outbreak of the War.
It was only natural that Asian countries would turn to sport to revive national feelings of optimism and pride. India pursued the idea at the 1948 London Games with other Asian leaders, and by February 1949, the Asian Athletic Federation had been formed. The first Asian Games would be held in New Delhi in 1951. In line with Olympic tradition, the Games would be held every four years, and the location would change, allowing countries to alternate as hosts of the Games.
New Delhi 1951
Eleven countries sent 489 athletes to compete at the inaugural Asian Games in March 1951. Athletes from Afghanistan, Burma, India, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, and Thailand competed in athletics, aquatics, basketball, cycling, football and weightlifting in the eight-day Games. Korea was unable to participate because of the Korean War.
Japan emerged from the event as the overall winner, with 24 gold medals, 20 silvers and 14 bronzes. Host country India placed second with 15 gold medals, 18 silvers and 19 bronzes. Japan’s participation in the Asian Games heralded its return to normalcy after the War. Japan had been barred from taking part in the London Olympics as a consequence of the country’s starting the War in the Pacific. However, they came to the Asian Games, expecting to win—and they did for the most part.
However, the very first gold medal won at the inaugural Asian Games was by Singaporean Mr. Neo Chee Kok in the 1500 metre freestyle. Nicknamed the ‘Flying Fish’, Neo swept the freestyle events, winning four gold medals—much to the chagrin of the Japanese. Neo shared the freestyle 400 gold medal with teammates Lionel Chee, Wiebe Wolters and Barry Mitchell. Neo also set a record for the 400-metre freestyle with a time of 5:13:8. They were coached by Kee Soon Bee.
Chee, Wolters and Mitchell also won a silver medal in water polo, with Tan Hwee Hock, Ho Kian Bin, Keith Mitchell, Tan Wee Eng and Kee Soon Bee, who was a player, not a coach, in this event. (In 1954 Singapore would win a gold medal at the Asian Games.) Swimming in the 100 metre freestyle race, Wiebe Wolters won the silver medal, making it a 1-2 for Singapore. Wolters, then 19 years old, had come to Singapore from Indonesia after the end of the War. Singapore also achieved a third silver medal in the 3 x 100 medley relay.
In athletics, Mr. Ng Liang Chiang won the 110-metre hurdles in 15.2 seconds while Lloyd Valberg, who was Singapore’s sole athlete at the 1948 Olympics, won the bronze in that event. Mr. Ng picked up a bronze in the 400 metre hurdles as well. Laura Dowdswell won two medals in athletics, in the 200 metre race and the 80-metre hurdles.
At the New Delhi Games, Singapore also showed great promise in weightlifting. In the 67.5 kg category, Ho Foon Onn won a silver medal on the back of a combined 292.5 kg. Team mate Cheong Kok Cheong also took a silver medal in the 82.5 kg category, lifting 317.5 kg.
In total, Singapore had won five gold medals, seven silvers and two bronzes. It was an encouraging beginning for Singapore. Unfortunately, for many years, it would prove impossible for Singapore to improve upon its 1951 results.
Bangkok 1966 & 1970
Even in 1966 in Bangkok when the country won 12 medals, no athlete was able to place first at the Asian Games. Singapore won five silver medals and seven bronzes. History repeated itself in 1970, again in Bangkok, when Singapore failed to win a gold medal. This time, Singapore won six silvers and nine bronzes.