When the 2002 Asian Games opened in Busan, Korea, Singapore came with an agenda to win medals. The country’s sports community was no longer content with being an also-ran. Remy Ong made sports history by winning three gold medals in bowling: the men’s singles event, the men’s masters and the team events. No other men’s bowler in the history of the Games had set the bar so high.
Singapore’s bodybuilders also showed that they had the right stuff in Busan. Standing at the top of the podiums were Abdul Halim Haron in the bantam weight and Simon Chua in the welterweight. Bodybuilding also picked up two silvers, courtesy of Ibrahim Sihat in the fly weight and Mohd Ismail Muhammad in the light heavyweight. Completing the picture was Amir Zainal’s bronze medal in bantam weight.
Overall, Singapore picked up 10 bronze medals in Busan. Sailors Teo Wee Chin, Sarah Tan, Joan Huang partnered with Toh Liying this time, and Tan Wearn Haw & Chung Pei Ming added to the cache of bronze medals. Singapore’s No.1 swimmer at the time, Joscelin Yeo scored a bronze in the 100 metre butterfly. In table tennis, 21 year-old Li Jiawei won a bronze medal—her first at the Asian Games. The Ladies Team also won the bronze medal, thanks to the all-round playing power of Li Jiawei, Jing Junhong, Tan Paey Fern and Zhang Xueling.
The Asian Games in Bangkok in 1998 saw four other sailors win gold medals. Naomi Tan and Joan Huang triumphed in the Ladies 420 class while Siew Shaw Her sailing with Colin Ng won in the Mens 420. Joan Huang was only 16 years old and deferred her O Level exams in favour of training for the Asian Games. Naomi Tan had to take unpaid leave of absence for her teaching job to prepare for the Games. Not only did they win Best Team of the Year award in 1999, Joan Huang won Sportswoman of the Year.
Singapore won three silver medals in Bangkok, thanks to Tan Tiong Boon in cuesports, Jesmine Ho in bowling and Anthon Kiong in sailing.
The country also won nine bronze medals—something that hadn’t happened since the 1970 Asian Games. The women’s trio of Jesmine Ho, Alice Tay and Grace Young brought home a bronze medal as did sailing’s Charles Lim & Tan Wearn Haw in the International 470, Roy Tay in the International Optimist and Tracy Tan in the International Europe. Sepaktakraw won a bronze in the men’s team event. Shooting also scored a bronze medal in the mens doubles trap team event, with Lee Wung Yew picking up a bronze in trap shooting as well. Ladies squash contributed another two bronzes while Picasso Tan from wushu secured the final bronze.
Finally, in 1994 in Hiroshima, Japan, 26 year old Benedict Tan produced another first for Singapore—its first gold medal in sailing. Once again, a young Singaporean had done something that had never been done before in Singapore’s sports history. The young doctor was so well ahead of his competitors in the Laser class that he didn’t even have to sail the final race.
Sailing also won a silver medal through the partnership of Siew Shaw Her and Charles Lim. Joscelin Yeo set a new National record in the 100 metre butterfly with a time of 1.01.62, and got a bronze medal. Bowler Grace Young also won a bronze medal. The third bronze was picked up by the mens team in sepaktakraw. Women in the martial arts also took bronze medals: Tan Mui Buay and Chiew Hui Yan in separate Wushu events.
One of my best sporting moments must be winning an Asian Games gold medal (with Naomi Tan) in Bangkok in 1998. I felt good, too, about winning a bronze in the 2002 Asiad in Busan. For me, competing against the best in Asia like the Chinese, Japanese and South Koreans only reminds me how much work there is to be done. At the same time, it’s a nice feeling to know we, at our best, can give them a run for their money.” Sailor Joan Huang, gold medalist at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok.
Seoul 1986, Beijing 1990
For the next two Asian Games, Singapore’s performance was mediocre. At Seoul in 1986 and Beijing in 1990, Singapore won one silver each and four bronze. As other Asian countries were improving their records, Singapore clearly was going nowhere in its development of athletes.
New Delhi 1982
Indeed, in 1982 in New Delhi, Singapore won exactly three medals—two bronzes and one triumphant gold by swimmer Ang Peng Siong. Only 20 years old, Ang was a spectacular athlete as he proved more than once in 1982. He set the world record in 1982 for the 50-metre freestyle with a time of 22.69. At the Asian Games, Ang won the 100-metre freestyle, giving Singapore its only gold medal that year.
In 1978, an even younger Singaporean girl would win gold at the Asian Games in Bangkok: in fact, 14 year-old Junie Sng would win two gold medals. Coached by Kee Soon Bee, who had won a silver medal as a water polo player at the inaugural Asian Games in 1951, Junie was a feisty endurance swimmer. She won a silver in the 200 metre, but the longer the distance, the more she shone. She broke the 400-metre freestyle record by more than four seconds—an eternity in swimming. The next day, she swam to victory in the 800-metre.
Without Junie, Singapore would have been locked out of the gold medals. The country managed to finish the Games with a total of seven medals, but the trend was not looking good.
However, in 1974 in Tehran, a young girl of 19 would bring the gold home to Singapore. Chee Swee Lee set a new Games record for the 400-metre race and a Singapore national record with a time of 55.08 seconds. It was the first time a woman from Singapore had won a gold medal at the Asian Games.