Soh Kay Siang: The fearless leader with an unconditional love for basketball

The Soh Family - Soh Kay Siang (top row, fourth from left) stands behind his father.

15 Jun 2019

By Justin Kor
Photos courtesy of Mr Soh Kay Siang and his family

The Taiwanese military plane was in freefall, its passengers in a state of complete panic. Just minutes ago, the aircraft’s right engine had sputtered and failed, causing it to plummet hundreds of metres in mere seconds.

With the surface of the South China Sea fast approaching, cries from members of the Singapore basketball team echoed through the aircraft, as all were reduced to a state of helplessness. All, except Soh Kay Siang.

As crew members desperately called for help in ditching baggages to lighten the plane’s load, no one moved but him. Perching precariously by the aircraft door, he pushed the bags out using both hands and feet ­– at all times just a slip from certain death.

Although it happened more than half a century ago, the 83-year old still remembers this near-death experience in vivid detail.

“I felt no fear, although I could feel the wind blowing by intensely”, he recalled. As the pilots wrestled with the controls, he even distributed chocolates and hummed songs to diffuse the panic. Eventually, the plane stabilised, and completed its flight to the Philippines.

Disaster averted, the Singapore team was able to continue its journey to Taiwan to participate in an invitational tournament. They had cheated death, thanks to the fearless Soh.

As the vice captain of Singapore’s basketball team from 1957 to 1964, he was a leader on and off the court who made countless sacrifices for the game. Besides nearly losing his life, he strained relationships with his parents, gave up an education, and missed his children’s early years – all for the love of the sport.

 No wonder then, when asked to describe his basketball career, he simply said: “鞠躬尽瘁,死而后己” – to spare no effort until one’s dying day.

The team was invited to the Presidential Residence to meet President Chiang Kai Shek (centre) after their near-death experience.

 Brains, not brawn

Soh (in the air) earned himself a nickname “The Gung-ho Gentleman (拼命三郎)” on court for his penchant to play every game as if it was his last

As a player, Soh’s greatest asset was not an accurate pair of hands nor lung-bursting stamina – but his eyes. He possessed a razor-sharp awareness on the court. “At all times, I knew where was everyone,” he said.

Being observant allowed him to be unpredictable. The point guard’s signature move was the behind-the-back pass, where he would loop an arm around his back to nonchalantly pass the ball to a teammate – without a single look. Such was his prowess that he was able to make the pass across the entire breadth of the court.

These skills were learnt, unsurprisingly, by observing fellow teammates. After forensically studying their moves, he practised relentlessly, spending two to three hours perfecting his skills.

“No one taught me basketball. I learnt it all by myself,” he proudly proclaimed.

In 1956, he began representing the Singapore team, and became vice captain in 1957, co-leading Singapore to a respectable fifth placing at the 1958 Asian Games in Tokyo.

But his most memorable match came in 1961 when he led his team to win the Orient Cup – then regarded as one of the most prestigious regional tournaments in Southeast Asia – in overtime against the Philippines on home soil.

It was a game that saw Singapore make one of the most astonishing comebacks against a regional powerhouse. As the home team trailed by five points in the last seven seconds of regular time, all hope had seemed lost, and spectators were already leaving their seats.

But the five players on the court had other ideas. With Soh dictating play, they rallied, scoring five miraculous points in a flurry of seconds to send the match into overtime.

People began flooding back into the arena, and they were not disappointed in what came next. With just two seconds left in overtime, Singapore won two free throws, and the cup was secured.

“A miracle occurred right in front of us,” recalled Soh.

Unconditional sacrifices

Although basketball brought him much joy on the court, it caused much upheaval in his personal life.

To make the cut for the Nanyang Siang Pau team, then regarded as the best team in Singapore, a 14-year old Soh made the decision to drop out of Chung Cheng High School.

“Basketball was a hindrance to education, so I stopped schooling and focused on basketball. My father was furious,” he recalled. For years, his father refused to attend any of his matches, and the relationship with his family was strained.

Until Soh spotted him in the stands during the final of the 1961 Orient Cup – his father had secretly bought a ticket to watch him in action.

The sight of his father left him stunned on the court. For once, the cool-headed vice captain had lost his composure. But this shock was soon followed by a surge of overwhelming joy, and an added determination to win the game.

“I felt that I had finally acquired the love and fatherly support which I was deprived of for so long,” he said. It is another reason why that particular game was the most memorable one.

Fully committed to basketball, Soh also had to travel frequently for overseas matches, leaving behind his wife and two children for up to four months at each time. The separation proved too much for him and in 1964, he gave up the sport while at his prime to focus on his family.

After retiring, he started various businesses, importing the likes of water heaters and construction materials. But with barely any education, it was difficult.

None of these ventures were successful – something he attributed to “an inability to catch up with the changing times”. He barely earned enough to provide for his family.

But his love for basketball still endured, as Soh continued playing at community clubs into his 70s. “It was hard to leave out of my life,” he said.

In spite of the hardships, he managed to raise a family. Today, he can finally rest easy, spending most of his time with his wife, two children and two grandchildren.

Soh with his wife, Zhang Huey Hwa, in 2019

And instead of playing basketball, he now watches it on TV. The man is still unable to let the sport go, remaining resolute in his love for the game. He insists that the sacrifices have been worth it.

“It brings a warmth to my heart, and pride that I have truly made a difference in the history of Singapore in the field of basketball,” he said.