The trick that won Singapore’s only water polo gold
By Justin Kor
After being denied the gold medal by India at the inaugural Asian Games in 1951, Singapore’s water polo team was desperate to go one better in 1954.
But with the continent’s kingpins Japan in the way, the South-east Asian boys needed something special, something unexpected, in Manila.
Captain Kee Soon Bee had a game plan in mind: deception. Knowing that the Japanese would be scouting them closely at every game before the final, he told his southpaw star player Tan Hwee Hock to only use his right hand.
“He also told me not to try any of my funny strokes,” recalled Tan, now 89 years old.
The strategy would lay the foundation for Singapore’s gold medal in the sport, one which remains to this day the only team sports title by the country at the Asian Games besides team events in individual sports like bowling and sailing. It is a record which is likely to stand after this month’s Asiad in Indonesia.
Thrilla in Manila
Kee’s instructions would be counter intuitive to anyone – let alone a top-class athlete, who builds a game plan around his strengths, downplaying weaknesses. Imagine Nadal swinging with his right hand or Beckham kicking with his left leg.
Yet, Tan not only obeyed but even pulled it off. At 1.8 metres and weighing over 85kg, he was a towering centre forward. His physique seemed to be engineered for water polo, with long muscular limbs that could propel him quickly through the water and outreach opponents for the ball.
He was fast. In the 1951 Asian Games, he had bagged a silver medal in the 3×100 swimming medley relay.
Most importantly, he had an arsenal of unorthodox trick shots – what Kee referred to as “funny shots”. His most formidable was the blind backhand.
Similar to a backward shot in basketball, he would swim away from goal before firing a shot blind, without looking at either the goalkeeper or the goal.
It was a shot he had spent hours perfecting at the former Haw Par swimming pool. “Many people think you can just do it offhand, but I was practising the throw for months,” he explained.
Kee did not want him to use the trick during the earlier games and Tan reined himself in. The team still breezed through the preliminaries, thrashing the likes of the Philippines and Hong Kong.
“When I played against the other teams, I scored all the goals with my right hand,” he said with a gentle smile.
As planned, Singapore reached the final and went up against Japan. Tan had bided his time. Now, he was ready to unleash his full repertoire of skills. The opponents had no idea what they were up against.
As he swam away from the Japanese goal with the ball, out came that left hand from nowhere, and in a vicious whip-like motion, he propelled the ball into the net. 1-0.
“The goalkeeper was shouting at his defenders to reorganise. He didn’t even see the ball go in,” he recalled with a chuckle, still revelling in the moment six decades later.
Japan had no answers to the rampaging Tan, who scored another backhand and completed his hat-trick with a cheeky flick from a teammate’s pass. The final score was 4-2 and the gold was Singapore’s.
“The crowning glory of my water polo career,” said Tan.
Forsaking the Olympics
The victory opened new doors for both the team and Tan. For the team, it was a ticket to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne.
For Tan, who was already a teacher then, opportunity came in the form of a scholarship to the Loughborough Training College in England.
But it would mean giving up his Olympic spot, a quandary that he struggles with to this day. Gun for Olympic glory, or secure a future through education?
It was an extremely difficult decision. “Some people scolded me for being stupid. But as far as I was concerned, I looked at the bread and butter issue. In those days, to be able to go to England was a dream,” he said heavily.
He gave up his place on the team and headed for England in 1956.
But water polo was never far from his heart. So he also coached the national team for a decade. Under his charge, Singapore clinched a bronze in the 1962 Asian Games and a silver in 1966.
From player to coach
The transition from player to coach was tough, he said. “A player’s concept is simply to do your best to win. You don’t bother about other things.
A coach has multifarious responsibilities. You’ve got to think of how to gel an entire team of individuals. That is very critical.”
Confidence, he preached, is the most crucial aspect of a player’s game. “If you’ve got no self-confidence, you’re finished. Overconfidence is also a danger. The key is to strike a balance.”
It was this piece of advice that he gave to the 1986 team before their bronze achievement in South Korea – the last time Singapore’s water polo team clinched a medal at the Asian Games.
Although he was the vice president for the water polo arm of the Singapore Amateur Swimming Association by then, he was elected Coach of the Year in 1987 for his role in their success. But he brusquely brushed off the accolade.
“I was just there to give advice, not coach. They wanted to make me Coach of the Year, I told them ‘good luck to you – that is not my priority’.”
He formally ended his involvement with water polo in 1990, but still feels a sense of attachment to the sport, frequently asking about the team.
Why remain in the sport for almost 40 years? “Simple. You love the sport, and you want to give something back,” said Tan.
“Back in those days we had to even pay for our own expenses. But we didn’t care. It was for the pure love and passion for the game.”