“A genius of a sporting leader” – Transformative sports official Dr Tan Eng Liang steps down from SNOC after 28 years

23 Sep 2020

By Justin Kor

It has been almost 30 years, but Mrs Jessie Phua still vividly remembers the first time she met Dr Tan Eng Liang and instantly got a sense that this was no ordinary sports official. It was at the 1991 South-east Asian (SEA) Games in Manila, Philippines, where she was simply a parent supporting her daughter racing in the pool.

Dr Tan on the other hand, was the contingent’s chef de mission, tasked with an exhausting daily schedule that required him to shuffle between many competition venues and check on the athletes. But to him, there was always some time to spare for an anxious parent sitting in the stands. After all, they too formed Team Singapore.

Dr Tan Eng Liang (eighth from right) and the Special Training Assistance Committee visiting the national golfers who were preparing for the major Games.

“I was a nobody then, and yet he was so kind to come over for a chat and ask if everything was okay and whether he could do anything to help,” recalled the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) vice-president. “That message was so strong: that whenever we were out competing, we were one team. He was the epitome of what an official should be… a genius of a sporting leader.”

Now she is saying goodbye as a colleague, after the long-time SNOC stalwart announced that he would be stepping down from its vice-presidency after 28 years. He leaves behind a list of contributions and achievements that few athletes and sports administrators can match.

“I’ve learnt so many things from him. His approach to things, his dedication, his unwavering integrity. He’s always been this fatherly figure who’s always there for you when you needed help,” said Mrs Phua.

A dominant figure within Singapore’s sporting fraternity, his stamp on the scene was indeed considerable. In a sporting career spanning almost seven decades first as an athlete then sports administrator, he helped Singapore’s water polo team become one of Asia’s best in the 1950s and 60s, led national athletes to more major Games than any sports official, and laid the foundations for the transformation of sports in Singapore.

At SNOC, the grizzled veteran’s time will best be remembered for spearheading Singapore’s push for an elusive Olympic medal, and working tirelessly to raise the country’s sporting standards.

“He’s been a tremendous servant to sport in Singapore. He passionately cares about our sports and athletes, and he is irreplaceable for what he brings to the table,” said SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin.


The prodigious aquatic talent

Dr Tan (standing, fourth from left) competed at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games

As an athlete, Dr Tan was among the water polo greats who represented the country at the Olympics, Asian Games and SEA Games. To increase his selection chances for the 1956 Summer Olympics, the goalkeeper trained non-stop for a full year while juggling his studies.

The effort paid off when at just 19 years old, he was picked for the trip to Melbourne. There, the team finished 11th against international powerhouses such as Hungary and the Soviet Union. It remains the only time that Singapore has ever fielded a water polo team at the Olympics.

With Dr Tan between the sticks, Singapore’s water polo team was a tour de force for two decades. It clinched two silvers at the 1958 and 1966 Asian Games, and bagged two golds at the 1965 and 1967 South-east Asian Peninsular Games that would see Singapore embark on a remarkable streak of 27 consecutive SEA Games golds.


The sporting discipline master

As Chairman of the Singapore Sports Council, Dr Tan led the development of the Singapore Indoor Stadium in the 1980s.

The grit and determination he showed as a player would personify his time as a sports administrator. In 1975, he became chairman of the newly-formed Singapore Sports Council (SSC), which under his 16-year tenure saw the development of neighbourhood sports complexes. He was also the driving force behind the construction of the iconic Singapore Indoor Stadium.

“I’ve always admired his passion and total dedication,” said IOC vice president Ng Ser Miang, who had succeeded Dr Tan at the SSC. “He’d drive his team very hard, but you can see that everyone under him is also very passionate and committed to the job. It was like a happy family. As chairman of the SSC, I learnt a lot from him.”

But most of his sports administrative years were dedicated to SNOC, where he became vice-president in 1992. He was most noted as chair of the Special Training Assistance Committee (STAC), the organisation’s sporting watchdog that ensured high standards across the National Sporting Associations (NSAs).

It was perhaps the perfect role for a man who would accept no less but the best. “His greatest contribution was as chairman of STAC,” said former SNOC president Teo Chee Hean. “He’s a man who sets very high standards for himself, our athletes and our teams. The insistence of his high standards has pushed our athletes to keep on achieving more – this is why they have done better at the major Games.”

Dr Tan (in stripes) and SNOC President Tan Chuan-Jin (in blue) visiting the squash team preparing for the 2015 SEA Games.

He swiftly established a reputation as a no-nonsense official, always immaculately professional and meticulously prepared. “Whenever we sat down for team selection meetings, he’d actually spend the night before going through the files and would come into every meeting 100 per cent prepared,” recalled Mrs Phua who was also on the STAC committee. “He knows everything at the tip of his fingers – very few can match him in terms of that.”

He was intimidating yet compassionate, tough yet nurturing – never afraid to call out those who did not meet the requisite standards, but also willing to stand up for those who needed help.

Mr Ng recalled how Dr Tan had fought tirelessly to secure an additional funding of S$300,000 from SNOC for 14 NSAs in the lead up to the 2015 SEA Games: “He met the individual officials, heard their needs, studied their proposals, and watched how they prepared their athletes. When he was convinced they needed the extra help, he tried his best and pushed for the support.”

It seemed that very little was required to keep Dr Tan going – sports seemed enough. Before making visits to the NSAs that sometimes lasted late into the night, all he needed was a can of grass jelly and a curry puff, shared SNOC secretary-general Chris Chan.  “We’ll always make sure there’s curry puff for him and that’s it, he’s energised. He reminds me of the Duracell Bunny,” he said with a laugh. “People who come to know him have great respect for him. He carries credibility and legitimacy.”

Despite undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer just a month before, Dr Tan (fifth from right) led Singapore at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne as chef de mission.

This passion for sports even came at the expense of his health at times. In 2006, despite undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer just a month before, he led Singapore at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne as chef de mission and saw the team record their best performance at that time with 18 golds.

But the health issue did not stop him from enforcing high standards. “He was very strict about discipline, always reminding all of us that we were donning national colours and representing the flag, so we had to be on our best behaviour. He had this aura of officialdom about him,” recalled Lee Wung Yew, a former shooter who competed in Melbourne.

In 2008, despite suffering from a slipped disc, a 71-year-old Dr Tan obstinately defied doctors’ orders to once again lead the country at the Beijing Olympics, surviving the debilitating pain with a cocktail of painkillers for two weeks. It was worth it.

In the Chinese capital, he saw first-hand the vindication of Project 0812 – the sports project that looked to end Singapore’s 48-year old Olympic medal drought – when the women’s table tennis team clinched a silver. As the team was about to be torn apart because of internal rivalry, Tan was called in to calm tensions and mend relations.

He had been one of the driving forces of Project 0812, which saw more dividends with two bronzes at London 2012. “I think his perspective is that with so many privileges given to us today, we should be more responsible for these opportunities that we’re given and it is all the more expected that our athletes and sports administrators put in as much effort as possible,” said Mr Tan.

Dr Tan receiving the Singapore flag from then-SNOC President Teo Chee Hean in 1998 as he led the Singapore contingent to the Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games.

In all, Dr Tan served as chef de mission a record 12 times, leading Singapore athletes to two Olympics, two Commonwealth Games, two Asian Games, and six SEA Games.

Despite his retirement, many do not believe that it will truly be goodbye. “Knowing him, he’ll never really retire. He’ll always get involved in some way,” said Mr Ng. “But that’s just him. That’s just part of his life – it’s always about sports.”

Even as he retires from the SNOC, Dr Tan (fifth from left) continues to serve on Olympians Singapore and the Singapore Olympic Foundation.