Chasing dreams, winning medals, and meeting Ronaldo: 10 years of the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship
By Justin Kor
In the northern Italian town of Turin, Putri Nur Syaliza nervously waited off-camera in a studio – not a setting the footballer would typically find herself in. But it was not a typical day for her. Just metres away stood one of world’s biggest sports icon, Cristiano Ronaldo, as he engaged in conversation with a TV host.
A few minutes later, one of Singapore’s top female footballers would be on camera, shoulder to shoulder with one of the world’s greatest. Not only did she get to share the spotlight with the Portuguese superstar, but also conducted a mini-interview with him in a promotional livestream for e-commerce platform Shopee.
“It was the best thing I could ever ask for, it was such a good opportunity to go overseas and meet him in person,” said the 17-year-old forward of the meeting in 2019, the thrill still evident in her voice some nine months later.
This golden opportunity to meet one of her footballing idols had been made possible through the Singapore Olympic Foundation (SOF)-Peter Lim scholarship, after the foundation invited her to attend the event in Europe. It was not the first time Ronaldo has been involved with an SOF-Peter Lim event, with the Portuguese having graced its events twice in Singapore.
More than stardust, the scholarship has funded more than 2,900 student-athletes since tycoon Peter Lim made a S$10 million donation to set it up in 2010. The sum is the single largest donation in Singapore from an individual towards sports development in Singapore.
A decade on, the annual scholarship has assuaged worries, provided motivation, and freed athletes to chase their dreams. It has bolstered local sports, with many recipients going on to represent Singapore in major competitions. Some have even made history and won medals, such as household names like Joseph Schooling, Jasmine Ser and Tao Li.
Putri is one of lesser-known ones, even though she is the youngest footballer to play for the Singapore national women’s team. In 2018, at just 14, she scored on her debut for the Lionesses.
Her footballing journey has not been an easy one. Her mother, who works as a bus driver, is the sole breadwinner in the family of six, as her father is unemployed because of health problems. Issues off the pitch threatened to hamper her performance on it. “It was very difficult for me when I needed the money to get good sports equipment,” she recalled.
Support from the scholarship has helped the eight-time recipient to flourish, with the money used to buy new football boots and fund her expenses for overseas tournaments. “The scholarship has really helped me a lot. It’s had a really good impact,” she said.
Such is its success that Mr Lim has renewed his commitment by pumping in another S$10 million to further fund the scholarship from 2021 to 2030.
“Pursuing sports excellence is life changing – it gives inspiration and hope,” said SOF chairman Ng Ser Miang. “Over the past 10 years, Mr Lim’s continued generosity has allowed many young Singapore athletes to pursue and excel in their sporting dreams. It stemmed from his simple wish that no young athlete be held back, or have unrealised potential because of financial difficulties.”
Lifting the financial shackles
The monetary boost has freed many athletes from financial worries which could have crippled their sporting pursuits. Take kegler New Hui Fen, whose scholarships from 2011 to 2013 helped strike a balance between studies and sports, for instance. She estimates that she spends close to S$2,000 on equipment alone in a year. There are also overseas trips and training costs to contend with.
Her family had found it difficult to fund her sporting dreams, and working part-time jobs barely covered the costs. The S$30,000 received over the three years massively alleviated the financial pressure. “I was really happy when I got it, because I could use the money to help me with training fees,” said the 29-year-old. This also freed up some funds to study at a private university.
The financial support has also lifted a mental block for many recipients, giving them the ease of mind to completely devote themselves to their sport. In the past, gymnast Lincoln Forest Liqht Man used to agonise about getting injured, as he sometimes did not have enough money to see a doctor. At one point, his coach had to loan him some money to get an X-ray after his elbow swelled from a bad fall. Such worries are no longer there, after being a scholarship recipient for the past eight years.
“Having the scholarship helped me out mentally. Finances used to weigh heavily on my mind as I was worried my family couldn’t bear the cost,” said the 20-year-old. “Having the peace of mind to compete is very important, and the scholarship has helped me perform better as an athlete.”
Bolstering the sports scene
The scholarship has become a stepping stone to greater achievements. Many recipients have gone on to represent the country at major Games: 13 at the Olympics; 77 to the Asian Games; 28 to the Commonwealth Games; and 146 to the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
It has sometimes translated to medals, like it did for sailor Loh Jia Yi, who won a bronze at the 2014 Asian Games, and a silver at the 2015 SEA Games. “The scholarship gave me the chance to travel, compete in all these events, and train with the top sailors around the world” said the three-time recipient who is in his third year of medical school.
Likewise, New has reaped rewards. At the 2019 SEA Games, she was the tournament’s best women’s bowler after bagging three golds in the masters, team, and individual event.
Podium achievements have led to many in the local sports scene lauding the initiative. “Many recipients of the SOF-Peter Lim scholarships have gone on to do Singapore proud and inspire Singaporeans on the international sporting arena over the last decade,” said Singapore Sport Institute’s chief Toh Boon Yi. “We envisage that the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship can continue to play a game-changing role as an integral part of our national High-Performance System.”
For many recipients, the scholarship has been a decisive factor in not giving up their sporting dreams. “I never knew there was such an initiative like this. With people willing to fund the dreams of athletes, it really gave me a lot of support,” said New. “Cherish the opportunity, and don’t take it for granted.”