How Singapore won, and lost, the bid to host Asian Games

Mr S S Dhillon (left), Mr BK Sen (centre, first chairman of the Singapore Sports Council) and Mr E W Barker (right) - Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

29 Jul 2018

It was the night before the Asian Games Federation (AGF) meeting on the sidelines of the ongoing 1972 Munich Olympics and the small delegation of Singapore officials had knocked back a few beers along with generous servings of pork knuckles at the famed Hofbrauhaus.

As they walked out of the well-known beer hall near midnight, SNOC president E. W. Barker turned to Mr S. S. Dhillon and asked if he had prepared a draft speech for him to pitch for Singapore to host the 1978 Asian Games.

It was not written yet, said SNOC’s secretary-general, but he promised Barker that it would be ready in the morning. “We went back to the Games Village and I took a good shower before I started drafting,” recalled Mr Dhillon. “I was very much sober and, by 4am, I was done with my handwritten draft.”

Barker read the speech a few times, memorised it and delivered the message with a precision befitting the Law Minister. He was ready.

Singapore was up against a formidable opponent, Fukuoka of Japan, which had better infrastructure and track record. But Barker turned Singapore’s weakness into its strength.

He said to the federation: “We are nowhere compared to Japan and their establishment to host the Games. But we would ask you to do us a favour, that we are a small country and to let us show you that we can also do it.” He stressed that Singapore was a multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural city and food for all nationalities would not be a problem. Singapore was at the crossroads of Asia, he said. “The Asian Games is a chance to help Singapore grow. Please give us a chance. We will not let you down.”

The delegates were convinced. Singapore won with 20 votes to Fukuoka’s 15. Media reports said delegates revealed they were convinced by Barker’s speech. But Barker knew who the real architect behind those words was. As the Singapore team celebrated that night after the victory, he went to the bar and picked up two glasses of beer, one for himself and another for Mr Dhillon. He said: “This is for the good speech you wrote to make the bid.”

Singapore out

But everything changed in 1973. Hints of it came in the preparation for the South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games, which Singapore would host for the first time that year.

When a budget of $9.9 million was submitted to Barker, he was shocked and insisted on a revision to scale it down. “If I take this budget of $9.9 million, the prime minister will blow my balls off,” he said.

It was brought down to less than $3 million. But while the SEAP Games saw 1,790 competitors, the Asian Games would host more than 3,800. Hosting the Asian Games would be much more expensive.

On November 1, 1973, less than two months after the end of the SEAP Games, news was leaked from overseas that Singapore was pulling out from staging the 1978 Asian Games.

The decision shocked the AGF. Its secretary-general Hassan Rassouli said the federation received a letter from Barker requesting withdrawal. “The letter did not give any reasons, but it certainly surprised me. We wanted to see Singapore hold the 1978 Games – but now I can only say that it is indeed regrettable.”

The local sports community was dismayed. Boxer Syed Abdul Kadir, who was at the Munich Olympics, told the New Nation: “At that time, I felt that it was such a great honour to stage the Asian Games. But now I am disappointed and upset. The news is a shock but I think the reasons are right.”

The reasons, Barker laid out two weeks later, were financial. Demand for buildings in Singapore had increased sharply and there was a shortage of construction workers.

The authorities were faced with the scenario of building either new Housing Board public flats or Phase 2 of the National Stadium. The second phase would have included an indoor swimming pool and two indoor stadiums – plans which Barker had told the AGF would be realised in time for the 1978 Asiad.

The Singapore government chose the flats. Without the indoor stadiums, Singapore would not be able to host the Asian Games.

“A few months ago, the Olympic Council of Singapore was told by the Government that priority must be given to the construction of low-cost flats to house our population,” said Barker to the media.

The decision to withdraw was made after the SEAP Games, added Barker, when it became clear to the host nation that it would not be able to accommodate the Asian Games unless the new indoor stadiums were built. Singapore’s existing sports facilities could barely cope with the SEAP Games.

Tehran withdrawal

Singapore still had to make the withdrawal official and a three-man delegation led by Barker left for Tehran in November 1973 to address the AGF.

When they met AGF president Gholamreza Pahlavi, who was a brother of the emperor of Iran, the Iranian prince was understanding of Singapore’s constraints and decision.

But he said that the federation’s meeting later that day did not have Singapore’s request on its agenda. The withdrawal had been too sudden.

Barker asked Mr Pahlavi to insert two sentences into his opening remarks: “SNOC has some problems regarding the hosting of 1978 Asian Games in Singapore. So before we start our meeting proper, we would like to discuss this matter.”

The Iranian prince agreed and Singapore finally found an opportunity to address the AGF.

After Barker explained the reasons behind Singapore’s withdrawal, the delegates voted unanimously to allow the change and did not impose penalties on Singapore. This was unlike when South Korea dropped out of hosting the 1970 Games – Seoul was fined by the AGF.

Mr Dhillon called it a bittersweet moment. “It was sweet because the nation came first and we had to withdraw,” he said. “But it was bitter because we had to give up what we won just a year ago.”

Singapore has never submitted another bid to host the Asian Games since.

*Edited excerpt from Rings of Stars and Crescent – 70 Years of the Olympic Movement in Singapore by Peh Shing Huei.