S. S. Dhillon – the unsung hero of Singapore’s first SEA Games

Mr S S Dhillon and his wife at the Team Singapore 2015 SEA Games Flag Presentation.

11 Sep 2018

By Justin Kor

There are three books lying on S. S. Dhillon’s coffee table at home: the Bible, Great Stories of the Bible, and Rings of Stars and Crescent – a tome on 70 years of the Olympic movement in Singapore.

The three titles sum up the man’s life: religion and sports. The devout Christian, now 87, never misses church service with his wife on Sundays.

Sports on the other hand, is his earthly passion, an area he has also religiously served for over 40 years – first as an educator, then as the Singapore National Olympic Council’s (SNOC) longest serving secretary-general.

For 24 years, the Dhillon name was almost synonymous with the SNOC. He was the chief executive behind a young sporting nation hosting three South-east Asian (SEA) Games and participating in five Olympics, six Asian Games and six Commonwealth Games.

From 1971 to 1995, it was a safe bet that anyone vaguely connected to the sports scene in Singapore would recognise his name, his burly size and unmistakable mop of curly hair.

In light of his contributions over nearly a quarter of a century, the prestigious United States Sports Academy presented Dhillon with a citation award in 1993. A part of it reads: “Mr. Sathiavan Singh Dhillon brought honor to sport, country and himself through his tireless and diligent efforts.” That plaque proudly hangs on the wall at his doorway today.

Mr Dhillon (fourth from left) accompanies Minister for Social Affairs Othman Wok (second from right) on a tour of the 1973 SEA Games facilities.
Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

For over four decades, Dhillon had seen it all. And as he looked back, one date always stands out: September 1, 1973. It was the opening of the South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games – the first time Singapore hosted a major sports event.

“There were no files, no standards set by anyone. I had to start from scratch,” he says.

But he was prepared.

From educator to secretary-general

He had learnt the importance of hard work from an early age. In his childhood, he would wake up at 5am every day to milk the cows in his hometown in Taiping, Malaysia, before going to school.

“You’ve got to work hard. If you don’t work hard, you cannot achieve success,” he preaches.

In school, he was an avid sportsman, playing rugby, and “all other games that you can think of”. But he pursued a career in education, coming to Singapore in 1952 to attend the Teachers’ Training College, and becoming a qualified teacher in 1955.

Retaining a keen interest in sports, he then became a physical education inspector at the Ministry of Education.

Dhillon was content at the ministry, but when a colleague began bragging about being offered the role of SNOC secretary-general over lunch every day, he became annoyed.

“One day out of disgust I said: ‘If the role is publicised on the papers, I’ll apply, and I’ll beat you to it’,” he recalls. When the job was advertised in the papers, he signed up, and true to his words, was selected to become the first full-time secretary general of the newly renamed SNOC in 1971.

Venturing into the unknown

Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Dr Goh Keng Swee with guests at the reception during the opening of the 1973 SEAP Games Village in Toa Payoh. On his right is Mr Dhillon.
Photo: Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, courtesy of National Archives of Singapore

Although the council’s manpower was minimal with only three full-time workers, the tasks ahead were immense.

As secretary-general, one of his first tasks was to organise the 1973 SEAP Games, as it was known at that point.

“I was told that the SEAP Games must not fail, and I must do my best to make it a success,” says Dhillon, who also had to contend with a severely reduced budget. The initial sum of $9.9 million had been reduced to $3 million under the instructions of then-SNOC president, the late E .W. Barker.

“He (Barker) told me point blank that the initial sum was far too much, and the Prime Minister would not be happy.”

Dhillon worked overnight to cut the costs. With limited funds, he had to be resourceful to find solutions for every logistical issue.

So instead of using Mercedes-Benzes to ferry officials, as was the original plan, he used Toyotas and borrowed cars from his teachers at the ministry, paying them a daily rate of $30 a day for petrol.

For lodging, he used four newly-built point blocks at Toa Payoh Central to house the 1,790 athletes, and borrowed bedding from the military.

To be closer to operations, Dhillon also had a makeshift office set up in a small room at the back of the Toa Payoh public library.

He relied heavily on volunteers, mostly recruiting his former teacher friends to help organise the events and logistics. For instance, he enlisted the help of a home economics teacher to help out with food and catering.

“I said to myself, ‘there’s a job to be done, do it’. When I couldn’t do it on my own, I begged others to help,” he says with a steely undertone. He succeeded, with final expenditure amounting up to just $2.7 million.

A flawless SEAP Games would not only mean success on a sporting level, but would also symbolise Singapore’s coming of age as an independent nation. It was an event that simply could not afford any errors.

This fact was not lost on Dhillon, who endured a sleepless night before the opening ceremony. “I was worrying whether everything would click,” he recalls. Indeed, the Games began with an ominous curtain raiser as it rained heavily, delaying the ceremony for two hours.

“The parachutists were supposed to land with the flags, but we nearly cancelled that because of the rain. They were insisting to jump but we kept saying no. We only allowed them to jump when the rain stopped.”

There is a poignant pause, and then his voice quavers, the strain still evident 45 years later. “What if someone had died?”

Working behind the scenes, hardly anyone knew the scale of the tasks that confronted Dhillon on almost a daily basis.

He recalls a moment when there was a last-minute scramble to arrange for buses to send the 500-strong Malaysian contingent to the Malaysian embassy early one morning. No buses were available, despite pleas to various parties.

“I decided to solve it myself. I knew four Indian bus owners, and I managed to get 12 buses from them the day before. I didn’t sleep the night before. At 4am, I drove my car to the Games Village and thankfully, they arrived.

“The problem was solved. But nobody talked about it, nobody knew about it,” he said with a tear in his eye.

While Singapore athletes took the spotlight by hauling in 45 gold medals at the Games, placing second in the overall medal tally just behind Thailand, Dhillon toiled tirelessly in the shadows.

But that is probably how he would have liked it to remain. “I’ve always kept behind, and never put myself in front,” says the self-described “backroom boy” of SNOC.

At the opening ceremony of the Games, he insisted to have a corner seat in the VIP section, while his family sat in the common area.

But the 16 months of arduous preparations paid off. The 1973 Games was an unqualified success, both on a sporting and organisational level, reflecting Singapore’s emergence as a newly-independent state.

“There were a lot of obstacles to face at that time, but we held one of the best Games – that was important,” says Dhillon. With adrenaline and emotions still running high, he also suffered from insomnia for a few days after the Games ended. But for him, the suffering was all worth it.

“You see, you have to work hard, then you achieve success. And when you see success, it’s a joy. It was tough, but enjoyable.”