When Singapore marched as Malaysia

Singapore and Malaysia's athletes marched in one contingent at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics under the Malaysia flag. Photo: IOC

24 Jul 2019

After more than half a century, the Olympics finally returns to Tokyo. With exactly a year to go, we have a little history nugget to mark the occasion. Step back in time to 1964, when tigers and lions competed together at the Olympics in the Japanese capital – the only Games when Singapore marched as Malaysia. Read about what former athletes who participated in this special occasion have to say about their experiences here!

By Justin Kor

Gopalan Ramakrishnan marched into the Kasumigaoka National Stadium, wide-eyed and lightheaded from the deafening cheers and roars of the 48,000 spectators who greeted him.

On that chilly autumn evening in 1964, Tokyo was in party mode. The Olympic Games was in Asia for the first time and it heralded Japan’s coming-out party after its recovery from World War II.

For the 24-year-old boxer, that moment in the Japanese capital marked many personal milestones, precious memories which are rushing back as the world prepares a year-long countdown to the 2020 Games when the Olympics return to Tokyo.

Tokyo 1964 was Ramakrishnan’s first time in Japan; his first time competing at the Olympics; and perhaps most significantly, the first time he was marching under the 14-point star and yellow crescent of the new Malaysian flag as an athlete.

Four years ago in Rome, Singapore’s athletes had competed at the Olympics as a self-governing colony of the British Empire, using what would eventually be its national flag.

But change soon ensued again following the merger of Singapore and Malaya in 1963. Yellow was now added to the mix of red and white as athletes now marched under the new flag of the Federation of Malaysia.

“We (the male athletes) were all wearing songkoks, regardless of race,” recalled Ramakrishnan.

However, this union would be short lived – Tokyo would be the only Olympics where Singapore athletes would compete as Malaysia. Barely a year later, the island became independent after the two sides split following an increasingly fraught relationship.

At that time of the Games, the alliance was already strained. Just two months before, anarchy had reigned in Singapore as the island saw deadly racial riots. There was fear that this uneasiness could affect the athletes too.

United in spirit

But the tensions back home did not travel to Japan. Instead, the feeling was one of unity and honour among the 64-strong Malaysian contingent. “I felt that we were one,” said Ramakrishnan.

Cyclist Hamid Supaat agreed, saying: “As a sportsman, the only thing on your mind was to fight for your country.”

Through the Games, athletes on both sides of the Causeway were friendly. “We were all in our early 20s and still young. Politics was put to one side. It wasn’t on our minds at all,” said Hamid, who also competed in Tokyo.

Hamid, third from right, at the Tokyo 1964 Olympics. Photo: Hamid Supaat

Facing the world’s best

In Japan, the focus was only in sports, as the novice athletes had a taste of what it was like to compete against the world’s best.

Over at Hachiōji City in western Tokyo, Hamid experienced first hand the superior stamina of hardened European racers. “They were very strong, especially the Italians and French. If we were motorbikes, they were 1,000cc bikes. Us? Only 500cc,” he said with a laugh.

The Malaysian athletes did not only have to contend with higher standards, but also cold weather, as the mercury only averaged a mere 10 degrees Celsius.

“It was freezing, and the jerseys were not thick enough. Our chests were very painful every time we breathed,” said Hamid. To stay warm, he resorted to stuffing newspapers down his jersey as a buffer against the cold.

But the cold still proved to be unbearable – the cyclist retired after completing about half of the gruelling 190km road race.

In the pool, the swimmers did not fare much better. “The water wasn’t heated much, and we weren’t used to the temperature. We beat our best times during the heats, but it was just not enough. The rest of the swimmers were so much bigger and stronger,” recalled Michael Eu, who competed in the 200m backstroke. He finished seventh in his heats.

Even Singapore’s weightlifting medal hope Tan Howe Liang, who had won silver in Rome 1960, was outclassed in Japan as he only managed to place 11th out of 19 competitors.

But disappointments experienced on the field was made up with treasured memories made off it. “The Japanese provided us with bicycles and we rode everywhere,” recalled Eu. “They were tremendous hosts, and we met everybody from around the world.”

The athletes were also charmed by the locals, who welcomed them with great enthusiasm. “We were small time athletes. But everyone wanted to shake our hands. They didn’t care which country you were from – they’d just rush over and take photos with you,” said Ramakrishnan.

Coming full circle

Michael as a 18-year-old at the 1964 Olympic Games (left) and now a 73-year-old surfer (right). Photos: Michael Eu

Next year, the Olympics will be returning to the Japanese capital after 56 years. Much has changed – the stadium that Ramakrishnan, Eu and Hamid once walked in has since been scrapped, replaced with a bigger 68,000-seater new arena.

But for them, the nostalgia and memories still remain. Ramakrishnan wants to relive it by planning a return to watch the Games with fellow Tokyo 1964 Olympians.

“Of course it’ll be a special Olympics and it’ll be good to return. Not everybody gets a chance to represent their country. It means a lot to me.”

Eu is taking it one step further – the 73-year-old is planning to participate once more as an athlete in Tokyo. The former swimmer has since made the switch to surfing, with the sport set to make its debut at the Olympics.

“Hopefully that will make it two Olympics in the same city for me. It’s like coming full circle,” he said. “I hope to make it, because it won’t be a dream – it’ll be a legacy sealed.”