25... And counting

25... And counting
Mr Tan Hwee Hock, one of the patriachs of the water polo and swimming Tan family

A perfunctory win, then an unexpected draw, but at the end, a gold medal was the reward.

What seemed an ordinary triumph in December 1965 has blossomed over the years into a nation's two-yearly obsession.

A prized possession gained, morphing into a dream.

And more dreams... 25 times.

To the point that, every other year since '65, when the Games are staged, Singaporeans have celebrated the unique feat, with flashbacks becoming legendary.

Overwhelmed by euphoria, we sometimes worry about losing the stranglehold.

We are excited at the prospect of extending the record this year when Singapore hosts the 28th South-east Asia (SEA) Games, but there is also that slight nagging worry of a shock loss on home soil. For 50 years, Singapore have been kingpins of water polo at the South-east Asian Peninsular Games and the SEA Games.

And every time the biennial Games are staged, we cherish this gold as much as other bigger triumphs.

Because a huge record is at stake.

A proud tradition has to be maintained.

It is sentimental. It raises pride and patriotism.

After more than a 100 matches, Singapore have yet to taste defeat in men's water polo at South-east Asia's biggest Games.

One man has seen it all, and he is also the hero who sparked the winning tradition in Kuala Lumpur as an athletic 28-year-old.

Tan Eng Bock was the captain of the victorious team when water polo made its debut at the regional Games in 1965.

Only three nations competed in the inaugural tournament in the Malaysian capital just months after Singapore gained independence.

Singapore beat Thailand 21-0 and Malaysia defeated the Thais 11-0.

In the decider, Singapore and Malaysia drew 5-5 and Tan's tenacious lot won the gold medal on goal average.

Tan was among the scorers, but where he excelled was in organising his team into a winning unit, even beaming with confidence when Malaysia replied with two quick late goals to draw level.

For his leadership and high performance, he received a congratulatory letter from the then-Prime Minister, Singapore's founding father Lee Kuan Yew.

The letter, dated Jan 6, 1966, read: "May I send you congratulations for having done so well in the recent S.E.A.P. meet at Kuala Lumpur and winning a gold medal. You did Singapore proud.

"I was unable to attend the reception given by Minister for Social Affairs (Mr Othman Wok) on the 30th December... but I would like you to know that your performance brought into focus the qualities of discipline, stamina and talent which will enable the people of Singapore to overcome so many of their present difficulties and secure our future as a nation. "Once again, my heartiest congratulations on behalf of my colleagues and myself."

Looking back, Tan said in a recent interview: "It was a welcome gesture by our then-PM.

"The country had just gained independence and Mr Lee appreciated what we did, and was rallying us to work together and build a nation of achievers."

While the 1965 victory is honoured in history, Tan best remembers the 1969 triumph when Singapore almost had their record broken.

"We were 5-3 up against Malaysia in the final. But the gutsy Malaysians fought back to 5-5, with just second left.

"At the restart, I signalled to Eric (Yeo) to pass the ball to me as I saw their goalkeeper off-position.

"And from the midway line, I caught him by surprise with a long throw which he could only turn into goal. We won 6-5, and what a victory that was."

Tan has had a long association with Singapore water polo.

He continued leading the team to the gold-medal triumphs of 1967 and 1969, before coaching the team and later taking up the major appointment of international referee for water polo.


Tan, who also played in Singapore's phenomenal success at the 1954 Asian Games in Manila with his brother Eng Liang and uncle Hwee Hock, continued the famous Tan tradition by encouraging his sons Matthew and Mark to take up water polo.

And while Mark played in one gold medal-winning SEA Games team, Matthew, who later became captain in 1983, won 10 straight gold medals at the SEA Games.

After picking up the game at Pasir Panjang, where he lived beside the sea as a young boy, he saw inspiration from his father and uncles who played the sport at Tiger Swimming Club, who trained at Haw Par Swimming Pool.

Dad Wee Hong and uncles Wee Chwee (who represented China for a few years), Wee Eng and Hwee Hock gave him the baptism in swimming and water polo and, after studying at Pasir Panjang Primary School, Tan continued his education at Raffles Institution.

He joined the police force after school as a cadet inspector and rose to the ranks of director (CID), Commander (areas) to an Assistant Commissoner's post before he retired in 1992. For his services to the police force and water polo, Tan was given the Public Service Medal (silver) in the 1986 National Day honours.

Looking forward to next week's SEA Games, Tan said: "It is nice to see the event come back to Singapore. Winning matters, but it is not everything.

"I would like to see the Games spark a sports culture in Singapore.

"As for water polo, I'm confident that our boys will continue the great tradition and make it No. 26."


This article was first published on May 30, 2015.
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