Former track star and top rugby coach Bava surprised, inspired by 1965 letter from the late Mr Lee
Four months after this tiny island became an independent nation, Mr Natahar Bava, just out of his teens, represented Singapore at the 4th South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games in Kuala Lumpur in December 1965.
The then-20-year-old was part of the men's 4x100m track relay team that won a silver medal. He also bagged an individual bronze in the 200m.
Less than a month later, in early January, Bava received a letter at his home at Silat Walk in Bukit Merah.
It was a personal message from then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew congratulating him on his success at the Games.
Mr Lee had taken the time to send letters to sportsmen and women who represented the fledgling nation in the regional Games.
Speaking to The New Paper over the phone from Perth, Australia, where he is on holiday, Mr Bava, 70, said: "I was totally surprised to receive a letter from Mr Lee, and it was genuine motivation to have the then-No. 1 man in Singapore write a message to me.
"But I was just 20 then and didn't recognise the significance of what he wrote in the letter, about discipline, stamina and talent. I realised it much later and I used his message to motivate my rugby teams.''
He said of Mr Lee: "Some people say he was worried only about economics, but he also cared about sports and athletes back then."
Mr Bava was also part of the track and field team that competed in the 1967 SEAP Games (now the South-east Asia Games) in Bangkok where he bagged another silver and bronze as part of the men's 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams respectively.
He later became coach of the national rugby team and received the ultimate accolade when he won the 1979 Coach of the Year award after guiding Singapore to a historic win in the Malaysian Rugby Union Cup and third place in the 6th Asian Rugby tournament - the country's best achievement in the sport to this day.
Mr Bava, who first met the late statesman at an Istana function as a boy scout in 1961, had another encounter with Mr Lee some years later at an event at the old Teachers' Training College.
"I was a trainee teacher then and in a guard-of-honour to welcome Mr Lee. He stopped when he recognised the father of one of my friends and called him 'Uncle'," recalled Mr Bava, who intends to pay his respects when he and his wife return from holiday tomorrow.
"He was such a big man in terms of stature and intellect, yet he still had the humility to call someone he recognised 'Uncle'."
'He believed in building a rugged society'
While Mr Lee Kuan Yew's efforts to turn Singapore from a backwater into a first-world nation are widely known, veteran sports administrators also credit him for recognising the importance of sports.
Former Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) secretary general S. S. Dhillon said: "Mr Lee was a great builder of the nation. He considered sports an integral part of development for a rugged body and mind.
"He was responsible for the building of the first National Stadium.
"He also followed the organisation and implementation of the 1973, 1983 and 1993 South-east Asia Games (which Singapore hosted) very closely, and often requested for reports to know how they were being organised."
At the time, elite sports did not feature high on Mr Lee's to-do list, but former Singapore Sports Council (SSC) chairman Ng Ser Miang said: "He believed in building a rugged society and having sports for all.
"That was why we had a sports master plan to provide Singaporeans with facilities such as stadiums and swimming pools close to their housing estates.
"The SSC (now Sport Singapore) was set up to formulate and implement those plans."
Singapore's biggest football name, Fandi Ahmad, summed up the sentiments of many in the sports fraternity when he said: "This is really a sad time because Singapore is where it is today mainly because of Mr Lee's vision, guts and decisiveness.
"These are qualities we and our future generations can all learn and apply, in sports and in life."
This article was first published on March 27, 2015.
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