Late bloomer in studies

SINGAPORE - Arm wrestling champion Valen Low treats his sport seriously and not as a novelty that many people here may consider it to be.

He will use the $1,000 prize money he received for winning last month's Shin Min Arm Wrestling Challenge to finance his competition in Melbourne next month. In fact, the 20-year-old polytechnic student has spent $5,000 competing in Malaysia since he took part in his first competition, the Malacca Open, in December 2010.

Across the Causeway, he was a junior champion in 2011 and climbed to the No. 1 spot against rivals in Sabah and Indonesia in competitions last year.

Valen says the World Armwrestling Federation does not organise arm wrestling contests in Singapore and there is no official body for the sport here. His mother Goh Poh Choo, 58, a cook at a country club where his father is a chef, says she is willing to let international arm wrestlers bunk in at their five-room HDB flat in Yishun should they visit Singapore. "It's better to have the practices at my place than him going out and mixing with bad company," she explains.

His father, Mr Low Fook Cheong, 55, is also rooting for him, but feels "it will be worth it only" if he has Singapore Sports Council funding. Valen, the elder of two sons, got hooked on arm wrestling at around 13 after he watched the sport online. Fascinated by it, he began an informal arm wrestling league in school, incurring his teachers' displeasure for distracting his peers.

Studies held no interest for Valen, who went to Townsville Primary and Whitley Secondary schools. He scored 32 points for his O levels and it was only at ITE College Central, where he took a community sports and recreation course, that he became interested in studying.

Now a health management and promotion student at Republic Polytechnic, he has a grade point average of 3.4. He says: "It's not that the students are incapable. It's that their abilities are dormant and it's up to the educators to draw out that potential. I want to study sports science at Nanyang Technological University in two years."

Now that Valen is doing well in his studies, you must be pleased as parents.

Madam Goh: His good grades are a surprise but I didn't give up hope even when he went to ITE because education is never wasted, and the skills learnt there will be useful and relevant in the future.

Mr Low: It was a surprise for me too but I never gave up hope as he's my son - I have to support him. But he's just getting started. There's still a long way to go and I'd like him to get a degree or even study further.

How close are you to your brother, Kenji?

Madam Goh: They were born 11 months apart, so they were in the same class in primary and secondary schools, except for Primary 6 and Secondary 1 and 2.

Valen: We had the same group of friends to play soccer, basketball and computer games with. Now we hang out with them weekly for movies and dinners.

What was the naughtiest thing Valen and Kenji did when they were growing up?

Madam Goh: They kept skipping tuition classes for mathematics, science and English in Primary 6. I was afraid they'd fail their PSLE.

Valen: We were enrolled at a tuition centre in Ang Mo Kio. I couldn't absorb anything. We skipped every other class to play computer games at video arcades.

Madam Goh: He said we were wasting our money. The tuition centre would call us if they didn't turn up.

Mr Low: One day, I gave Valen a slap when he came home. He should have set a good example as the older brother. It was the only time I hit him and I regretted it. I should have shown more patience.

Who is stricter; mum or dad?

Valen: Neither. It was my paternal auntie, who disciplined my brother and me. Like when she caned us after we skipped tuition too many times.

Madam Goh: My father couldn't afford to send me to school. I can't read or write. We left their school matters to my sister-in-law, Marilyn Low, an administrative assistant who lived with us till the boys were 16.

Valen: In Primary 6, she had a ridiculous system: My whole afternoon after school was split into study blocks of one hour, with 15-minute breaks for play in between. I had just one hour a day to play. She gave us one or two strokes of the cane when we didn't study.

What is your view on caning?

Mr Low: I don't believe in caning. But they needed to improve their attitude towards studying.

Madam Goh: We didn't interfere with what my sister-in-law did because her strictness was good for them. The caning stopped when they were about 14, when she felt they were too old to be caned.

Valen: I didn't think it was good for me. Fear and guilt are not good stimuli. It's a stick-only approach, like in North Korea.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Valen: If I were my parents, I would believe in my child's word that he wants to be the world arm wrestling champion, even if he said it at 14 years old to anyone he knew. Maybe some day I will become world champion. I'm a competitive and confident person, and I'll do all it takes to succeed in the sport.

Madam Goh: I wouldn't do anything differently - I would chase my dream.

Mr Low: I would juggle school and sports better so that sports does not become more important.

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