Para outreach acts touch hearts, minds

Until yesterday, Tiara Aqilah, 13, had never met a para-athlete.

But with his booming voice and strapping physique, the 1.82m, 97kg Kalai Vanen certainly left an impression on the Bendemeer Secondary School student for an altogether different reason .

The 56-year-old powerlifter may have lost his left leg to cancer more than 30 years ago but this did not dim his passion for sport.

Unsurprisingly, his story of how he overcame adversity moved Tiara deeply. Such tales from Vanen and his fellow ASEAN Para Games (APG) team-mates are precisely what organisers hope will create a more inclusive Singaporean society.

This isone where both the able-bodied and disabled can live better through sports, noted Singapore ASEAN Para Games Organising Committee (Sapgoc) chairman Lim Teck Yin.

"The defining legacy for Singapore must be that increasing numbers of people with disabilities, whether they are children or working adults, they are coming out and saying I want to learn a sport, I know where to go and there's something for me."

With 50 days until the APG, hosted in Singapore for the first time with a budget of $75 million, organisers have begun increasing outreach programmes to raise awareness ahead of the Dec 3-9 Games.

A new music video of the popular song Unbreakable, which is one of the three theme songs for both the Singapore SEA Games and the APG, was unveiled at yesterday's launch event at Bendemeer. It features six APG athletes - Theresa Goh, Tay Wei Ming, Jovin Tan, Khairul Anwar, Nurulasyiqah Mohammad Taha and Toh Sze Ning.

Said Minister for Culture, Community and YouthGrace Fu: "It's a great time for us to rally together to show our support for our athletes and to give the best support we can to One Team Singapore."

The Gift-a-Nila programme, where members of the public get to sew heart-shaped mini cushions that will later be attached to the Nila plush toys for distribution to all participating athletes and officials - unlike at the Singapore SEA Games where only medallists received the stuffed toy - was also launched.

The eighth biennial Games will feature 15 sports and 3,000 athletes and officials, making it the biggest in the competition's history.

Entry to all events, to be held mainly at the Sports Hub and Marina Bay, will be free.

Besides decking out buses, trains, taxis and ActiveSG centres islandwide with the posters of local para-athletes, other grassroots initiatives in selected schools and the heartland (Sengkang and Pasir Ris on Nov 7 and 8 respectively) are also being planned.

A mass rally, which will include the lighting of the APG flame and the official flag-presentation ceremony, will be held at Marina Bay on Nov 14.

Said para-swimmer Goh, who made her debut at the inaugural Games in 2001 and is the country's most successful APG athlete with 24 golds: "The support so far has been amazing, more than I have ever seen.

"My wish for this Games is that it will raise the profile of disability sports in Singapore so that people see how hard we train and see us as equals of the able-bodied athletes."

The issue of unequal treatment surfaced last week when organisers stated that public trains would be the primary mode of transport for APG participants before later clarifying that shuttle buses would also be made available.

Said Ms Fu: "The stakeholders and their needs are varied, so the approach taken by Singapore sports that we will basically give them the option is a very good one.

"But it is also a time for us to show how Singapore can accommodate people with disabilities on our transportation system so we will try our best to make it as comfortable as possible for them."

She added: "Their welfare is our biggest priority."

The Republic, with the largest-ever contingent of 166 athletes, will compete in all 15 sports.

At the previous edition last year in Myanmar, the Republic brought home 26 medals (seven golds, 10 silvers and nine bronzes) and finished seventh among 10 nations.

Indonesia topped the standings with 99 golds, ending Thailand's streak of five consecutive overall championships since 2003.

This article was first published on October 14, 2015.
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