SEA Games: In Dad's footsteps, hopefully

The old Singapore Badminton Hall along Guillemard Road has been where several pages of Singapore history were written.

The 1955 and 1958 Thomas Cup Finals were held there while, in 1962, it was the vote-counting station for a referendum on the formation of Malaysia.

The Rolling Stones rocked the hall so hard in 1965 that a wall, erected for the concert, collapsed.

It was also the scene where Wong Shoon Keat clinched the Republic's first men's singles gold medal at the South-east Asia (SEA) Games in 1983.

Thirty-two years later, his son, Derek, will attempt to perform a similar giant-killing feat when the 28th SEA Games is held here, from June 5 to 16.

For Derek and his three brothers, the Singapore Badminton Hall was their playground - they would hang out at their father's shop, which was located within the premises.

Speaking to The New Paper recently, Shoon Keat, 58, said: "After I finished my career, Mr Ong (Teng Cheong, ex-Singapore Badminton Association president) asked me what I wanted, I told him that I didn't have much education, so I wanted to open a badminton shop to survive and help coach some young shuttlers.

"I was there for more than 10 years and all my children grew up there - they were there every day and, if they had nothing to do, they would take a racket and play with their friends while I coached."

While his eldest and third sons Shawn and Jamie played badminton only at school level, second son Derek showed interest in turning pro after his 'O' levels at Montfort Secondary School.

Now 26, Derek said: "At 16, I wasn't really of the right maturity to make that kind of decision on my own. I needed to speak to my parents, my school and anyone who had been through such a path."

He did eventually turn pro, even though dad and mum had their misgivings - in terms of education, National Service and the level of competition here.

Derek's journey hasn't been easy at all.

He lost ground while in National Service with the police and, later, just when he thought he could tap on the experience of seniors Ronald Susilo and Kendrick Lee, the duo retired in 2010.

Derek has famously claimed the scalps of stars like Indonesia's Taufik Hidayat, but consistency has been his biggest problem.


He did make a breakthrough last year when he won a men's singles silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Singapore's first medal at the event.

But the 2011 SEA Games bronze-medallist knows that the SEA Games this June will almost certainly be tougher, with world-class shuttlers from Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam in the mix.

Said Derek: "I'm more motivated for this SEA Games and we have home ground advantage, we should be in a better position to do well.

"When other players play in their own countries, they are stronger. We should be, too; we shouldn't be scared."

He will be joined, for the first time, by youngest brother Jason, and the battleground has moved to the Singapore Indoor Stadium.

Doubles player Jason, 18, said: "I can see for myself the hardship that my dad and brother have gone through in the sport and, instead of discouraging me, their stories helped me prepare mentally to make that next step up.

"I know it will not be easy and I don't know when I can do it, but I will work hard and do my best to excel in the sport.

"I want to taste the glory that my brother and dad tasted, and even to surpass them."

Just months before the 1983 South-east Asia (SEA) Games in Singapore, Wong Shoon Keat and his teammates from the Singapore badminton squad were hitting the beach at East Coast almost every day, doing sprints and lifting weights under the watchful eye of coach Fu Hanxun.

Three months before the Games in June, Fu was drafted in from China on a six-month contract, and one of his first moves was to improve the fitness of the Singapore shuttlers.

Wong, now 58, recalled: "It was my first time training full-time for the Games, I was then working for my uncle at his printing company and took three months unpaid leave to train.

"The coach said, 'you've got skill, but your strength and body conditioning is no good'... So my programme was 70 to 80 per cent focused on physical training."

One suspects no one in the current team preparing for the 28th SEA Games here in June will be able to identify with the squad from 1983 and how they got ready for their battle.

Wong had a lorry back then, and transported weights to the beach where the team, including his future wife Irene Lee, would sweat it out under Fu.

"This training was something very new to us, we did weights on the beach, we sprinted on the beach and even did shadow badminton there.

"But we all enjoyed doing it," he said.

In 1983, the SEA Games badminton competition was held at the old Singapore Badminton Hall along Guillemard Road.

Indonesian badminton legend Icuk Sugiarto, the newly minted world champion, was the overwhelming favourite then, but dropped out of the men's singles tournament because of flu.

Wong beat Thailand's Sarit Pisudchaikul in his semi-final to meet Indonesia's Hastomo Arbi in the men's singles final on June 5. Wong remembers the Singapore Badminton Hall being filled to the brim.

Among them were the late E.W. Barker, the-then Singapore National Olympic Council president, and the late Ong Teng Cheong, the SBA president who went on to become the Republic's fifth President.

Said Wong: "Before the match (E.W. Barker) met me in the conference room and said, 'I hope you're not tensed up by all the officials here. We are all here to support you and all you have to do is to give your best'.

"I just told myself to play a good game."

He lost the first set - under the old rules - 9-15, before storming through the second 15-2 to set up the rubber.

Wong allowed an 11-6 lead in the third game to evaporate for the scores to stand at a tense 11-11. He moved to a 14-11 lead before nerves got to him again.

In his haste to win Singapore's first men's singles gold, he sent powerful smashes out after holding serve three times, before Hastomo sent the shuttle into the net.

A tired Wong could only lift his arms to celebrate.

He said: "They were all around - my parents, uncles, brothers and, most importantly, my wife, whom I wasn't married to yet but someone I really cared for and treasured a lot."


l Derek Wong l Loh Kean Yew l Sean Lee l Ryan Ng Zin Rei l Danny Bawa Chrisnanta l Chayut Triyachart l Hendra Wijaya l Terry Hee l Loh Kean Hean l Jason Wong l Chen Jiayuan l Liang Xiaoyu l Yeo Jia Min l Vanessa Neo l Shinta Mulia Sari l Tan Wei Han l Elaine Chua l Grace Chua l Ong Ren-ne l Crystal Wong

This article was first published on April 20, 2015.
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