No dream is too big for Ng Ser Miang

OC president-hopeful Ng Ser Miang.

SINGAPORE - He's known as the man with a knack for making what is not yet the stuff of dreams a reality.

Mr Ng Ser Miang's life has been a patient exercise in raising the bar. He spent the past four decades raising Singapore's sporting standards, goals and expectations and pushing sports up the rostrum of national priorities. He helped bring home the glint and glitz of Olympic medals and meetings, previously deemed way out of its league, to Singapore.

In just four days, he may sail in with his biggest catch yet - the presidency of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). If he is voted in to succeed Mr Jacques Rogge as IOC's ninth president, he will be the first Asian to land the job. Out of the IOC's eight presidents in its 119-year history, only American Avery Brundage (1952-1972) was not a European.

If Mr Ng makes the cut next Tuesday, it will mean relocating to Lausanne, Switzerland, for the eight-year term - unpaid, by the way.

If he doesn't, it will be business as usual. He still intends to devote the rest of his life to sports development, especially making his first love, sailing, Singapore's national sport. As for his plans to remain with the IOC, the man who chaired the Singapore Sports Council for 11 years from 1991, became an IOC member in 1998, made it to its executive board in 2005 and was voted its first vice-president since 2009, muses: "If I'm not elected, I will still continue to work in what I believe in as an IOC member. I can continue till 80." His term as IOC vice-president ends this year. He can stand for it again after a two-year break and is open to that.

For many years now, local reporters have asked the former Nominated MP if he was using sports as a propeller into politics. The soft-spoken, old world gentleman has always demurred, saying he is in it for sports alone.

The former national sailor says that single-minded devotion to the sporting cause - always "the end in itself" - helped him stay the course. "I didn't need to bend to the wind because I had no greater agenda to serve," he maintains in his Singapore National Olympic Council office at Kallang, crammed with campaign material stamped with the five rings.

Educating youth

At 64, perhaps more people believe him when he asserts once more, with feeling, that he's running for IOC president because he believes that sports is "one of the most powerful social forces for good". He reels off how it can bond communities, ward off the obesity epidemic and build up the health and fitness of populations.

He is running his campaign by going back to basics. He has focused on the ideals of Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin who founded the modern Olympic Games as the "education of youth through sport".

He has been talking to philanthropic funds and large corporations to raise funds to construct at least 80 Olympic Youth Sport Development Centres - which are multi-sports complexes - all over the developing world within eight years. The first, built in Zambia three years ago, has proven to be a magnet for disenfranchised kids. A second is planned in Haiti.

His goal is to move the Games out of the stadium and make them more a part of everyone's daily life. He wants the event to be less about spectacle or winning medals, and more about nurturing the human spirit and "pushing yourself to the limit and being surprised at what you can achieve".

Unlike his other five competitors gunning for the presidency - IOC vice-president Thomas Bach (Germany); former Olympic pole vault champion Sergey Bubka (Ukraine); banking executive Richard Carrion (Puerto Rico); International Amateur Boxing Association president Wu Ching-kuo (Taiwan); and International Rowing Federation president Denis Oswald (Switzerland) - his campaign is not fixated on doping, match-fixing and other scandals that have dogged the Games.

Instead, he wants to fix these problems upstream by inculcating youth with the right values, such as respect, fair play and discipline. He feels these are best caught, not taught, through sports. This is preferable, he feels, to having to fix problems concerning the "erosion of integrity" downstream.

Many are rooting for Mr Ng and his ability to build rapport, including media consultant and sailor Peter Lim, 74. "He's the man with the synthesizer touch. He has this rare gift of getting people with diverse personalities and even conflicting agendas to work together for a common good. Whatever he takes on, he more than accomplishes... Beware, he is highly competitive. If he strives, he wants to win." Raising the bar

MR NG was born in 1949, the year his landowning family fled civil unrest in Shantou, China, for Singapore. From a young age, the sixth of nine children of a textile merchant and housewife was steeped in Chinese values like yin shui shi yan ("Never forget where your drink of water comes from") and the importance of giving back.

The Serangoon Garden Government High School and Dunman Government High boy was set on becoming a doctor till his 17th year, spent as an exchange student in San Jose where his Californian host family taught him sailing and skiing.

He returned, renewed with "new skills and new enjoyment", to read business administration at the then University of Singapore and won a sailing silver at the 1969 South-east Asian Peninsular Games. Upon graduation, he started work at Chung Khiaw Bank in 1973 and married his university sweetheart Ko Ai Choo, a teacher. In 1976, he was roped in to sort out the troubled Singapore Shuttle Bus company, which had seven different types of buses and many inefficient routes.

Armed with textbook management theories at 27, he negotiated with "rough and tough" drivers decades older, retooled the incentive scheme so they would not skip stops, and turned it around.

That led to starting Singapore's second bus company, Trans-Island Bus Services (Tibs), in 1982. To raise capital, he daringly borrowed $1 million from his father and sold his home, a Thomson bungalow, for $800,000.

He couldn't afford a deposit, but begged Japanese bus maker Hino to supply 200 buses anyway. Then he set about "providing a different level of service to create a bigger market and attract more commuters", one as far removed as possible from "the dirty, slow, rude" bus service he'd endured as a schoolboy.

He put in ergonomic bus seats and introduced flexiwages to reward drivers who worked harder. He rented a house near Sembawang Road near his bus depot, so that he could wave off drivers starting their shifts at 5am.

In 2004, when SMRT Corp took over Tibs, he pocketed $80 million, proud that he had helped to "set and raise the standard of public transport".

Instead of retiring, in 2005, he became chairman of supermarket chain FairPrice. There, he again raised the bar. He believed that low price should not mean low quality. He was instrumental in launching FairPrice Finest, to meet growing affluence. He made the cooperative more business-like, doubling turnover.

But he also reaffirmed its social mission and set up the NTUC FairPrice Foundation to help the needy.

Up until 2002, he chaired the Singapore Sports Council, where he initiated the Spex 2000 programme, a strategy of targeting core sports to win medals, and the Sports-for-Life Programme to get the old and the young exercising regularly. He helped Singapore bring home its first silver Olympic medal in 48 years in 2008.

Of late, he has been recruiting the next generation of volunteer sports administrators. He is known to be "very persuasive", not taking "no time" for an answer. He maintains it is about "stretching and prioritising" to make it happen, as he did, despite being a single parent to three children after losing his first wife Ai Choo to cancer in 1999. His youngest child was then 12.

All he will say about that "difficult" time is that it drove his family closer and that they bonded over yearly skiing holidays in Japan and Canada. His children are now aged 27 to 36 and he is married to Madam E.Hong, a businesswoman.

The man, who is inclined to Buddhism, radiates a steely positivity, despite jet lag from spending 90 per cent of his time on the road campaigning. Along with that, he packs in beginner French lessons, golf (handicap 18), taking his yacht Magic Dragon and power racing boat Puff out for spins, swims and gym sessions.

Restoring pride

The final thing Singapore's Ambassador to Norway hopes to do in this lifetime, he lets on, is help restore Singaporean pride in the nation and in themselves.

"We are at the stage of development where we are admired by others but less so by our own citizens. People always look at Singapore as a shining example, yet we don't see it ourselves. It is a pity. We have such a strong, powerful, wonderful heritage, we have achieved so much as a nation and we are not seeing it."

The man who helped bring the inaugural Youth Olympic Games here in 2010 cites how there were misgivings as to whether Singapore could win the bid and stage the event successfully. But he never once had doubts, watching the "energy and enthusiasm of Singaporeans" at work.

"There's a Singaporean spirit that fires us up and says 'Yes, we can do it,'" he says, adding that it was a marvel to watch the public and private sectors work as one. Talking to youth, he's convinced it's not just America that's the land of opportunity.

"Singapore is also a land of opportunity, especially in this era of technology, where we are not constrained by geographical space. We're free to explore, push the limits, have a dream and work very hard to make it come true," he enthuses.

As Singapore sails into uncharted waters amid more economic and political turbulence today, his dream is to rally Singaporeans to tap that can-do spirit and pull together in the same direction.

"The race is not over until you cross the finish line," he says, recalling lessons learnt from sailing.

"If it's offshore racing, your life literally depends on each other (other teammates). So, the building of strong bonds and friendship and trust in one another is critical."

suelong@sph.com.sg

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