Reality exists in not expecting privileges

Para Games chef de mission Raja Singh says a positive attitude is truly a powerful incentive

True equality, Raja Singh believes, exists not in crowded lifts or MRT doorways but in the mindset of a disabled individual.

At 53, the former commando who jumped out of planes has been using a wheelchair for more than 30 years but that has not diminished his take-charge approach to life.

"People have told me before, 'Oh you're in a wheelchair, we'll give you a chance'," he told The Straits Times between mouthfuls of mutton briyani at lunch last week.

"My reply to them is, '(If) you do that it's your loss, not mine, because I'm not going to give you any chance. I want to go for that gold'."

He shakes his head when the matter of social graciousness comes up, arguing that equal treatment does not necessarily mean priority queues for the disabled.

"If you and an able-bodied person are late for an appointment, why should you get to go to the front of the queue?

"We talk about being equal but also want special privileges. That cannot be right. If you want something, you have to fight for it - just like everyone else in this world."

It is this assertive mentality that Singapore's chef de mission hopes to see in the 157 athletes donning the country's colours at next month's ASEAN Para Games (APG).

While no medal targets have been announced by officials and organisers, Raja was adamant a historic haul for the hosts is on the horizon.

The Republic's best showing was at the inaugural 2001 edition in Kuala Lumpur, when it snapped up 16 golds, 10 silvers and 11 bronzes.

He said: "With all the support behind the team, our overall medal tally must be higher than all the previous APGs."

This will be his second stint as CDM, after he led the delegation of 19 athletes and 19 officials at the 2009 Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Managing Singapore's biggest contingent - 157 athletes and 91 officials across 15 sports - promises to be a challenge but one that the former Paralympian relishes, despite clocking less than four hours of sleep on some nights.

"As an athlete, you are selfish, you are focused on winning and that's all. But as the CDM, it's not about me, it's about them; my athletes and my support staff," said Raja, who is the only disabled CDM among the 11 competing countries.

There is also the matter of creating a legacy for subsequent generations of local para athletes.

More than half the Singapore team are debutants and the momentum of sending a record number of participants must not be allowed to peter out, stressed Raja, who is vice-president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council.

"We're setting a high benchmark and that's good for disability sport. Now we have a squad of almost 160. By the next Games in 2017, hopefully we can treble that pool."

It is an ambitious goal but Raja, who co-founded medical rehabilitation equipment and supplies company DNR Wheels in 1994 and now has 39 employees and leases an 18,000 sq ft office-cum-warehouse facility in Ubi, is not a man for half-measures.

Previously a commando sergeant and boxing coach, he was also an avid runner in his youth. He was training for a triathlon in 1983 when his cycle hit a stationary truck.

"Your whole life comes crashing down when you become paralysed at 22. I became angry, depressed and could not accept the truth," said the father of one.

Acceptance came with time and three years later, Raja competed as a wheelchair racer at the Far East and South Pacific (Fespic) Games for the Disabled in Indonesia. He returned home with four medals in his suitcase and a renewed hunger within himself.

It spurred him to two Paralympic appearances in Seoul (1988) and Barcelona (1992), and a four-gold haul from the 1989 Fespic Games in Japan, which led to his nomination in 1990 for the Singapore National Olympic Council's (SNOC) Sportsman of the Year award.

He lost to national shooter Lee Wung Yew but received the meritorious award, the first local para athlete to win an SNOC sports award.

While the divide between able-bodied and disabled athletes has narrowed in recent years as funding for the latter has increased, a gap still exists.

Under the SNOC's Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme, the payout for an Olympic gold medal is $1 million while a Paralympic champion receives $200,000 through the Singapore National Paralympic Council's Athletes' Achievement Award (AAA) scheme.

This disparity has been criticised in the past but Raja does not count himself as a detractor. He said: "It's an unfair comparison to make as para sport, with different disability classifications, has more events and less competitors in each. So how can the rewards be the same?"

For example, at the 2012 London Olympics, there were 47 track and field golds while 170 were awarded at the 2012 Paralympics.

There may have been few financial incentives for disabled athletes in the past, unlike now - gold medallists at the Dec 3-9 APG will receive $2,000 under the AAA policy - but motivation was never in short supply for Raja.

Said William Tan, a multiple APG gold medallist who has known Raja since the mid-1980s when they were team-mates on the national wheelchair racing team: "My first impression of him back then was here was a fiercely competitive guy who turned his life around after a tragic accident and is clearly very passionate about sport."

That drive for excellence remains, as Raja trains as a hand-cyclist at least thrice weekly and hopes to compete at the 2017 APG in Kuala Lumpur.

But it is as an advocate for para sport that Raja finds his greatest purpose in life. He cites the positive change in para table tennis player Claire Toh, who was paralysed from the chest down after a fall from a condominium in 2012.

Said Raja: "She is confident and her outlook on life is completely different. That's what sport can do, especially for the disabled.

"They become contributors to the nation and not receivers. They stop comparing themselves with others and start competing."

This article was first published on Nov 23, 2015.
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