For a good number of Singaporeans, taekwondo was a childhood sport we grew up going for mass classes in because our parents felt it was important for us to learn self-defence skills.
Most stopped after a couple of years, while some of us really committed ourselves and made it to a black belt.
For 24-year-old Ng Ming Wei, this is a sporting career he accidentally discovered he was really good at.
So good, that he's now hoping against hope and circumstance to compete at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
How good is he at taekwondo?
Now, for one thing, he can do a 360-degree kick with startling precision:
And he can also do this (yes, that's a Singaporean on *the* 9GAG):
As well as this:
Oh, and he can also kick his own head:
By the way, being able to kick one's opponent's head at close distance (the kick comes from behind his opponent) is a useful technique that wins the athlete an immediate three points in a sparring match.
The highest score a single move can earn is four points, which is a spinning kick to the head.
Theatrics and gimmicky videos aside, though, Ng has shown some legitimate chops (and medals) for his skills too: he is the first Singaporean to win a Kyorugi (sparring) gold medal in the 2017 Commonwealth Taekwondo Championships Men's -58kg category.
Held in Canada that year, Ng, who was Singapore's only Kyorugi exponent at the meet, came up tops against athletes from 13 other countries.
Last year, he picked up another gold in Hong Kong at the Asian Cities Gold Cup, against competitors from powerhouses like China and Taipei:
Here're all the international taekwondo competitions he's clinched medals at between August 2017 and June 2018:
- Aug. 2017: Kaoxiong International Taekwondo Championships in Taipei — Bronze
- Sep. 2017: Commonwealth Taekwondo Championships in Canada — Gold
- Sep. 2017: Canada Open 2017 in Canada — Silver
- March 2018: 22nd Asian Cities Gold Cup in Hong Kong — Gold
- May 2018: Lomma Cup 2018 in Sweden — Gold
- June 2018: Czech Open 2018 in Czech Republic — Gold
Ng also won a gold at the 2016 Asian Cities Taekwondo Championships held at Hong Kong.
All this is even more fascinating considering the fact that Ng's start in taekwondo happened because he didn't make the cut into the archery club at his alma mater, Maris Stella High School.
Sitting down with Mothership in a recent interview, he laughs while recalling that the bow was expensive anyway, so he joined the school's taekwondo club — the rest, one could say, is history.
The list above takes stock of his international competition achievements, by the way — back home, he defended his Kyurogi championship title at the National Taekwondo Championships for the seventh year in a row in September last year:
Working hard over past 9 years
Since getting serious about taekwondo, Ng says that ever since his polytechnic days, he has spent almost all his holidays and leave (during his National Service period) on overseas training with national teams.
Going it alone and taking the effort to initiate contact, arrange and plan the camps with them on his own, sometimes with training partners who also paid their own way, Ng has over the years mostly trained with the national teams in South Korea and Taiwan.
He also spent eight months training with the Norwegian national team while he was on exchange in Oslo last year from Dec. 2017 to July 2018, too — clocking in 19 hours of training, six days a week.
"I met them in the training camp and they saw that was I was travelling and training by myself, so they invited me to train with them."
While there, under the tutelage and accommodation of national team coach Dave Cook (pictured below), Ng also had the opportunity to train with world-ranked taekwondo athletes like Richard Andre Ordemann and John ASP, who are currently placed 4th and 30th in the world respectively in the men's -80kg category.
He also found time to spend a week training with the UK's taekwondo team:
And his coaches in Europe vouched for his ability as well.
"They have validated my skills and they feel that I have a chance to go to the Olympics. They even said if I were to change nationality, they'd let me be on their team!"
Apart from these overseas stints, Ng also flies regularly over weekends to neighbouring countries like the Philippines and Thailand to practice sparring with their national teams.
A costly journey... to Tokyo 2020
All this overseas training and competition he's done over the years was on his parents' dime — the cost of which, by his reckoning, runs upwards of S$65,000.
Add that to local training and equipment expenses — such as an electronic scoring system that the World Taekwondo Federation upgraded to for its competition, so he could get used to it — and Ng says his parents were looking at a hefty sum of more than S$120,000 total.
To what end is Ng working towards and getting his parents to spend all this money on his training?
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics, of course, which he aims to qualify for at next April's Asian Qualification Tournament — three years ago, he made an unsuccessful bid for Rio 2016 when he lost 4-7 to a Japanese athlete.
Starting May (his summer period), Ng will return to Norway to train with its national team, whether or not he receives any support from the government or the Singapore Taekwondo Federation (STF), our national taekwondo sports association.
After competing in the Summer Universiade in Napoli, Italy in July, Ng says he plans to come back, finish up his final semester at NTU and then train full-time after graduating at the end of this year in the three-month-plus period to April 2020.
At this point you might be wondering — where does the STF come into play here?
That's where things get complicated.
Trouble began with SEA Games 2019
Now for an athlete gunning for the Olympics, of course, a stepping stone in that direction should be the SEA Games this year, yes?
Ng said, however, that a series of unfortunate events involving his dealing with the STF have resulted in him now having to give it a miss.
He did compete in the 2015 and 2017 SEA Games, by the way — he clinched a bronze in the 2015 edition.
To begin with, money-wise, Ng says it's been an uphill battle getting support from the STF for his training efforts over the years he's been active and competing internationally.
Save for a S$2,930 six-week training stint in Iran in 2017 that he managed to get STF to help arrange and foot the bill for, as well as a camp STF arranged that he attended at a Taiwanese high school (which he paid his own way for), Ng said he's otherwise been on his own — even though he made it a point to update STF's officials on his overseas training, competitions and progress.
But we digress. Ng explained that for the SEA Games, he decided in order to prepare adequately, he wanted to take a gap year from his university studies (he's currently reading psychology at NTU) to train full-time (from end-2018 to end-2019).
"No gap year, I can’t take part in SEA Games, because I need to be responsible. If I don’t train, and I just go for the sake of competing, I don’t think it reflects very well on me also."
In any case, not taking a gap year from school would mean the Games would clash with his exam period anyway — this year's SEA Games are slated for Nov. 30 to Dec. 11. and will be held in the Philippines.
Funding for training in his gap year was an issue, though, so he needed assurance from the STF that he would have support — his parents, having already spent a six-figure sum on him up to now, were no longer an option for him.
"When I win, I don't get any salary, nor prize money, nothing. And when I win, the credit goes to the Federation. It doesn't go to my parents. It just reflects well on Singapore Taekwondo."
Delays, conflicting messages & miscommunication
He approached STF for funding in August 2018, but says he was told verbally that STF would need to seek approval from Sport Singapore, the government agency, before being able to do so.
According to him, STF responded on Oct. 4, saying that a Sport Singapore official said he not only has to qualify, but also has to be an Olympic medal prospect for him to receive support.
"That’s a serious allegation that I wouldn’t dare to lie about.
Although I don’t have the recording (because they like to usually tell us verbally so we have no evidence), I remembered the exact date because that led to them asking me to come up with a proposal (for his overseas training and how much it would cost)."
When we approached STF's General Manager Lim Teong Chin with this, however, he denied that they had gone to Sport Singapore, much less came back with that alleged excuse. Sport Singapore separately also confirmed to Mothership that conversation between them and STF didn't take place.
His proposal submitted to the STF seeking S$24,000 (S$2,000 per month) in funding was, he explained, on a claims basis and allowed STF to cut the funding after three months should he be deemed not to be “hitting any standard”.
STF then gave him a counter proposal the next day, which included the following terms:
- No reimbursement if he didn’t win the first round of competition
- 50 per cent reimbursement if he wins two rounds, and
- 70 per cent reimbursement if he wins three rounds.
And this reimbursement isn't even a catch-all — STF defined it, in exchanges seen by Mothership, as being solely for competition expenses like air tickets and accommodation (half of which, Ng notes, would be covered by the Norwegian coach should Ng travel with the team for competitions).
After discussing with his parents, Ng decided to reject STF’s counter-proposal on Nov. 2 as it did not cover his competition expenses completely.
He appealed and waited for a follow-up response from STF until Dec. 6, upon which he decided to give the 2019 SEA Games a miss and focus on his studies instead.
Back-and-forth with STF
Three days after he committed to his final year project, Ng received a WhatsApp text from STF's Secretary General, Wong Liang Ming, asking him if he was "still keen on taking the gap year".
He then met her on Jan. 15, and was told verbally that the STF had approved a sum of S$30,000 for Ng back in November 2018.
But this was not conveyed to Ng until then, five months after he first contacted them and two months after he appealed to them to reconsider his proposal.
Ng said in the meeting, Wong told him, ad verbatim, the following:
"All the way Schooling father also been paying until he won an Olympic gold medal.
Not a single cent from SNOC (Singapore National Olympic Council) & Sports Singapore. Schooling is not even in their Olympic pathway."
[Sidenote: By the way, it was reported that Schooling's parents paid S$1 million to fund his tuition, accommodation and transport costs for his time at Bolles School and then the University of Texas, but he had already been a Sports Excellence (Spex) Scholar since 2013. He is also among a top tier of athletes who receive up to S$90,000 annually.]
However, when Mothership approached STF, Wong denied saying these things.
Ng then wrote a letter to STF that conveyed his less-than-satisfactory exchanges with them, and to confirm the details of the S$30,000 funding that they promised.
He received a reply from them two days later.
"Paltry achievement records"
Here are the main points of STF's reply to him, which was also seen by Mothership.
- Ng only had "paltry achievement records" to show so far.
- Even so, the STF officer liaising with Ng appealed to the management to set aside the sum of S$30,000 to support his Olympic aspirations.
- STF's management agreed to fund Ng's training on the condition that it would be withdrawn should he be unable to make it to the finals of the Asean Taekwondo Championships to be held in May 2019 in the Philippines.
- However STF said all this had become moot since Ng had already decided not to compete in both the Asean and the SEA Games, noting that sitting out of these two meets means he will not qualify for Tokyo 2020.
In their reply, the STF did not deny Ng's accusation that he was only informed of the S$30,000 in January 2019 instead of in November 2018, when he still had time to apply for his gap year.
Speaking to Mothership, STF said:
"At his level and after many years of competition, we contend that his achievements are paltry especially when we know the quality of players in most G1 events.
What's more, he has nothing much to show in 2018."
STF added that his "paltry" achievements are the reason they attached the conditions requiring certain performance standards at specific meets.
"The STF wants the athletes to be responsible for their performances.
It serves an incentive for them to do their best not only in competition but in training."
Gold from SEA Games more important than all of Ng's achievements
STF also confirmed that they did tell Ng that in their eyes, a gold medal from the SEA Games would surpass all his previous achievements, including the gold medal at the Commonwealth Taekwondo Championships.
"If we had won a gold medal in the last SEA Games, we have reasons to believe we will not have problems with our high performance. Yes, just one gold!
Medals in the multi-sport events will count more in the eyes of our local sports authority as compared to other G1 and other unlisted tournaments.
For the STF, it is the same."
More than a year (and counting) without a national Taekwondo coach
Meanwhile, STF has gone without a coach for its national taekwondo athletes since February last year.
The team's former coach, Jang Hee-jae, who held the role from February 2015, left around February last year to start his own private dojang (taekwondo training centre).
STF told Mothership that Wong, a local former national kyorugi coach, took over the position pending its appointment of a new one.
While they had advertised the position on their website and asked Kukkiwon and World Taekwondo (the largest global taekwondo federation) for recommendations, they have yet to find one.
STF also said it is negotiating with another local coach at the moment to take over from Wong.
However, Ng gave a different account of the matter.
He said that since Jang left, a fellow player called Zul became in charge of training the national athletes on a regular basis.
When Ng returned to Singapore in August 2018, he became aware of this arrangement, which had already been going on for six months.
Ng also asserted that when he asked STF for an explanation for the lack of a national coach, STF pointedly avoided answering his question.
He told Mothership that although Jang was the national coach during their 2017 overseas competitions — the SEA Games, Commonwealth Taekwondo Championships and Canada Open — Jang did not get to travel to the competitions with the teams at all.
Instead, it was Wong who accompanied the team (bear in mind that Ng was the only kyorugi exponent) to those competitions. Even more curiously, Ng pointed out that Wong had been coaching the poomsae (forms) athletes, and not Ng.
Ng added that Wong "did not coach a single kyorugi athlete" at the May 2018 Asian Championships in Vietnam.
That job was done by Jason Tan, a former athlete.
Sport Singapore investigating allegations of attaching conditions to funding
It may be worth noting that while all this was happening, STF also appeared to have been undergoing some tumult with an exodus of several key leadership officers including its then-President Milan Kwee in October last year.
In October last year, Sport Singapore CEO Lim Teck Yin told The Straits Times (ST) that the changes in leadership at the STF was "not encouraging", adding that they were watching the change "closely".
He was also quoted saying it is "very important" for STF's management to "put the interests of the athletes" first.
In response to Mothership's queries on Ng's case and challenges with the federation, a spokesperson from Sport Singapore said they are aware and are looking into them.
Plans to continue giving back after he stops competing
All these issues notwithstanding, however, Ng tells us he plans to retire from taekwondo after Tokyo 2020 — whether or not he eventually gets to compete.
"To some degree, I'm frustrated with the situation. But my frustration won't make qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics any easier, so I've been channeling my energies into doing my best at training and competition.
Thinking ahead and trusting the process helps me keep my focus sharp and the plan clear."
Ever the typical Singaporean, Ng is aware that he must join the workforce when he graduates — especially after all his parents have sacrificed for him over the years.
Besides, few athletes continue competing into their 30s, so it's more or less a now-or-never situation for him.
That being said, Ng says he hopes to share what he has learnt over the years with his juniors at Maris Stella High School.
"I feel a sense of achievement in helping our juniors. This is important. Our juniors are the future. It's only if we invest in them now that they will perform better in the future when they are ready for the senior circuit.
It's for this reason that I intend to do this for as long as I can."
Top photo by Ilene Fong