COMMENTARY: "We cannot only celebrate winners." National 100-metre record holder UK Shyam writes about what it was like training as an athlete in RJC, meeting his friend and training partner, Timothy, and how Timothy was forced to give up his sporting dreams due to funding.
Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2019 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 54 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
"A true son of Singapore" is an essay contributed by UK Shyam, Singapore's national-record holder for the 100-metre sprint event and the first local athlete to train full-time while pursuing a degree at NUS. He also recently published a book, Running on Empty, based on his athletics career in Singapore.
By UK Shyam
Junior college was an amazing experience for me. Being part of a prestigious institution, rich in tradition and culture, was arguably the best part of my youth.
At the same time, it was also somewhat jarring, because the truth of my parents’ working-class background was ever apparent.
Most of the people I met in Raffles Junior College (RJC) were from wealthy families; they were accomplished and of admirable pedigree. Yet, the wonderful thing was that they were nice to me and indifferent (thankfully) to the fact that I was poor.
Class didn’t matter to them. They were warm and welcoming to awkward, gangly old me from the heartlands of Jurong East. Therein lies the beauty of youth; friendships were forged that have since withstood decades, transcending race and social class.
Again, the beauty of our education system was apparent—it brought people from different walks of life together; the doors of social mobility opened when meritocracy smiled upon talents of different sorts, regardless of race, language, religion and many other things.
Meeting Timothy – dear friend, brother and kindred spirit
RJC was also where I met Timothy, when I had been in athletics for about a year and a half. I was in awe of his athleticism and ability, and even more by how down-to-earth he was despite his talent.
He was a kindred spirit, and he became the brother I never had. One day after school, I accompanied Timothy to his house so he could collect his training gear before we took the bus to Kallang Stadium for track training.
As he unlocked his front door, I saw a scene that was comforting and reassuring: a three-room HDB flat in Clementi. We were greeted by the wafting, welcoming aroma of Peranakan food being heated up in the microwave.
The house was in comforting disarray and so much like my own.
All its details spoke to a working-class background—both his parents were busy working 12-hour days to put food on the table. Yet, at the same time, there was such a tangible joy in that household.
It was then that I realised that Tim was very much like me. He was not wealthy, too.
His bedroom was crammed with a double-decker bed, draped in bedsheets gone out of fashion, its walls decorated with posters of U2 and Guns N’ Roses. The desk was overflowing with textbooks, and every little space was stuffed with files or boxes filled with old running shoes and weathered clothes.
This was a true son of Singapore. Born to a Eurasian mother and a Chinese father, he had the best genes of both parents.
Tim was the fastest schoolboy in Singapore. He had broken every sprint record at the school level and the sky was his limit.
He could be anything he wanted with the right support. Armed with loads of talent, tenacity of spirit and a hardiness that was probably born out of that modest background, he could likely become a regional sporting legend.
I was so sure.
Juggling training with everything else
Timothy continued to run while he was in National Service, balancing his duties with his aspirations on the track even if this meant 90-minute bus rides after an entire day in camp to his training venue, toiling on the track with stopwatch in hand until the stadium lights turned off.
Even if it meant dinner at Adam Road Hawker Centre at 10pm after having fallen asleep in the public washroom from sheer fatigue.
He was not used to a life of privilege, so the challenge and solitude were no issue.
Mustering finances from schemes available to him as well as using up all his own savings, Tim went on a partial scholarship to UCLA, where he trained and studied to be a world-beater.
The boy from Clementi Avenue, the one with whom I used to share mee pok because neither of us had enough money, was now in California running intervals with Olympic semi-finalists and medallists.
Uncle and Auntie always beamed with pride when we spoke of him at church. Who wouldn’t be proud of him? Their son was getting a university degree and living his dream.
Timothy left the sport at 22
Slightly more than a year later, Timothy quit athletics because his funding stopped. In order to survive financially, he tried juggling working, studying and training, but naturally this took a toll on him.
With his signature stoicism, Tim bit his tongue and accepted the withdrawal of his scholarship as a fact of life. He then worked two jobs, crammed modules into semesters and opted for summer school so that he could survive on less money and graduate faster.
I can only imagine the anguish that Uncle and Auntie went through scrambling to find extra funds for his university tuition.
Timothy left the sport at the young age of 22. We will never know the heights he could have scaled.
Adapting to a new training system, as he had to do, often makes it difficult for an athlete to make immediate performance breakthroughs.
In fact, training and investment in sports needs far-sightedness and patience. We need to keep in mind that we are dealing with human beings instead of machines.
Guided by compassionate values, not KPIs
Even today, hundreds of young men and women are casualties of a technocracy premised on efficiency, profit and utilitarian principles.
Timothy reminds me that we must be guided by compassionate values and not just an instrumental rationality that prioritises results and economic utility over more humanistic assessments of issues. The athlete must be seen as so much more than an object—a dehumanised machine that must continually produce key performance indicators.
Many athletes come from low- or average-income families, and so many are forced to abandon their dreams, to “suck it up and get on with life.”
We don’t usually talk about stories like this. It just doesn’t fit into the Singapore Story. These narratives are often silenced either inadvertently or deliberately.
Inequality doesn’t just manifest through the lack of opportunities, choices or material means but also in the way history treats you.
"We cannot only celebrate winners"
Local sports history tends to suffer from amnesia when it comes to our sports casualties. It perpetuates stories of gold medals, triumphs that glorify our local sporting system and happily-ever-after stories.
Of course these have their place, and everyone likes a feel-good story, but we must look deeper to truly understand the lives our athletes lead.
At times, I feel compelled to ask Tim about the past—how the system mistreated him and left him to survive alone in the deep end of the pool. And then, instinctively, I bite my tongue, fearful of opening wounds for both of us.
He was always stronger than I, so perhaps talking about the past and unfulfilled dreams may not prick him anymore.
The same can’t be said for me—I still feel bitterness and resentment about how we never could reach the sporting goals we both dreamt of as teenagers.
Perhaps the only way to transcend our industrial sporting paradigm is to acknowledge and engage these other narratives—different but no lesser.
Many muted voices go unheard because we construe critique as dissenting and cynical. But they are real, these stories of athletes throwing in the towel because of funding, the inflexibilities of National Service or an educational landscape that doesn’t quite provide a fertile enough environment for student athletes.
We cannot only celebrate winners—we also need to honour the victims and ask the difficult questions, or historical amnesia will triumph.
When I think of Tim, I know we must never forget that when we close the door of opportunity on an individual, we do so to a son or daughter, a brother or sister; another person.
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Top photo via Ethos Books video