Paying tribute to Tan Howe Liang

The report:

The New Paper on Sunday reported yesterday that Tan Howe Liang – Singapore’s first and only Olympic medallist for 48 years before our women’s table tennis team’s silver medal triumph at Beijing – was also honoured at an event at Ang Mo Kio hub on Saturday which was organised by NTUC Fairprice for the public to get up close to our women paddlers.

Managing Director Seah Kian Peng presented a $10,000 cheque to Tan as a gesture of thanks for being an inspiration to Singapore sports all these years. The cheque is the equivalent of a year’s salary for Tan who earns just under $1,000 as a gym supervisor with the Singapore Sports Council.

You can read the story here.

My thoughts:

Kudos to The New Paper for being the source of inspiration behind NTUC Fairprice and Mr Seah’s gesture towards Tan.

However, I still feel a tinge of sadness that Tan missed out on the financial rewards that are given out these days to our athletes for winning medals at the SEA, Commonwealth, Asian and Olympic Games.

The Singapore National Olympic Council launched the Multi-million dollar Award Programme (MAP) in 1993 to reward Singapore’s medal-winning athletes for their hard work and sacrifices. The MAP offred $1 million for an Olympic gold, $500,000 for a silver and $250,000 for a bronze.

It also offered $250,000 for an Asian Games gold, $125,000 for a Commonwealth Games gold and $10,000 for a SEA GAmes crown.

Just imagine: if the MAP had existed during the time when Tan was actively competing, he would have garnered $905,000 for his Olympic silver, his 1958 Asian and Commonwealth Games golds and his hat-trick of South-east Asia Peninsular Games titles.

But alas, sports was strictly amateur then and no one ever thought of pegging financial rewards to medals. After all, it was supposed to be an honour to be selected to represent and bring glory to your county on the international stage. Which also probably explains why many parents also discouraged their children from going into sports – why should they when it doesn’t provide them with a living.  

Still, it would have been nice if the SNOC had marked the launching of MAP with the grand gesture of giving $500,000 to Tan. Now that would have been a fitting tribute to the man .

The Singapore Sports Fan is not able to give a cheque to Tan either. So the least I can do is to try to enshrine his legacy on the internet. To be honest, the write-ups on Tan in Wikipedia and Infopedia not only don’t really give us the full flavour and sense of the man, they also suffer from bad grammar.


So I decided to do the next best thing: which was to pay the library a visit to see what I can find written about Tan when he first won the Rome Olympics silver.

The report by Jeffrey James in the Free Press

The report by Jeffrey James in the Free Press

I found two gems: one from the Free Press by Jeffrey James, which was published on 15 Sept 1960.

The other was by the late Tay Cheng Khoon in August 2004. Tay was the sports editor of The Straits Times before he passed away last year in July.

I am going to reproduce the article by James because it was such a vivid description of Tan’s quest for gold that you can just imagine the scene in your mind. 

The report is at the end of this blog entry. I’ve changed the font and font size to differentiate it.

You can also click on the image (left) to see how the article looked like back then.

As for Tay’s wonderfully-written article “From Swatow to Chinatown to Olympic glory” (The Straits Times, 5 August 2004), do click here for the link.

Hopefully, all this will help not only to seal Tan’s place in cyberspace for eternity but to also give younger Singaporeans an idea of the measure of the man who overcome all the physical odds to give Singapore its place in the Olympic sun in 1960.

Yours in sport

Singapore Sports Fan 


Article starts here…

The pain he suffered…the tears he wept…all to give Singapore a silver medal!




The courage to fight no matter what the odds…the determination to succeed despite the pain and the agony…of these things are champions made – and that we have in Tan Howe Liang, Singapore’s first Olympic medallist, back in our fold.


Courage to fight? There he was, two pounds over the lightweight limit of 148.5 pounds on arrival in Rome. So he had to reduce without losing strength. At the end of five days, he was a top-weight lightweight. On the morning of the contest, he was one pound down. The first fight had been won.


Determination to succeed? The contest started at 9am on Wednesday Sept 7. It didn’t end until 10 hours later. During this time, Howe Liang went through the gamut of emotions…he reached his silver medal after going through hell!


Hell? First there were the judges (‘They were biased,’ says manager Chua Tian Teck) who only approved his first press at 253.5 pounds to make 7th among the 33 lifters competing.


He made 242.5 pounds in the snatch, and he crept up to fourth place at the end of the two lifts. First the Russian Busheuv, then the Iranian, then a Pole who had the same total as Howe Liang but a higher place because he was lighter in body weight.


The gold medal was gone. But there was hope for the silver. Howe Liang consulted manager Chua. “Uncle,” he told the old man. “Tell me how much to lift and I will.” Mr Chua said: “150 kilos.” (331 pounds). Howe Liang nodded his head. He did not have to do the clean and jerk until one-and-a-half hours later.




Then as suddenly, trouble. Howe Liang, who was resting on a settee in the weightlifting stadium, suddenly limped over to Mr Chua. “My legs. My legs are cramped. I cannot walk,” he moaned and slumped into a chair.


Mr Chua was worried. He tried to rub Howe Liang’s legs but the lifter yelled in pain. He called on American weightlifting officials to help. No one could touch Howe Liang who was crying and moaning in pain.


“We wanted to send him to the Village hospital, and we were going to send for an ambulance,” Mr Chua said, “but when we went to carry Howe Liang, he yelled and shouted… ‘No, no, I don’t want to go. Don’t take me away from here.’”


“We were in a dilemma,” Mr Chua continued, “there he was crying, beating his chest, suffering – and we could do nothing. Tears flooded my eyes. We had come so far. We had the silver medal in sight. And now…this. What irony! What bad luck.”


Two doctors examined him. They could find nothing wrong with Howe Liang. Let him rest, they told Mr Chua.


“I sat down besides Howe Liang who had suddenly become silent. I saw his lips moving. He was praying and I began to pray too,” the Singapore Chef de Mission told me.


“Perhaps God answered our prayers. Howe Liang sat up and said he was feeling better,” Mr Chua said.


After a time, he warmed up by lifting small poundages. Clean and jerk. Clean and jerk. It went up to 260 pounds. Howe Liang told the old man “All right, Uncle, I am ready to try.”


There were 15 minutes more for him to go on. He was the last man to make the lift. But let Mr Chua tell the story.


“He went on the stage and cleaned the weights at 331 pounds. He rose to the standing position – then suffered a blackout. He wobbled. Two attendants caught him, helped him up.


“I ran to his side. He leaned on me, ‘Uncle,’ he said, ‘how much do you want me to carry for the silver?’


“You must carry 342.5 pounds. He looked at me for a minute, then said: ‘I will, I must.’


“Down in the hall, there were excited whispers. I heard a section of the crowd say: ‘That Singapore lifter – he is going to commit suicide. That manager of his is a big fool.’

Tan lifts his way to an Olympic silver

The lift that lifted Tan Howe Liang into sporting immortality

“Howe Liang took the chalk, rubbed his legs, hands, then stood for a while facing the weights. Suddenly, like a tiger pouncing on its prey, he grabbed the bar. He cleaned the weights, rose and jerked up. He had won the silver!”


The crowd roared. They cheered the Singaporean but the strong man was crying. Tears were streaming down his cheeks and his manager was hugging him with the Singapore and Federation Olympians patting and pumping his hands.


The crowd wanted him to try for the world record. Howe Liang obliged. He put the weights at 157.5 kilos. Clean, jerked but he could not hold it. The weights thudded down. He had failed in his bid for a clean and jerk record.


But never mind, Howe Liang had won the hard fight. And Singapore has a silver medal…

The Daily Dose by Jeffrey James (The Free Press, 15 Sept 1960)

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