More needs to be done to ensure young people know how to swim and have the skills to survive in open water, said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in the light of the death of a 12-year-old schoolboy who drowned off East Coast Park on Monday.
"It's something we need to do more about, not only because of this tragic incident, but because it's a very useful life skill and form of physical endeavour," Mr Tharman told reporters yesterday after attending the wake held in Ho Ching Road for Muhammad Suhaimi Sabastian.
Suhaimi's body was found in the waters near Bedok Jetty on Monday afternoon after a three-hour search operation. He had gone to the beach with friends after a school examination in the morning.
According to Suhaimi's uncle and eldest brother, the Secondary 1 student did not know how to swim. His former primary schoolmates said this was despite compulsory swimming lessons in Primary 3.
Mr Tharman, the MP for Taman Jurong ward in Jurong GRC, said Suhaimi was "probably not the only one" who did not know how to swim.
"Sometimes, in a group, when you're young, you feel safe and you assume nothing will go wrong. If you're on your own, you think twice. But in a group, people just jump in," he said.
Even though all primary school pupils are required to take part in swimming programmes under the 2014 Physical Education syllabus, technical skills alone may not be enough when dealing with complex situations, such as swimming in the sea, said former national swimmer Ang Peng Wee.
"Issues like sudden changes of depth and strong currents can cause panic and shock when people are not aware of the possible dangers," said Mr Ang, who has 40 years of experience as a competitive swimmer and instructor. "The sea is quite unknown, especially our waters, which are not clear."
Cheerful boy was well liked in school and at home
Muhammad Suhaimi Sabastian was a cheerful boy who got along well with his peers, said relatives and teachers who knew him.
He was "very well behaved" and did not get complaints from teachers in school, said his eldest brother, Mr Suriadi, 20, who is serving national service.
Suhaimi's uncle, Mr Amin Sarimon, 55, said: "He was a good boy, very respectful. He was a joker; many people liked him."
He went on to describe how Suhaimi loved to play football and sepak takraw, and cycle around the neighbourhood.
For three to four times a week, Suhaimi would play at the neighbourhood street football court in the evening with his cousin, Mr Muhammad Syukir Khamis, 19.
"He's not a shy person," said Mr Syukir, who is an ITE College West student.
He was also an enthusiastic student who was well liked by his peers, said Jurongville Secondary vice-principal Elaine Tan.
"Suhaimi was a cheerful, jovial and active boy... He was also positive and enthusiastic during lessons and group discussions," she added.
At the wake, Mr Amin told The Straits Times that the boy's parents did not know that the Jurongville Secondary student was going to East Coast Park after an exam in the morning.
"They didn't know Suhaimi was at East Coast Park until the police called the mother saying, 'Your son is lost at sea'," said the van driver, during the 12-year-old's wake at his grandparent's home in Ho Ching Road.
"We don't understand why he would go to East Coast Park. Why not go to a swimming pool at the nearby Jurong East Swimming Complex instead?" added Mr Amin, who would meet Suhaimi and his family for meals every week.
"If no one saved them, three more boys could have died."
He said focus should be placed on continual education, after learning basic swimming skills. "This will be good for continual reinforcement on the dangers of open-water swimming," said Mr Ang.
Earlier in the day, Suhaimi's father and two older brothers, aged 19 and 20, arrived at the mortuary to view and collect his body. They left visibly stricken with grief.
At around 2pm, Suhaimi's body arrived at his grandparents' home for the wake. More than 70 relatives and friends were in attendance, including the Sec 1 student's schoolmates from Jurongville Secondary and former schoolmates from Lakeside Primary.
The tragedy unfolded at about noon on Monday, while Suhaimi and six friends were playing in the sea.
He was among four boys who found themselves struggling about 50m away from the shore. A plucky housewife who was nearby, Ms Silvia Hajas, went in repeatedly, rescuing three of the boys when she saw they were yelling for help.
But Suhaimi had disappeared under the surface and did not come back up. His body was found at about 3.30pm by the Singapore Civil Defence Force. Police are investigating the unnatural death.
Said DPM Tharman: "We all feel the loss of the family and we all feel his loss.
"We will have to do all we can to help his classmates, including his former primary schoolmates whom he was very close to, as well as his current secondary schoolmates." He said school counsellors would reach out to the students.
• Additional reporting by Nathasha Lee
DPM Tharman: Swimming a "very useful" life skill http://str.sg/4657