Generation Grit: Former gangster channels love for fighting into fencing

Self-confessed 'ah beng' turned national athlete Lim Wei Wen found a new life in the sport. This is the latest in a series of resilient millennials who defied the odds.

Mr Lim Wei Wen grew up in a broken family. He fell in with the wrong crowd and joined a gang. While studying at the Institute of Technical Education, he was introduced to fencing and that changed his life.
While Mr Lim Wei Wen was studying at the Institute of Technical Education, he trained every day and was spotted at a competition by former national coach Alexey Karpov, who later became his mentor and gave him a new purpose in life.
While Mr Lim Wei Wen was studying at the Institute of Technical Education, he trained every day and was spotted at a competition by former national coach Alexey Karpov, who later became his mentor and gave him a new purpose in life.ST PHOTO: SHINTARO TAY

Mr Lim Wei Wen, 34, initially mistook the sport of fencing for the act of building fences.

The self-confessed "ah beng" was studying automotive technology at the Institute of Technical Education (ITE) Balestier when he was asked if he was keen to try out fencing as a co-curricular activity.

He said: "I thought fencing was about building a fence around the school. This was because at ITE, we built a lot of stuff.

"Then I realised fencing was like sword fighting. It was very fun and I fell in love with it."

He went on to excel in the sport that changed his life.

Mr Lim won Singapore's first Asian Games medal in fencing, found a mentor and discovered his self-worth. He has come a long way from his troubled past.

"On the first day of primary school, I went to school alone and my teachers asked me where my parents were. I said I had no parents," he recalled.

His father was in jail for more than 10 years for gang-related activities and his mother, a pub singer, was often out gambling.

He was raised by his maternal grandparents after his parents divorced when he was still a baby.

The only child felt very lonely in school as the other children avoided him.

"I think their parents heard that I had no parents, and told their kids not to hang out with me. I felt people looked down on me because of my family background," he said.

When he was nine, his mother abandoned him. She was running away from loan sharks, who had hounded her family for years due to her gambling debts.

Feeling alone, Mr Lim joined a gang when he was in Primary 4, hoping to find a sense of belonging.

He took part in fights and sold illegal VCDs, but he was never caught.

His grandparents sold their fruit stall and their flat to pay his mother's debts. They stayed with different relatives until they got a highly subsidised rental flat from the Government.

Mr Lim, a Normal (Technical) student, dropped out of Kuo Chuan Presbyterian Secondary School at Secondary 2. He hated studying and he hated school.

At 14, he became a professional gamer, earning $1,000 to $2,000 in prize money a month from gaming competitions.

He also dabbled in various jobs, from waiting tables to playing the cymbals at funerals, to earn his own keep.

He entered the ITE at 20, not because he was keen to further his education, but in the hope of deferring national service.

That was when he found fencing, or, rather, fencing found him.

 
 
 

"I used to be a gangster and I liked to fight. Fighting was very exciting but hurting people or getting hurt was the bad part of it.

"Fencing reminds me of fighting but in a good way, a fun and exciting way," he said.

"When you fence, you don't care about (the opponent's) family background or who he is. We are just going to fight for victory, not for revenge. This is what is amazing about sports - even if you lose, there's something called sportsmanship."

At ITE, he trained every day and was spotted at a competition by former national coach Alexey Karpov, who invited him to be a sparring partner for the national team.

The Russian trained him every day for free for about a year. Then Mr Lim joined the national team.

In 2007, he won a silver medal at the SEA Games, two years after he picked up the sport. In 2014, he took home Singapore's first Asian Games fencing medal, a bronze.

Said Mr Lim: "I was like the wonder boy for the sport."

He found a mentor in coach Karpov and a new life purpose.

"People have been judging me my whole life, but Coach believed in me. He made me believe that with passion and love, everything is possible," he said. "My life truly changed because he gave me hope."

With a slew of medals - including the Asian Games bronze and three SEA Games silver medals - his fencing career was on the rise. But he faced setbacks in his personal life.

In 2011, his grandmother suffered a stroke which robbed her of her mobility. He could not rush home immediately from his overseas training to be by her side.

About a year later, coach Karpov died of a heart attack when Mr Lim was training in Germany.

He could not return for the funeral as he had a competition.

In 2017, Mr Lim, who was riddled with injuries and feeling burnt out, stopped competitive fencing.

He recently started work as a coach in a fencing club in Beijing.

He said: "I want to see how big and successful countries in fencing manage their sport and hopefully bring back what I have learnt to Singapore. Now, I want to give others hope and confidence through my coaching."

EXCITING SPORT

I used to be a gangster and I liked to fight. Fighting was very exciting but hurting people or getting hurt was the bad part of it. Fencing reminds me of fighting but in a good way, a fun and exciting way.

MR LIM WEI WEN, on the thrill of fencing.

Mr Henry Koh, 43, owner of the Blade Club, a private fencing club where Mr Lim had previously worked as a coach, described him as an optimistic and filial grandson who is always thinking about his grandparents.

Mr Koh also described him as an athlete who never gives up, saying: "When it comes to fighting, he is very tough and is able to bounce back from losses.

"He has resilience and grace, and taking defeats graciously is a trait you see in few athletes."

About three years ago, Mr Lim's mother, whom he had not been in contact with for more than 20 years, asked to see him. They met, and the first question he asked her was: "Why did you leave me?"

She explained the difficulties she faced then and he forgave her.

"I don't hate her. My grandparents taught me not to blame others. But I just felt very suay (Hokkien for "unlucky") that my life was so lousy," he said. "I felt relieved after meeting my mum. At least I know she's doing well and she is no longer gambling."

Mr Lim, who has a girlfriend, is not one to dwell on the past or be bound by hate or grudges.

"Always try to search for love and hope. They are very strong weapons for success. Being successful is not just about doing well financially.

"It's about happiness," he said.

"And happiness is the love that you receive and the love you can give."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2019, with the headline 'Former gangster channels love for fighting into fencing'. Subscribe