Asean Para Games: Footballer proves few limits exist in his vision of life

Melvinder Singh is visually impaired but has always competed against able- bodied athletes. He will make his APG debut as vice-captain of the Singapore five-a-side football team.
Melvinder Singh is visually impaired but has always competed against able- bodied athletes. He will make his APG debut as vice-captain of the Singapore five-a-side football team.ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

He cannot distinguish features from further than eight metres, and holds his mobile phone about a finger away from his face, even to read large-font words .

Melvinder Singh has been visually impaired for most of his life - his parents became aware of his condition when he was four - but that has not stopped him from living life like anyone else.

The 30-year-old, who suffers from retinitis pigmentosa - a rare condition that limits his ability to identify objects or people beyond a certain distance - has been travelling around the island by himself since he was in secondary school, encountering problems only with public buses.

He said: "What we (he and his sister, who also suffers from the same condition) used to do in the early days was flag down the buses that came by, then apologise after we realised it was the wrong route number.

"(But) nowadays with technology and mobile applications, we can roughly estimate the bus arrival times."

He has played a variety of sports, finishing in the top four of the Schools National B and C Division hockey competitions as a member of Yuhua Secondary's team. He has even played hockey at the top level in Singapore, turning out for Khalsa in what was then called the Singapore Hockey Federation Premier League.



    TEAM SINGAPORE: Tee Wee Leong (capt), Melvinder Singh (vice-capt), Mohamad Fahmi Yusoff, Mohamad Hasim Hassan, Sulaiman Ahmad Kamil, Azhari Adam, Hairil Abu Bakar, Ronnie Lim.

    LAST APG: Did not participate. Singapore are making their debut in the sport at the Games.

    ABOUT THE SPORT: Played by visually impaired athletes using a ball with a noise-making device. Outfield players are blindfolded, and are guided by a sighted goalkeeper and two off-field sighted guides in three designated zones. The aim is to outscore the other team.

    CLASSIFICATIONS: Players of all classifications (B1-B3, with B1 being the poorest visual ability) compete together.

He has played football recreationally since his youth, proudly declaring that ex-Liverpool striker Michael Owen is his footballing idol.

Aside from sport, Melvinder, the middle sibling of a set of triplets, has also actively pursued other interests.

He developed a passion for DJ-ing during his days as an Institute of Technical Education student, working solo as he played and mixed music for social functions like birthdays, weddings and Deepavali.

He even started his own health consultancy, BizHealth, which was registered last year. It provides services to companies to encourage their employees to lead healthy lifestyles through keeping fit, in line with his own passion for sport. His clients include multinational corporations such as Marina Mandarin Singapore.

Despite the difficulties he has faced, Melvinder has never used his condition as an excuse to be reliant on others. He attributes his independent streak to his upbringing.

"My parents always taught me not to rely on others, and instead find alternatives," he said. "There are always avenues for you to engage things you can't see or read."

He first realised that he was different in Primary 1. He said: "My teachers treated me differently (because of my condition) and my books were newspaper-sized compared to those of my classmates'."

And yet, in the sporting arena, Melvinder has competed against able-bodied sportsmen all his life. In fact, this week's Asean Para Games is his first foray into para sport. He is a member of the five-a-side football team that will represent Singapore.

Despite it being Melvinder's first experience with disabled athletes, head coach Richard Tan is confident that his "No. 1" striker will shine at the Marina Bay Sands convention centre, praising his no-nonsense attitude in training.

Said Tan: "He is not afraid to speak his mind - he'll ask his team-mates to be quiet when they need to be - without hesitation."

Despite initial difficulties adjusting to the rules of the game such as playing blindfolded, Melvinder, the vice-captain of the team, relishes the challenge of representing Singapore in a sport that he picked up only three months ago.

He said: "Although communication is needed between players and coaches, what we do on the pitch depends on ourselves - we have the freedom and independence to make our next move."

Spoken like a man who lives a life quite extraordinary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 30, 2015, with the headline 'Footballer proves few limits exist in his vision of life'. Print Edition | Subscribe