BANGKOK – At 18, Loh Kean Yew was so focused on chasing his dream of becoming a professional badminton player that he stunned his family when he told them he wanted to drop out of Republic Polytechnic. This meant he had no back-up plan or alternative career if he failed.
He learnt, very quickly, the consequences of his decision.
As the nation’s top men’s singles players then were two-time Olympian Derek Wong and Ryan Ng, Loh had to contend in lower-tier competitions for prize money in the hundreds of dollars.
To make ends meet, he would moonlight as a part-time coach to supplement his modest allowance from the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA).
Now 25, he tells The Sunday Times: “My parents were in Penang. I was living in Singapore with my brother (fellow national player Loh Kean Hean), and when I was in national service from the age of 18 to 20, I couldn’t play in many competitions and had to contribute the rent from my $500 allowance.
“That was rough.”
But the player, who moved to the Republic at 13 and obtained Singapore citizenship in 2015, explains that he was undeterred: “Ever since I came to Singapore, I was sure I wanted to become a full-time player.
“After I won bronze at the 2015 SEA Games, I was even more certain. I just wanted to go all out regardless of what other people said. I didn’t want to regret later on and have a lot of what-ifs.
“Money is important, but it has never been my main motivation.
“I just want to keep getting better at badminton, and if I do that, I’m happy and everything else will follow.”
These days, he encourages – without hesitation – those with talent and aspirations to pursue their sporting dreams and roll with the punches like he did.
Now the world No. 3, he says: “It can still be a viable career option, but one has to not only have belief, he or she must also work hard with the right attitude to make things happen.”
So far, it has worked out pretty well for Loh, whose stock skyrocketed after he became the first Singaporean to win the world title in 2021.
After picking up a US$16,500 (S$22,300) cheque for finishing third in his group at the Badminton World Federation (BWF) World Tour Finals on Friday, he ended the 2022 season with career-high winnings of US$71,582.50 before tax. In 2021, he earned US$60,550 in prize money.
Badminton’s top dog Viktor Axelsen, on the other hand, could breach the US$400,000 mark if he retains his World Tour Finals title on Sunday.
In comparison, football star Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual salary with his former club Manchester United was around £26 million (S$43 million), while tennis great Novak Djokovic wrapped up the 2022 season with almost US$10 million in prize money, all before tax.
“My prize money is not little, but compared to other sports, it is also not a lot,” Loh says.
“OK, we don’t compare badminton with team sports and Cristiano Ronaldo’s millions every month lah. But if you look at tennis and what their top players are earning, badminton has a lot of room for improvement because I think our sport is faster and more exciting.”
Nevertheless, Loh is grateful to badminton for many things.
Now a top-tier Sports Excellence Scholarship recipient, he gets considerable support from Sport Singapore, the Singapore National Olympic Council and SBA. As his profile soars, he is also now a brand ambassador for Seiko, HSBC, Li-Ning, Singapore Airlines, and Grab.
“I worry less about the cost of food now when I travel,” says the affable player, who loves Japanese cuisine.
More than a year ago, he would fret about what to eat during overseas tournaments. While the likes of Danish world No. 10 Anders Antonsen vlogs about eating at a Japanese restaurant, Loh would order a burger or look for cheaper options instead.
He also bought a suit for himself for the first time – and felt the pinch of the $300 bill – for the 2022 Singapore Sports Awards in November, when he was crowned Sportsman of the Year and pocketed $10,000.
“I don’t really splurge on branded stuff. Spending $200 on two T-shirts is already considered a lot for me,” says Loh, who still rides pillion to training at times on Kean Hean’s motorcycle or takes the train.
“I also want to have my own apartment one day. But being single and 25, I am eligible for only private properties, which I cannot afford yet, so I have to continue saving.”
Despite his success over the last 12 months, those close to him say he is keeping his feet on the ground.
National coach Kelvin Ho, a big-brother figure who has coached Loh for 10 years and usually rooms with him during overseas competitions, laughs as he says: “Same boring guy. Eat, train, nap, play, do laundry, analyse games, sleep. Repeat.
“Still happy-go-lucky and willing to learn, still respectful of people despite his new fame and status, and still hungry and willing to fight for his country even though things can get tiring.
“But inside, I think he has become more mature in handling pressure.”
Fellow national player Joel Koh, a teammate of seven years, adds: “He is still the same humble and down-to-earth guy who shows gratitude to the team and would be happy for others when they do well.
“On court, I feel he has become hungrier and more focused to improve his game further and reach his goals. Seeing this makes me feel more motivated to train harder and improve so I can reach his level.”
Another thing that has not changed is Loh’s love for the game, and the sacrifices he will make to hone his craft. He has turned down endorsement deals because they do not fit his training and competition schedules.
He says: “It is true that success comes with a price, and I have to juggle training, more competition and more external commitments now. It’s tiring, but I accept this as part of my journey to the top and my Olympic medal hunt.
“I feel like in this past year, I have grown, I have a wider perspective of life and learnt many things. But I am still me.”