Obituary: Former hockey chief Annabel Pennefather, a trailblazer for women in sport, dies at 71

Ms Annabel Pennefather was Singapore's first female chef de mission, serving at the Commonwealth Games (2002) and Olympic Games (2004).
Ms Annabel Pennefather was Singapore's first female chef de mission, serving at the Commonwealth Games (2002) and Olympic Games (2004).PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

SINGAPORE - Former national hockey player Melanie Martens’ enduring image of the late Annabel Pennefather is of the latter always looking put together even after a game: T-shirt tucked in, skirt arranged just right, with perhaps a little bit of mud on her shoes.

But to underestimate Pennefather, who died of heart failure on Monday (April 27) at 71, came at a cost because behind this neatness lay a tough-as-nails competitor. 

“She could play a tough game,” said Martens on her former team captain. “Under that genteel exterior, you couldn’t push her off the ball. She had a very hard hit and could be quite intimidating on the field.” 

Her on-field tenacity and determination continued even after she retired in 1980 to pursue a career in sports law, while blazing the trail for women in the local and international sports scene as an adminstrator. 

“She could compete in a man’s world without becoming like a man,” said Martens, who won the SEA Games gold in 1993. 

“She brought everything that was true about her – her personality, femininity, toughness, sensitivity, she brought it to the table and she was successful.” 

Martens, 59, was among many in and outside the sports fraternity who paid tribute to Pennefather on Monday. 

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong called her passing “a sad day for our sports community”. 

“She left an indelible mark on our sports scene,” he said in a Facebook post yesterday. “A well-respected role model, she guided our sports talents, imparting in them resilience, discipline and teamwork. She made sure they had the right environment to succeed. 

 

“As a trailblazer for women in sports, she worked tirelessly to increase participation by women and girls.”

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu and Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin also paid tribute to her, with Fu saying in a Facebook post that “Annabel has touched many hearts with her passion for sports”. 

Tan said: "We are deeply saddened by Annabel's passing and send our deepest condolences to her family.

"Annabel was one of the pioneer women sports administrators in Singapore and was very passionate in championing the Olympic Movement and women in sports.

"We are grateful for all that she has poured in, and will miss her greatly."

Hailing from a family of hockey sporting legends, Pennefather donned national colours before notching several firsts as a female sports administrator. 

In 1999, she became the first woman to be co-opted into the SNOC executive committee in its 52-year history before achieving another first when she elected its vice-president in 2002. She was also Singapore’s first female chef de mission, serving at the Commonwealth Games (2002) and Olympic Games (2004).

She was the Singapore Hockey Federation’s first female president, leading the association from 2004 to 2012. Its current president Mathavan Devadas called her “an iconic character”, saying: “Her legacy to hockey in Singapore was Sengkang (Hockey Pitch), and she was at the forefront of women in sport.”

Outside Singapore, Pennefather, a consultant at Withers KhattarWong, also held positions in several international federations, including the International Hockey Federation, World Athletics and Badminton World Federation. 

Pennefather’s contributions extended beyond sports, with Eurasian Association president Alexius Pereira noting that she always stepped forward to contribute despite her busy schedule.

 
 
 

A champion for women in sports, she was also a mentor to athletes like runner Goh Chui Ling.

The 27-year-old, who is pursuing a Masters of Law at the University of Melbourne, said Pennefather was instrumental in her pursuit of sports law.

Goh fondly recalled regular coffee sessions with Pennefather, adding that the latter led by example in her standing in a male-dominated industry, and would connect her with other female administrators “to show me that I am not alone”. 

She added: “I have been blessed to have had her in my life and she will be dearly missed.”