James Desmond Howard Neill: 1923-2017

'Santa' tried to ensure a perennial Christmas

In a period when sponsorship was hard to come by, he went out of his way to help sports bodies and community organisations.

So it was appropriate that sportsmen called James Desmond Howard Neill "Santa Claus" in seasons other than Christmas.

"JDH", as he was popularly known, was the general manager of the Fraser and Neave Group from 1970 to 1982, when he provided financial support to many organisations, especially to rugby.

The Briton who became a Singapore citizen died on Saturday, aged 94, after a long illness. Social media was abuzz with tributes from rugby players who saw him as the saviour of the sport in the 70s and 80s.

As president and later vice-president of the Singapore National Employers Federation, and also chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Neill influenced trade bodies and commercial organisations to support sport.

Former national rugby stalwart How Wai Chew, 68, who worked in the sales and marketing department at F&N for 30 years, said: "He was the staunchest supporter of national rugby and the Blacks club for whom he was patron for more than 20 years. Money aside, he would make his presence felt at matches."

Chan Peng Mun, 70, Singapore Rugby Union president from 1985 to 2005, said: "He gave local rugby a big boost with his financial clout which we appreciated because support from government and commercial sources was a rarity then."

A strong swimmer and sailor, Neill also served on the Singapore Sports Council committees.

At F&N, he always supported sportsmen. And two employees who enjoyed his support and understanding were Thomas Cup badminton player Ong Poh Lim and national footballer Quah Kim Song.

The late Ong, a member of three Cup-winning Malayan teams, was particularly grateful to Neill, for the badminton maestro who made famous his unorthodox "crocodile serve" once told me that "the boss" never hesitated to give employees time off to train and play sport.

Because Neill loved the ocean, his ashes will be released at sea.

•Wake is at Singapore Casket Level 3, Jade Room, 131 Lavender Street. Cortege leaves today at 4.15pm for Mandai Crematorium.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline ''Santa' tried to ensure a perennial Christmas'. Print Edition | Subscribe