Rugby: Singapore's 1978 rugby heroes praised

Home Affairs & Law Minister K. Shanmugam with a copy of When We Were Kings at yesterday's launch. Others are (from left) Sumardi Sarkawi, Song Koon Poh, Shee Lay Toon, Tay Huai Eng, Natahar Bava, Jarmal Singh, Godfrey Robert, Alfred Lee, Rose Bava an
Home Affairs & Law Minister K. Shanmugam with a copy of When We Were Kings at yesterday's launch. Others are (from left) Sumardi Sarkawi, Song Koon Poh, Shee Lay Toon, Tay Huai Eng, Natahar Bava, Jarmal Singh, Godfrey Robert, Alfred Lee, Rose Bava and Alan Wee.PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

He leaned back in the chair, head tilted towards the ceiling at Toa Payoh's Safra clubhouse, trying to recall long-lost memories.

Jarmal Singh was captain of the Singapore rugby team who won the Malaysian Rugby Union Cup in 1978, a feat that was followed by a treble of national awards: Team of the Year, Coach of the Year and Sportsman of the Year.

With wrinkles deepening around his eyes as he reminisced about events on its 40th anniversary celebrations, the 70-year-old said: "I've never discussed any of it with my children or my grandchildren - they've never asked - and even if they did, I wouldn't know what to say, where to start."

Song Koon Poh, who was the first team sport athlete to be named Sportsman of the Year then, was similarly stumped when asked to share the story of a team who stunned the region.

Their recollection was triggered by When We Were Kings, penned by Godfrey Robert. The former Straits Times sports editor's story on the against-the-odds feat of Singapore's forgotten rugby legends was launched in conjunction to commemorate that historic win.

The 71-year-old details the commitment and drive behind what was a shock win in Kuala Lumpur, over a Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment side in the semi-finals before the 19-3 victory over Malaysian Armed Forces in the final.

And Singapore Rugby Union president Terence Khoo believes the new generation must know their history.

"I played from 1984, and even I knew very little about them, only heard bits and bobs about what they did, and how they did it. Generations of rugby players grew up without knowing their story," he said.

"I hope Godfrey's book tells the story the way they - those who lived it - remember it, and put their achievement in its correct place in Singapore history."

Leow Kim Liat, the first captain of an all-Singaporean national team formed in 1972, said that there are valuable lessons to be gleaned.

"It is a story of Singapore essentially that, with hard work and passion, anything is possible. I think its important to show that rugby in Singapore has a storied history," said the 68-year-old.

There was a common thread in the tales told by members of the team who lived through the days leading up to the win - unwavering commitment in the face of tough training, and a loyalty to the team and flag.

"Some of the boys stopped to vomit on the side, wiped off, and carried on - because no one ever stopped halfway at a (national coach) Natahar Bava training session. It was just not done," said the 64-year-old Song.

"But we were not compelled to play, we actually had to pay to play. It was a team that was quite unique. We played for each other, for the love of the game and the country. In the 1970s it was a rare opportunity to play for Singapore - that made it a burning desire."

And that is the message Khoo hopes gets through to the Republic's young rugby players.

"In the era of professionalism, this team carries an important message - that the belief that playing for your country is the ultimate aspiration of any athlete," he said.

"It still holds true, and I hope young athletes feel the same."

•When We Were Kings is available at major bookshops (retail price $26.65).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 23, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore 1978 rugby heroes praised'. Print Edition | Subscribe