Top 10 greatest feats in Singapore sports

Tan Howe Liang's Rome feat still inspires

Tan Howe Liang winning the weightlifting silver medal at the Rome Olympics. He lifted more than 380kg in total, becoming Singapore's first Olympic medallist.
Tan Howe Liang winning the weightlifting silver medal at the Rome Olympics. He lifted more than 380kg in total, becoming Singapore's first Olympic medallist.PHOTOS: ST FILE, THE NEW PAPER, SINGAPORE SPORTS COUNCIL

Despite numerous successes by Singapore's contemporary athletes, Tan Howe Liang's moment of glory at the Rome Olympics stands apart

He was Singapore's first Olympic medallist and 55 years later, the memory of his greatness persists.

On Sept 8, 1960, at the Palazzetto Dello Sports Hall in Rome, Tan Howe Liang, 27, stood with his muscles straining, his teeth gritted in concentration as he lifted a total of more than 380kg over his head to clinch a weightlifting silver.

That momentous achievement has topped a poll conducted by The Sunday Times sports desk to identify the top 10 greatest feats in Singapore's sporting history.

We compiled a shortlist of 25 key achievements - dating back to pre-independent Singapore - and asked 45 current and former national athletes, coaches, officials and sports journalists to choose their top 10 from it. We collated their results to determine a final ranking.

  • 1: Every one of the 25 shortlisted feats received at least one vote.

    9: Nine of the 25 feats were achieved by athletes still active; with the women’s table tennis team since disbanded, only three athletes in the final top 10 are currently competing.

    1/3: Feats from this century received just over a third of the votes compared to those prior to 2000.

Joseph Schooling's Fina World Championships bronze medal was second, followed by Ang Peng Siong's world-leading 50m swim at the 1982 US Championships.

Although four-fifths of those polled were not even born when Tan won his silver, his feat featured in all but one of the 45 lists, reinforcing his impact across different eras.

"What Mr Tan accomplished has inspired future generations of local athletes," said two-time Sportsman of the Year and ex-national shooter Lee Wung Yew.

Seven sports featured in the top 10, with swimming taking three spots and table tennis two. There was also an equal gender division, with each occupying five slots.


Half the feats were achieved in the past decade - a factor that sets Tan's deed apart from the rest, noted veteran sports administrator Annabel Pennefather. "Compared to the level of support now for our athletes, there was precious little back then but that never stopped people like Howe Liang," she said.

From the initial shortlist, 10 feats received first-place votes. Tan received the most with 25 and the next best was Schooling with five.

Quah Ting Wen, who was at poolside when Schooling became the first Asian to swim under 51sec in the 100m butterfly, was stunned by her compatriot's feat.

"The level of competition was so high and he was on the outside lane, but he still pulled it off. It's something I will never forget," she said.

Fandi Ahmad's goal for Groningen against Inter Milan in a 1983 Uefa Cup second-round match was one of only two feats to receive first-place votes without making the top 10. The other was Ben Tan's Asian Games gold in 1994.

Nevertheless, for Lim Wei Wen, who last year won Si

ngapore's first Asian Games fencing medal, that clip of his childhood idol was inspirational. "Fandi's goal showed me that local sportsmen could become legends too," he said.

Therein lies the power of a single act. And that is why, among Singapore's sporting epics, Tan Howe Liang's Italian masterpiece stands apart.

Who we polled


Athletics: C. Kunalan, Glory Barnabas, James Wong, U.K. Shyam, Calvin Kang

Badminton: Ronald Susilo, Derek Wong

Bowling: Jazreel Tan

Boxing: Syed Kadir

Fencing: Nicholas Fang, Lim Wei Wen

Football: V. Sundramoorthy, Aide Iskandar, Hariss Harun

Golf: Lam Chih Bing

Gymnastics: Lim Heem Wei

Hockey: Melanie Martens

Netball: Jean Ng, Micky Lin

Para-swimming: Theresa Goh

Rugby: Daniel Marc Chow

Sailing: Colin Cheng

Shooting: Lee Wung Yew, Jasmine Ser

Squash: Mah Li Lian

Swimming: Gary Tan, Oon Jin Gee, Russell Ong, Quah Ting Wen

Table tennis: Jing Junhong, Clarence Chew

Taekwondo: Wong Liang Ming

Water polo: Lim Teck Yin, Yip Ren Kai


Ng Ser Miang, Jessie Phua, Low Teo Ping, Annabel Pennefather


Marc Lim, Lee Yulin, Chia Han Keong, Peter Siow, Jeffrey Low, Rohit Brijnath, Lin Xinyi

These feats are not far behind

The top 10 greatest Singaporean sporting feats were chosen from a shortlist of 25 achievements.

Here are the 15 who did not make it to the top 10:

Adelene Wee: World bowling champion at age 19 in 1985, world's youngest and Singapore's first.

Benedict Tan: Won Singapore's first Asian Games sailing gold in 1994.

Fandi Ahmad: Scored against Italian football giants Inter Milan in the Uefa Cup in 1983.

Fred de Souza: Singapore's first and only Asiad shooting gold medallist in 1962.

Junie Sng: First woman in Asia to break nine-minute barrier in the 800m freestyle in 1983.

Justin Liu and Sherman Cheng: Won Singapore's first 420-class title in 2010.

Kelly Chan: Became world No. 1 windsurfer after winning 1992 Siam World Cup in Phuket.

Mardan Mamat: First and only golfer to win a European Tour event at 2006 Singapore Masters.

Men's water-polo team: Beat Japan to win Singapore's first and only Asiad gold in 1954.

Paul Lim: First athlete to score perfect nine-dart finish at World Championships in 1990.

Peter Gilchrist: Won the 2013 World Championships, beating billiards world No. 1 David Causier.

Remy Ong: Won the masters event for his third bowling gold at 2002 Busan Asian Games.

Sheik Alauddin: Singapore's first silat world champion in 1990.

Tao Li: First Singaporean to win back-to-back Asiad swimming golds in the same event in 2010.

Zainal Abidin, Peter Hill, Alex Tay, Anthony Chua: Finished sixth in squash's World Team Championship in 1985.


Weightlifting: 1960 Rome Olympics

What he did:

Undaunted by his ninth-place finish at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, Tan showed tremendous resolve four years later in Rome to become Singapore's first Olympic medallist.

Hours before the final round, he suffered acute cramps in his legs and was advised by doctors to withdraw. But Tan refused and fought through the pain, setting a new lightweight Olympic record in the clean-and-jerk and clinching a historic silver medal for Singapore.

What he said: "I'm no hero. At that time, I was just a keen young man eager to win for my country in the Olympics."


Swimming,: 2015 World Championships in Kazan, Russia

What he did: The first Asian man to go below 51sec in the 100m butterfly also delivered Singapore's first medal at a world championships, finishing third behind Olympic champion Chad le Clos and multiple-Olympic medallist Laszlo Cseh on Aug 8.

What he said: "I couldn't be happier to have won a medal on the eve of Singapore's 50th birthday, and would like to dedicate this win to everyone who has supported and believed in me."


Swimming: 1982 US Swimming Championships in Indianapolis

What he did: Ang's blistering 22.69sec in the 50m freestyle final was the year's fastest time. In recognition of his momentous feat, he was later presented with the "World's Fastest Swimmer" award for that year.

What he said: "It was my ultimate level of performance."


Badminton: 1950 All-England Championships in London

What he did: His victory over Denmark's Poul Holm in the final was a triumph not just for Singapore, but also for the entire continent as he became the first Asian winner of one of badminton's oldest and most prestigious tournaments.

What he said: "Badminton has given me everything, taken me places and given me the chance to meet kings and queens, presidents and prime ministers."


Athletics:  1974 Asian Games in Tehran

What she did: Just 19, Chee stormed to a sensational victory in the 400m final, becoming the first Singaporean woman to win an Asian Games athletics gold. Not only did she beat her arch-rival Nobuko Kawano of Japan, but she also set a new Games record with a time of 55.08sec. That mark remains Singapore's national record.

What she said: "It was the proudest moment when I stood on that rostrum in Tehran - for the gold was mine and for Singapore."


Para-swimming: 2008 Beijing Paralympics

What she did: She broke the world record in the 50m backstroke (S3) in the morning heats and carried that form into the final, capturing Singapore's first gold at the Paralympic Games.

What she said: "I'm only 16, yet I have already got a Paralympic gold medal, which has been my dream for some time."


Table tennis: 2008 Beijing Olympics

What they did: A 48-year wait for a second Olympic medal was ended thanks to the women's team which finished second behind China. Feng was the heroine in the semi-final, earning the decisive point in the 3-2 victory over South Korea to guarantee a medal for Singapore.

What Li said: "I have never cried after any victory before. But I cried because we led this team to victory and we have fulfilled Singapore's expectations of a medal."


Table tennis: 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championships, Moscow

What they did: The Chinese had been almost unbeatable in the sport, and were the overwhelming favourites having won the last eight editions of the competition. Yet, in what was billed later as the Miracle in Moscow, they were stunned 3-1 by Singapore in the final. Feng was pivotal, winning both her matches, including the decider against world No. 1 Liu Shiwen.

What Feng said: "Winning an Olympic silver medal was historic. Winning the world championships is a miracle. This is the best day of my life."


Swimming: 1951 Asian Games in Delhi

What he did: The 19-year-old schoolboy captured pre-independent Singapore's first gold medal at the Asian Games with a masterful performance in the 1,500m freestyle, winning by a staggering margin of almost 50m. He eventually finished the inaugural Games in India with three more golds (400m, 800m, 4x100m free relay).

What he said: "They used to laugh at the way I swam in those days. This made me all the more determined to be a good swimmer, and I trained hard."


Para-equestrian:  2012 London Paralympics

What she did: Born with cerebral palsy and profound deafness, Tan won a bronze (Grade 1a individual dressage championship test) and silver (Grade 1a individual dressage freestyle) to become Singapore's most bemedalled Paralympian.

What she said: "Keep trying, you don't know what you can achieve."

  • Additional reporting by Alvin Chia, Deepanraj Ganesan and Jeremy Lim.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 30, 2015, with the headline 'TAN'S ROME FEAT STILL INSPIRES'. Print Edition | Subscribe