At 17, Toh Kian Lam represented Singapore at the Asian Junior Table Tennis Championships in 1983 in Bahrain, where he lost to Yoo Nam Kyu when Singapore faced South Korea in the team event.
Five years later, Yoo went on to claim the men's singles gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Toh, now 51, will be up for another great table tennis duel this year.
The former Singapore Sports Council (SSC) senior executive is forming a team to contest the Singapore Table Tennis Association's (STTA) biennial general elections, which must be called by end-September.
The main reason Toh - who held several positions at the national sports agency from 2003-2008 before it was renamed Sport Singapore, and was the chief of high performance from October 2004 to April 2005 - is stepping forward is that he feels that not enough is being done to groom local talent.
As such, he perceives a "big gap" in standards between the current national teams - which have a large proportion of naturalised citizens - and the youngsters coming through the ranks to eventually replace them.
Toh, who has a doctorate in sports management from the Indiana University Bloomington in the US, pointed to the absence of Singaporeans in the top 50 of the latest International Table Tennis Federation ranking lists for Under-18 and U-21 paddlers for both genders.
While Andy Wong is 10th and Zhou Jingyi is 11th on the U-15 boys' and girls' lists respectively, Toh said: "It clearly shows that there is a gap in terms of our younger players coming up to fill the big shoes left by our foreign sports talents."
CREATING A CONDUIT
We must have belief in our own local players. It's very critical because we can actually ensure that there is a healthy pipeline of young players going into the national team.
TOH KIAN LAM, explaining his strategy for the future of the game.
He and his team have formulated a wide-ranging plan to address this, with an emphasis on grooming local-born players and increasing participation at the grassroots level (see sidebar).
"The emphasis would be on local talent; the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme has accomplished its mission. They helped to excite the people and helped Singapore win medals and it's time to move on," said Toh, who was the head of SSC's sports management division, which oversaw the management of national sports associations (NSA) from January 2003 to October 2004.
"I will not go to another country and take a 'finished product', because that is 'instant noodles' to me," added Toh, who clarified that if elected STTA president, he would allow current naturalised players to represent Singapore provided they also prove themselves in open selection trials.
Also, he is not against fielding new foreign-born players in the future, but they must be here on their own accord - via marriage, studies or work for example - and succeed in the open selections.
Key points of Toh’s plans for
Singapore table tennis
• Provide seed funding to local clubs to boost their development of players.
• Work with grassroots organisations such as Muis and Sinda to reach out to the non-Chinese population.
• Introduce a player rating system, whereby all players are given a score based on their skill level.
• Subsume the existing Singapore National Table Tennis League into STTA’s stable of competitions; bigger pool of players to play in categories based on skill levels/ratings.
• Create national registry of players.
• Create avenues for former school representatives to play again.
• Talent-spotting paddlers between ages nine and 14, and offering committed ones individualised eight-to 12-year plans to reach the Olympic level.
• National teams to be restructured to senior, Under-21, U-18 and U-15 teams with annual open selections for all squads. There are currently two teams that develop paddlers aged 13-18, the School Within School programme at the Singapore Sports School, and the Youth Training Squad for the rest.
• Establish good relationships with countries such as China, Japan and South Korea to secure regular sparring partners, and centralised training opportunities.
"Singaporean parents are more open to having their kids play sports, but do we have a good and fair system to ensure that they can move up?" asked Toh, who headed the sports science and medicine services at the Hong Kong Sports Institute from 2001-2002.
"We must have belief in our own local players. It's very critical because we can actually ensure that there is a healthy pipeline of young players going into the national team."
At the elections, he will likely face members of the current STTA management team, which is helmed by former MP Ellen Lee, although Lee has not indicated if she will run for a third term.
It is the first time in at least 10 years that the top post will be contested.
The STTA has 35 full members - who have voting rights - according to information on its website, and each full member may nominate two delegates to attend the biennial election.
If elected, Toh will also be the first non-MP, or former MP, to helm the NSA since Tang Tuck Wah presided over STTA from 1960-1968. Lim Kim San (1968-1975), Ho Cheng Choon (1975-1980), Lee Yiok Seng (1980-1991), Choo Wee Khiang (1991-1998, 2002-2008), Yeo Guat Kwang (1998-2002), Lee Bee Wah (2008-2014), and Ellen Lee (2014-present) were all serving parliamentarians when they were first elected STTA president; Choo started his second term as the NSA's head in 2002 after resigning as MP in 1999.
Former national paddler Jason Ho believes a contest would be good for the sport.
"It brings forth different opinions and ideas and hopefully issues will be discussed," said the 30-year-old, who added candidates should hold a townhall before the elections to address the fraternity's concerns and queries.
The 2006 Commonwealth Games men's team silver medallist was circumspect on the topic of grooming local talent, as "the association has to sacrifice results in the short term and invest in the young talents, (who) have to be willing to be full-time athletes".
"My own take is that foreign talent is still required to help raise the overall standards here, but it is essential to immerse our youngsters in countries such as China or Japan to groom them," said Ho, who retired in 2008 but still plays in local competitions.
Toh, a father of three who is still active in local competitions, says he has "more or less" assembled his team to fill the 10 key management committee spots, but declined to reveal their names.
"Most, if not all of them, are still playing table tennis today, so they know the sport well, and they are also businessmen, so they have connections (to make things happen)," said Toh, the executive director of the local community engagement office at the Nanyang Technological University.
He said he is not running because he is "power hungry", but wants to see an improvement on the local scene.
He said: "I don't have to be the president, as long as whoever comes on board buys into our plan.
"There is room for improvement and STTA deserves that change."