If you were to cut open Mr Tan Ju Seng’s heart, you would probably find a soft spot dedicated to the disabled of Singapore.
After all, the man spent 12 years being the president of the Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC), the longest tenure any Singaporean held in that seat.
“Whether a person has a disability or is disadvantaged, aren’t we all the same at the end of the day, even if our circumstances are different?” he asks.
Speaking to TheHomeGround Asia before he received his Lifetime Achievement Award on Wednesday evening (6 July), Mr Tan says anyone who is in a position to help must feel called upon to help others.
“If we were to all contribute in whichever way we can, big or small, our combined efforts will be like a rising tide, lifting up all boats. That is what I have always been taught and that is what I hold true to this very day,” he says.
“What pains me enormously is to see people discriminating against others simply because of their differences and even worse, act out that bias against people who cannot fight back. The breadth and depth of the injustices we see every day can crush your spirit. But we can all, individually and collectively, help to bring about change – to perhaps even out the balance a little and to try and tip the scale more in their favour,” Mr Tan adds.
Disability sports: A league of its own
Through his passion and determination to help disabled athletes gain as much recognition as able-bodied ones, Mr Tan served as their voice. He pushed for equality for the para athletes and embarked to change the public’s perceptions. He was even successful in moving reports of para athletes from Lifestyle to Sports within the mainstream media.
“I always say, ‘Don’t just hear what I have to tell you about it, come and see’,” he says.
It all happened for him in Atlanta in 1996.
“No one can go to the Paralympics and not come back a changed person. The Paralympics is, in my view, the most spectacular sporting event on earth. Nowhere else will you see people from all over the world, from different cultures, ethnic and political backgrounds, all coming together as one family to celebrate, in our athletes, the triumph of the human spirit. The sheer majesty of it is breathtaking. And that very same spirit beckons us all to let go of our own fears and perceived limitations, to reach for all that is best in each and everyone of us,” he says.
So, under his leadership, the SDSC underwent strategic restructuring and evolved to what it is known today. He even spearheaded the integration of Disability Sports into Team Singapore’s agenda and brought para sports to the attention of the then Singapore Sports Council, enabling SDSC to secure its first government funding.
Mr Tan says it was “probably easier pushing that proverbial rock up a hill”.
“SDSC was at that time hard to pigeon hole. We were not thought of as a charity by the National Council of Social Services (NCSS) but as a sports organisation, so they didn’t consider us a good fit. To the Singapore Sports Council, we looked more like a charity than a sports organisation – again, not a good fit. We didn’t have a consistent track record to speak of. So what alternative did we have? Raise the funds ourselves,” he says.
Mr Tan turned to “friends, relatives, acquaintances, business associates, anyone who’s name happened to be on our Rolodex” and they dug deep into their pockets to help.
In 2001, SDSC was relaunched.
Driving SDSC to the top of its game
“With this all-important seed money, we started to put in place an infrastructure and a sports programme for the community. But we were not out of the woods yet. We were far from it. Ever so often we would run up against a solid brick wall, bash through that, and we’d come against another in what seemed like a perpetual obstacle course. It came to a point when even our stakeholders advised us to give up and turn our efforts to other better supported causes,” he recalls.
In what Mr Tan describes as “our darkest hour”, a voice in the wilderness called out.
“It was my old friend and closest ally, the late Frankie Thanapal Sinniah. He turned to me and said, ‘I will soldier on, alone if I must. I am a person with a disability. If I do not help others like myself, who will?’,” Mr Tan says.
Fondly named the face of Paralympic Sport in Singapore, Frankie was the President of SDSC from 2008 to 2012, the year he died. He represented Singapore at its first ever Paralympics in 1988 in Seoul, Korea taking part in swimming and athletics events.
“And so we soldiered on, bit by bit, brick by brick. Then came that watershed day in 2008 – at the Beijing Paralympics, when Yip Pin Xiu won gold and Laurentia Tan silver for the very first time in our nation’s history. I remember packing up after the Games when I got a call from Minister (Vivien) Balakrishnan who signalled that disability sports in Singapore had finally come into its own. Not an off-shoot or less capable half brother anymore, but a full fledged member, claiming its rightful place as an integral part of Team Singapore,” Mr Tan says proudly.
And proudly he stands this Wednesday evening as he receives his Lifelong Achievement Award from Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Culture, Community and Youth and Social and Family Development Eric Chua.
“To me, every medal won, every event completed, every challenge surmounted, is as much a tribute to the athletes themselves as it is to the many volunteers and supporters who have gone before them paving the way forward, all united in the single goal of making their journey not only possible but the best that it can be,” Mr Tan sums.
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