Whatever the difficulties involved in developing squash in Singapore nowadays, there can be little doubt of the country’s success in promoting the game throughout the whole of South-East Asia. Indeed, Singapore still has a reputation in the region for punching above its weight, not least in the global financial services industry where it provides employment for over a quarter of a million people.
But, as in so many countries, the story of squash in Singapore really begins in its colonial past when squash courts began to appear in many of the camps occupied by British military personnel. And with the appearance of the courts came a passion for the game which still survives today.
Squash and the Military
After the Second World War, squash courts sprouted up in various British military camps such as the Army’s Gillman Barracks and the Royal Air Force’s base in Changi. The location of the oldest squash court in Singapore isn’t clear, largely because so many have either been demolished or incorporated into other facilities.
It’s rumoured that there was a squash court in the iconic Cathay Building on Handy Road – opened in 1939 to house the British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation – although nobody knows for sure. The Building itself was mainly known for it’s air-conditioned theatre, then a technological marvel and the first to be built in Singapore
The British passion for squash gradually expanded to the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Police Force during the transition to self-government in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not surprisingly, many of the first local exponents of the game emerged from these uniformed groups.
In the late 1960s, squash (together with canoeing and, later, rugby) was promoted by the country’s Ministry of the Interior and Defence as part of a platform for building a rugged society. Singapore’s Defence Minister at the time, Dr Goh Keng Swee, believed strongly in squash as a physically demanding game ideally suited to improving the mental discipline and development of military personnel. Pioneer trainee air force pilots took up the game in droves.
The first Director General of Staff, Mr Tan Teck Khim also played a pivotal role in promoting squash in the Singapore Armed Forces after independence in 1965. He later became the Commissioner of Police and was instrumental in the development of squash in the Singapore Police Force.
Private Clubs and Public Courts
Tanglin Club and Singapore Cricket Club were the earliest private clubs to introduce squash, largely because of the influence of the British members at these clubs.
The earliest public courts were built by the National Sports Promotion Board, the forerunner of the Singapore Sports Council. These archaic courts had low ceilings with poor ventilation and dim lighting. Unsurprisingly, playing squash in extremely humid conditions with small-headed wooden rackets provided a major challenge to enthusiasts. However, the interest in playing squash was so great amongst the members of the public that players were obliged to queue in person at the court booking offices one week in advance just to make sure that they could play during their preferred time slot. Phone bookings were unthinkable.
The rush to book squash courts eased tremendously with the proliferation of new squash courts all over the island from the 1970s to the 1990s. Almost every new apartment block or condominium incorporated a squash court in their facilities and playing the game at any time of the day or night did not pose a problem anymore. The Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association, The Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association, The Police Sports Association and many social clubs contributed to the rapid increase of squash courts in the country as the sport was regarded as being the “in” thing.
National and International Competition
The Singapore Squash Rackets Association was founded in 1970, the majority of its early office holders being drawn from the Army, the Police, returning overseas students and the expatriate community. In the same year, the first Singapore Open was held with a women’s title being introduced two years later. As the competition became more established, its winners began to include the top world ranked squash players of the day such as Pakistan’s Qamar Zaman and Gogi Alaudin
In 1973, the first national squash championships were held and, in the late 1970s, Singapore also played host to the PIA World Series featuring the top 20 squash players of the world including 8-time British Open champion Geoff Hunt of Australia.
By the end of the decade, the level of participation squash had risen to such a level that it was perhaps inevitable that a word class local hero would emerge from the island’s squash playing community.
Zainal Abidin ruled the squash courts of Singapore for 10 years and was Singapore’s undisputed squash champion from 1977 to 1986. He not only put Singapore squash on the Asian map, his extraordinary skills also extended the republic’s reputation on the world squash map as well.
Abidin started playing squash in 1977 when, as a 19 year-old, he was serving his national service with the Police Force. It was a considerably late age to begin but his natural talent, instinct and abilities for the game soon ensured his meteoric rise. His triumphs and achievements also helped develop a large following and participation in the game throughout Singapore. Squash was being played at all levels, from pre-teens to young adults to senior citizens. Such was the appeal of squash in the 1980s, a development made possible due to the exploits of the games local heroes, Abidin, Peter Hill and Jeremy Yeo.
In the women’s game, it was to take a little longer before the emergence of a local hero. Lim Seok Hui started playing squash just before her 11th birthday with the encouragement of her avid squash enthusiast parents. She was only 13 years old when she represented Singapore at the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship in Hong Kong – making her amongst the youngest competitors in the history of squash in Singapore and East Asia.
In 1983, the 16 year-old became the youngest champion in the history of Singapore squash when she won the Singapore Open title. The following year, she became the youngest ever female player to win the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship overcoming Hong Kong’s Julie Hawkes.
Abidin and Hui are still Singapore’s most famous squash players. But over a quarter of a century after their heyday, what is the state of Singapore squash today?
Squash in Challenging Times
In March 2010, the Straits Times reported that bookings for squash courts had risen steadily over the previous few years according to figures released by the Singapore Sports Council. But statistics can be misleading. Although a huge number of squash courts were built in the 1980s and 1990s, many were either under-used or were converted to alternative uses, such as gymnasiums, children’s play areas, table tennis halls and even karaoke lounges! So, it’s likely that participation in the game in Singapore has declined over the last couple of decades.
Despite this, live television coverage of international squash tournaments such as the Singapore Women’s Masters has recently re-commenced. And although there’s more to reviving the game than just getting greater publicity, Singapore’s continuing financial success, and its financial services community, may still prove to be a useful source of investment in the sport – as well as attracting a new crop of competitive individuals to the island’s squash courts.
Time to re-visit the Wall Street model, perhaps?
For a detailed description of the development of squash in Singapore, read Munir Shah’s excellent article “Squash in Singapore – The Early Years”.
You can also read Lam Chun See’s personal reminiscences of his squash playing life on his “Good Morning Yesterday” blog.