Squash in Singapore – The Early Years

An article by guest writer Munir Shah. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.

Birth of squash

Tracing the origins of any sport is not easy and squash is no exception. There is mounting evidence that the game developed from “rackets”, which appears to have been first played in the walled yards of London taverns and prisons in the early 19th century.

Inexplicably, in the 1820s “rackets” travelled north-west to the infinitely sedate surroundings of Harrow school. Sometime in the next decade, almost certainly by accident, a softer ball than that used normally in rackets found its way on to the courts of Harrow. Thus two slightly different versions of the same theme known as “harder” and “squash” – depending on the ball used – began to develop. In 1850 two roofless rackets courts were built at the school and when a covered court and four squash courts appeared on the site of the earlier roofless versions in 1864, the two games took on entirely separate identities.

Introduction of squash in Singapore

Likewise, the early beginnings of squash on the island are rather hazy but the research I’ve done, in talking to some of the early pioneers of the game, seems to point towards the British colonial masters then. Squash courts sprouted in selected camps of the British military, namely the Gillman Barracks of the Army and the Royal Air Force base in Changi. It is hard to pin point the oldest squash court in Singapore because they have been either demolished or incorporated into alternative facilities. Rumour has it that there was a squash court in the old Cathay Building before the Second World War but the jury is still out on the authenticity of this tale.

The British heritage extended to the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Police Force in the transition towards self-government in the late 1950s and early 1960s and many of the early local exponents of the game emerged from these uniformed groups.

Under the late Dr. Goh Keng Swee, who was Defence Minister in the late 1960s, squash was promoted together with canoeing and later rugby, in the Ministry of Interior and Defence (MID) as a platform to build a “rugged society”. Dr. Goh believed strongly in squash as a physically demanding game and ideal for the mental discipline and development of the military personnel. Pioneer trainee air force pilots followed suit by taking up the game in droves. The first Director General Staff – MID, Mr. Tan Teck Khim  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 too.

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. Amongst the local sporting clubs, MYMCA in Palmer Road was probably the first to build squash courts. The earliest public courts were built by the National Sports Promotion Board (NSPB), forerunner of Singapore Sports Council, in a few places such as Alexandra Park (Winchester Road), Changi Air Base (Gosport Road), Seletar Air Base (next to Officer’s Mess), Farrer Park (Rutland Road – next to where the NSPB Building once stood), and the soon to be demolished National Stadium (Kallang).

These archaic courts had low ceilings with poor ventilation and dim lighting too. It was a major challenge to play good squash with small head wooden rackets in such humid conditions in those days. However, the interest to play squash was so high amongst the members of the public that one had to physically queue a week in advance at the booking offices just to make sure that you were able to play during your desired time slot. Phone bookings were unthinkable.

In order to augment this thirst for squash courts, a couple of enterprising sports centres with squash courts emerged at Fort Canning in the late 1970s and then later East Coast Recreation Centre and West Coast Recreation Centre. Joining this craze was the first private squash court for the exclusive use of family and friends, owned by Norman Wee, then Vice President of SSRA, at his former residence in Balmoral Crescent. It had a back wall which was made of plastic (not the usual glass) and the only one ever seen in Singapore!

The rush to book squash courts eased tremendously with the proliferation of squash courts all over the island from the 1970s into the 1990s. Almost every new 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. Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association (SAFSA), Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association (SAFRA), Police Sports Association and many social clubs contributed to the rapid increase of squash courts in the country as it was considered an “in” thing.

Early office bearers of Singapore Squash

Small wonder that the first office bearers of the Singapore Squash Rackets Association were drawn from the Army, Police, returning overseas students  and the expatriate community. Some of the early pioneers whose names come to my mind are Syed Ibrahim, George Abraham, Alex Josey, Dr. David Yeo, Tan Eng Han and Dr. Teoh Hoon Cheow. SSRA was formed in 1970 and its first President was Lieutenant Colonel Jaswant Singh Gill, followed by expatriate teacher Eric Cooper and Police Officer Frank Samuel. The reins changed hands to an expatriate CEO of Sime Darby, Richard Evans, who ran the association for a good number of years before handing it over to a Singaporean, Dr. Eddy Jacob, who left an indelible mark by marshalling a cohesive team to oversee the heydays of squash uninterrupted in the 1980s and 1990s. There are far too many people to be named in Dr. Eddy Jacob’s team but suffice to say that they were tireless in their voluntary work to promote the game and flourished with creativity under his leadership.

During Dr. Eddy Jacob’s tenure, the Asian Squash Federation (ASF) Secretariat transferred from Pakistan to Singapore upon his election as President ASF in 1985. He served 3 terms in ASF as President until 1997, with a team of officers comprising Harry Nair (Executive Director), Munir Shah (Secretary) and Benny See (Treasurer).

History of local squash tournaments

Our first national squash championship was held at the Police Training School (former Police Academy), Mount Pleasant, in 1973 and the winner was policeman, Hussein Ibrahim, who went on to win the national title a total of 4 times. Hussein trained regularly at the Police Reserve Unit courts in Mount Vernon and Queenstown.

The Singapore Police Force continued to produce 2 more national champions. V. Gopal won in 1978 and national serviceman, Zainal Abidin, who switched from football to squash a year earlier, made an unprecedented impact by winning the national title in 1979. Zainal is arguably the best player the country has ever produced and went on to collect a total of 11 national titles! To date, this record by the squash cavalier remains nowhere near to be emulated by any exponent of the game.

The first woman national champion was the late Ong Siong Ngoh in 1973. Milo, the health beverage, was associated as a major sponsor of the national championships for many years.

The inaugural men’s champion of the Ascot Singapore Closed Championships in 1975 was Dr. Malcolm Simons, with Annette Andrews winning the woman’s title.

The Singapore Open was sponsored by Asia Pacific Breweries under the brand name Anchor Beer and it was the longest running event, lasting just over 25 years, sponsored without a break by a single donor on the local squash scene. The first edition of the Singapore Open in 1970 was won by Dr. Malcolm Simons. Muriel Hocking captured the  women’s title when it was introduced in 1972. Past men winners of the Singapore Open were the top ranking world squash players of the day – Qamar Zaman (Pakistan), Maqsood Ahmed (Pakistan), Gogi Alaudin (Pakistan), Ali Aziz (Egypt) and Phil Kenyon (England), just to name a few.

Singapore also played host to the PIA World Series featuring the top 20 squash players of the world in the late 1970s. The likes of the 8-time British Open champion Geoff Hunt (Australia), Mohibullah Khan (Pakistan), Qamar Zaman (Pakistan), Ahmed Safwat (Egypt) and 6-time British Open champion Jonah Barrington (Ireland) made their regular annual appearances in this popular event.

Singapore’s prowess in the international arena

Singapore was equally fortunate to have the likes of Zainal Abidin, Peter Hill, Stewart Ballard and Jeremy Yeo, who blossomed into the squash arena around the same time, such that we were able to dominate in the East Asian and Asian scenes and even the world stage.

Singapore also took part in an annual series with Malaysia, under the banner of Dunlop, wherein the 2 countries took turns to host the event every other year, beginning in 1974.

What started as an Inter-port annual match between Singapore and Hong Kong in 1974 blossomed into the East Asian Championships in 1976. The Kallang Squash Centre was built in time, under the auspices of Singapore Sports Council which was then chaired by Dr. Tan Eng Liang, for the country to host this prestigious tournament in 1978. Singapore ended Hong Kong’s domination in that year and went on to win the Men’s team championships during the next decade and Zainal Abidin established an unassailable record of winning the individual title 9 times in all! The now defunct East Asian Championships went into oblivion in the early 1990s as squash began to be introduced in the South East Asian Games, Asian Games and eventually the Commonwealth Games.

Singapore completed its domination in the region by winning all 4 gold medals at stake in the inaugural squash event in the 1991 South East Asian Games in Manila, namely the Men and Women Individual and Team titles. We went on to repeat the clean sweep in 1993, when we hosted the SEA Games in Singapore.

Singapore was a squash power house in Asia, second only to Pakistan in the Asian Championships, which commenced in 1981. The highest international ranking Singapore ever achieved was 6th in the world during the 1985 World Men’s Team Championships in Cairo, Egypt.

Rise and fall of squash, possible resurgence…

Squash was a categorized as a merit sport by the Singapore Sports Council and received sufficient funding as a consequence, besides the regular private sponsorship of various events in the squash calendar. Singapore achieved the ultimate endorsement of its organizational ability by the world body when it was given the rights to host the World Men’s Team Championship in 1989. This was the culmination after having hosted several regional and Asian championships and even a World Junior Men’s Championships in 1982.

It’s sad to note that today we are nowhere near such high achievements in the regional and world squash scenes. We have great difficulty in raising a team to participate in the World Team Championships these days and will have to fight tooth and nail to get the nod from Singapore National Olympic Council to contest in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. Where have we deviated and where have all the talent gone to? I shall not delve into this because it requires a lengthy discussion in identifying the root causes.

In an article on 21st March 2010 in the Straits Times, it was reported that bookings for courts have risen steadily in the last few years, according to figures released by the Singapore Sports Council. From 2008 to 2009, bookings increased from 23,559 to 27,187. But statistics can be misleading. What is clearly evident is that after the euphoric rise in squash courts in the 80s and 90s, many were under utilised and quite a number of squash courts in community centres and recreational clubs were converted to alternative uses, such as gymnasiums, children play areas, church activities, table tennis and even karaoke lounges!

So, with the number of squash courts having declined substantially, it is does not give a true picture if we went by court bookings alone in concluding that there is growth in the game. In essence, the game has declined over the last couple of decades but I hope I am wrong in being pessimistic – perhaps it is now slowly showing some signs of resurgence.

There is more to reviving the game than just getting greater publicity, as was evident in last July’s CIMB Singapore Women’s Masters, in which there was “live” TV coverage of the semi-finals and final for the very first time in local squash history.

I yearn for more tournaments to get back on the local squash circuit. Reviving a once thriving Business Houses Squash League is just a case in point. Reincarnating the Singapore Open is yet another major challenge.

Today, Anchor Beer, Ascot, Milo, Ovaltine, Dunlop, Pepsi, PIA  and Perrier have all faded from the sponsorship scene and almost all the squash courts mentioned in this article have disappeared from the face of this country. But these household names linger on in the minds of those who reminisce the good old days. I long for the day when the old sponsors will return with a vengeance to revive the game locally.

Being sentimental, I am reminded of a famous song in the 1960s, sung by Mary Hopkin, with the following lines:

“Then the busy years went rushing by us
We lost our starry notions on the way
If by chance I’d see you in the tavern
We’d smile at one another and we’d say

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day
We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way”

I hope we will find our way in getting squash back to where it should belong. No prizes for guessing where this would be.

Photos

About the Writer Munir Shah

  • Asian Squash Federation Referees Director (1986 to date)
  • World Squash Federation International Referee/Assessor (1990 to date)
  • Vice President Singapore Squash Rackets Association (1988 -1997)

5 thoughts on “Squash in Singapore – The Early Years

  1. Munir replies that” Ong Siong Ngoh died many years ago. I knew her as a Tanglin Club member but I don’t know the circumstances surrounding her death. Its all history now and I doubt anyone can ever remember the details.”

    Lam Pin Foo

    • Dear Pin Foo,
      My grateful thanks to Munir for the answer. I would appreciate very much if somewhere , sometime if anybody have any knowledge of her burial place, I would very much like to pay my respect when I am passing by.

      Thanks.
      Siew Cheng

  2. I wonder if it is possible to shed light on the demise of ong siong ngoh. She was my classmate and good friend in my secondary school days. I am sad to hear of her passing.

  3. Pingback: Singapore Squash | squashbloglife.com

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