The Big Read: For at-risk and underprivileged youth, sports has a special kind of magic

For at-risk and underprivileged youth, sports has a special kind of magic
Sports is a form of social arena where they learn how to work with others, learn to be less selfish, less self-centred. You have to learn to work as a team, work ...
Published: 12:18 AM, April 1, 2017
Updated: 12:52 AM, April 1, 2017

SINGAPORE — Fresh out of school after completing his GCE ‘A’ Levels in 1997, national sprinter UK Shyam took a job waiting tables at an American diner, eating patrons’ leftovers because he could not afford to pay for meals.

The 19-year-old from a single-parent family — his parents had divorced in his teens — sometimes even found himself stranded at stadiums after training because he did not have enough money to take the bus home.

While he persevered for a while, getting by on a government sports grant of S$600 a year, the struggle become too much to bear in 2000.

With his tuition-teacher mother in poor health, Shyam was broke, unemployed and tired from constant run-ins with the then-Singapore Amateur Athletic Association (SAAA). He hung up his running spikes and decided to give up on his dream of breaking C Kunalan’s 100m record of 10.38sec.

But a chance encounter with swimming legend Ang Peng Siong changed his life. Ang heard about Shyam’s predicament, and took the young runner under his wing.

“Uncle Siong found out that I was stranded with no university and no career, and he gave me a job as a weights coach at his swim school,” said Shyam.

“He told me not to give up, and literally dragged me back to the track. He took me to GNC to buy supplements because I couldn’t afford them.”

Ang’s help, and Shyam’s renewed sense of purpose, paid off at the World University Games in Beijing in August 2001, when the sprinter clocked 10.37sec in the 100m heats to break Kunalan’s 33-year-old record. A month later, he equalled the mark en route to winning a silver medal in the South-east Asian (SEA) Games in Kuala Lumpur.

Shyam’s national record still stands today, and the 40-year-old — now a lecturer at Hwa Chong Institution — remains grateful to Ang for his support. “If he hadn’t stepped in then, I would have quit (for good) as I was really depressed. The S$300 a week he gave me helped me to start training again. It was the Christmas where I was left with nothing, but he brought me into his swim school and it was like a Christmas of hope.”

For 1982 Asian Games gold medallist Ang, it was a chance to help a fellow athlete in need. He had also benefitted from the generosity and aid of family and friends years ago, when his late father — the sole breadwinner of the family and who worked as a coach — could not afford the air ticket for him to travel to the United States to begin his studies at the University of Houston on a full scholarship.

Ang told TODAY: “This was a guy (Shyam) who needed help, and it just went from there. A lot of it has to do with my upbringing with my dad, as he was always helping others.”

Now, Shyam plans to pay that kindness forward in his role as board member of the newly formed Chiam See Tong Sports Foundation. Chaired by his mentor Ang, the foundation aims to help disadvantaged children realise their sporting dreams.

It is one of a number of organisations that have sprouted up recently to help at-risk youth and those from underprivileged backgrounds through sports. While the Singapore Olympic Foundation (SOF)-Peter Lim Scholarship blazed a trail for the community in 2010, others such as the Chiam See Tong Sports Foundation, SportCares Foundation and In My Shoes movement have also come on board since then.

Athletes with the potential for success at major events such as the SEA Games, Asian and Commonwealth Games and the Olympics can also tap on Sport Singapore’s (SportSG) S$40 million Sports Excellence Scholarship (spexScholarship), which was started in 2013 to provide talented Singaporean athletes with an enhanced level of support to attain success.

The support is not limited to elite athletes or those who show potential. In August 2012, SportSG also launched SportCares Foundation, its philanthropic arm, which aims to engage at-risk youth and those from low-income families through its sports programmes. Aside from its flagship Saturday Night Lights (SNL) football programme, SportCares has also involved youths in fencing, rugby, floorball, basketball, futsal and sailing.

Some 12,000 participants have taken part in 250 programmes, clinics and activities since its launch, and Kerk Kim Por, director of SportCares, said: “Sports is the starting point to get them to stay with us. It is important that they find something they are interested in so that they continue with us. Role models such as coaches and staff play an important role, and the opportunity to work in a team helps foster team spirit.”

Two new initiatives have sprung up this year.

Apart from the foundation launched by Mr Chiam, the former Member of Parliament for Potong Pasir, national hurdler Dipna-Lim Prasad also started the In My Shoes movement with co-founder James Walton, Deloitte Singapore’s Sports Business Group Leader, this month. The initiative takes unwanted sports shoes, cleans them up and redistributes them to disadvantaged youths in Singapore. They plan to expand the initiative to include netball shoes and football boots this year, and to include scholarships in future to help underprivileged children train to be athletes.

Voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) have also tapped into the potential of sports as a salve for troubled youths. Reach Community Services, for example, offers dragon boat and football programmes, and participation numbers have grown over the years, from 12 youths for dragon boat in 2007 to 200 last year. Its football programme has supported close to 400 children since 2011, offering training sessions and football matches every week.

A spokesperson for Reach said sports not only promotes a healthy culture, but is also used as a platform by community workers to mentor youths. Apart from sports, the VWO also offers other arts and culture programmes.

Fei Yue Community Services also uses sports and other activities such as fishing and night cycling as part of its Youth Go! Programme for at-risk youths aged 12 to 21 — including school dropouts — to build rapport and to impart life skills.

Mr Gerard Ee, executive director for Beyond Social Services, another VWO, told TODAY that sports is a good social leveller that allows disadvantaged children a “world away from their own”.

It also helps them stay out of trouble and build self-confidence, he said: “In short, it gives hope.”

The most visible result of these initiatives is that they will benefit a generation of young athletes looking to succeed on the international stage. One such athlete is national gymnast Lincoln Forest Liqht Man.

The 17-year-old from the Singapore Sports School (SSP) has received S$9,000 from the SOF-Peter Lim Scholarship since 2012. The money goes towards training equipment such as grips, tape and leotards, as well as overseas training camps and competitions.

Lincoln’s parents were divorced last year, and his mother — a permanent resident from Indonesia — earns S$1,600 a month working in a restaurant kitchen to support Lincoln and his younger brother, 13-year-old table tennis player Russia Cityhall.  

Money is tight for the family of three, who live in a rented flat in Woodlands, and Lincoln — who lives in SSP’s boarding facility during the week — admitted that it can be challenging trying to cover expenses, particularly for training stints and competitions overseas.

“Last year, I went to Japan three times for a competition and two training camps, and at that point, I really couldn’t make ends meet,” said Lincoln, who won a team bronze at last year’s Asean School Games.

“Luckily, we were able to negotiate the rent with the landlord, and I pushed back on buying two textbooks for about a month and borrowed them from my friends.”

But apart from headline-grabbing successes, perhaps the broader and lasting impact of these programmes is that they will tap into what has long been a special quality about sports: Its ability to allow youths of all stripes and abilities to unleash pent-up energy in a constructive way, build character and forge bonds with their peers.  

Dr Carol Balhetchet, a clinical psychologist who is also a consultant with the Singapore Children’s Society, said that sports is an effective way for youths “to channel their energy in a positive way”.

“Whether they are at-risk, celebrities or sportsmen, a lot of youths are full of energy, and when they are bored, the energy becomes negative and they get into trouble,” she said.

“Sports is a form of social arena where they learn how to work with others, learn to be less selfish, less self-centred. You have to learn to work as a team, work with rules and regulations, and learn to communicate and accommodate other people.”

Fei Yue Community Services senior social worker Iris Lin has also seen how sports can help young people. “Sports is a good avenue for them to find peer support and a sense of belonging,” she told TODAY. “When you organise (sports) programmes on a weekly basis, when there is discipline and order, a lot of them enjoy such order. They enjoy that time, and although the training is tough, they are working towards something, and there is order and motivation.

“This is the magic of sports. The goal is not about studying hard or getting good results, and while that is important, they don’t have that sense of ownership. A sports goal is real to them, and that’s the magic.”

For the gymnast, Lincoln, the time spent training at the Bishan Sports Hall keeps him focused on his goal of competing at next year’s Asian and Commonwealth Games, and eventually the Olympic Games. “It does get difficult at times, when I see my peers drinking S$6 Frappuccinos or going to Universal Studios, but I tell myself I’m different from them,” he said.

“With what I’m going to achieve, the effort will be worth it.”


Youth footballer Sai Raghu Vaisahnavee Ragu sports a head of curly hair, a mane that earned her the nickname Ronaldinho, after the former Brazilian superstar. Apart from her moniker, the sport has also given the self-confessed former troublemaker an avenue to channel her pent-up energy and emotions on the field.
The 16-year-old, who lives with her single-parent mother in a one-room flat at Tiong Bahru, told TODAY that she used to get into fights, but that stopped when she picked up the sport and then joined Beyond Social Services’ football programme at the age of 10. The teenager has been with the programme since then, and is the only female player on its roster.

“I started learning how to play,” said the Crest Secondary School pupil. “At first, I was kicking in a funny way, but slowly, I got the hang of it and got better.”

Aside from being a stress-reliever, football has also kept her out of trouble, she said: “Most of the time, we use our free time to play football rather than doing stupid stuff.”

The sports as salvation story is not a new one. What is new, however, is that more and more organisations are recognising the potential of sports to channel youths towards the straight and narrow and give them purpose.

Vairam Gopalakrishnan, now 58, is one who found salvation in sports before foundations began sprouting up. As a teenager, Gopalakrishnan, who studied at Raffles Institution and had a solid family foundation, struggled with his personal demons and “nearly went off the rails”.

Calling his young self a “rebel with or without a cause”, he was introduced to sailing by his uncle when he was 13, and credited the sport with shaping his character and inspiring him to introduce it to underprivileged children.

In 2014, then a volunteer at Beyond Social Services, he decided to help start its sailing programme. Beyond is one of a few VWOs here that have dedicated sports programmes for children from low-income homes.

Through a partnership with the Changi Sailing Club, youths aged between 12- and 18-years-old go through a five-day course with the club’s instructors during the school holidays.

Mr Gopalakrishnan, now a full-time sailing programme coordinator with the VWO, added: “The truth is, most of these kids may never have the opportunity to sail and benefit from the development and growth opportunities that sailing offers.

“Their parents can’t afford to get them to participate in activities beyond those in school.”

He said sailing has taught the children life skills such as responsibility, recalling how a 16-year-old girl jumped in to help him clean his boat after he had taken them out to sea.

Married without children, he also relishes being surrounded by young people, and added: “To see the children take a dinghy out in the middle of the sea and helming it on their own, it’s one hell of an achievement for them. For me, the bond with them is very special.”