You don’t know him, but when Robert Tan was 12 or 13, he paddled round Singapore in a sampan.
Telling his parents he was off on a camping trip, Tan and two friends set sail from Kampong Amber – today’s Chinese Swimming Club. As he tells it, geography, or the lack of it, was the genesis of their trip. “All we knew was that this was an island with water around it – so can go lah!”
They forgot about the causeway. With it standing in the way of their sampan dreams, the three boys had to go ashore. A “big Bengali fella” came up, and they realised they had just landed on a British naval base.
“He took pity on us and told us to find the hole under the causeway where the Japanese had bombed,” Tan recounts. “We did, but there was no hole. So we kept going until we reached Johor.”
A Malayan policeman met them there, this time threatening arrest. Tan lied that they were boy scouts, and when they had made it far enough, “started making bad signs at him – you know boys!”
Back on Singapore shores, the Singaporean policeman saved the day. He helped carry their sampan across the causeway and set them on their way.
This was the mid-fifties, at the height of the Communist insurgence. At Pasir Panjang, they cruised past curfew searchlights. At Jurong, then a swampland, a friendly fisherman let them camp by his nets.
“I can still picture the view,” Tan says. “It was beautiful. Occasionally, we would pass a bungalow on the hilltop.” In less than a week, the three boys managed to circumnavigate the island – possibly the first such sampan trip.
Huckleberry Finn, meet Robert Tan.
Tan is now a retired grandfather, but true to his kampong boy roots, is still seeking adventure. Later this year, he plans to reenact the Japanese invasion on bicycle.
Starting at the Thai border, 20 Malaysians and 20 Singaporeans will cycle the roughly 1000km route along Peninsula Malaysia’s Western coast. The trip will end at Memories at Old Ford Factory, where in 1942, the retreating British troops surrendered to the Japanese and their bicycle infantry.
Tourism Malaysia has come on board for the ride. The tourism promotion agency will produce a documentary of Tan’s ride, and ultimately aims to establish it as an iconic route, along the lines of the Jim Thompson Walk in Cameron Highlands.
Hearing Tan speak of his plans, however, it is clear that sports more than history is the intention. He is aware of the prickliness that goes along with commemorating Singapore’s fall, but feels that “the war, like all wars, needs to be remembered without hatred for us to learn from it.” To him, this bicycle trip is meant “to challenge the human spirit.”
“Cycling,” as Philip Gourevitch writes, “is an excruciating sport — a rider’s power is only as great as his capacity to endure pain — and it is often remarked that the best cyclists experience their physical agonies as a relief from private torments.”
Tan is no competitive rider, but last month made a preparatory cycling journey. Riding down Peninsula Malaysia’s Eastern coast, it took him six and a half days to cover the estimated 700km. “We could have done it in less,” Tan confesses. “But on the last day, about an hour or two into the ride, I felt like peeing, so we stopped. I went to pee and blood came out.”
Tan suffers from stress haematuria, a condition that acts up with strenuous exercise. Despite this, he continues pushing his body to its extreme. His sturdy bronzed frame attests to his regime: swimming a mile six days a week, trekking, and now, endurance bike training. “I was telling my wife that I feel fitter now than I was when I was 40 years old,” Tan insists.
The outdoors has always coursed through his blood. Tan’s “wandering” childhood at Jalan Eunos involved catapult hunting and swimming lessons in the longkang. This kampong boy made good: at Presbyterian Boys’ School, he became swim team captain, and after winning a British Council scholarship, a Physical Education teacher.
It was while Tan was at the Teachers’ Training College (National Institute of Education’s forebear) that he set up the Camp Instructors’ Group. Founded in the sixties – the same decade as the Housing and Development Board’s formation – the Camp Instructors’ Group brought would-be teachers back to nature and imparted spontaneous survival skills to them.
Base camp was Pulau Ubin and later, Pulau Tekong. The teachers went out swimming in the sea, on night walks, orienteering trips, and sampan sailing. Today, many of these activities (sans sampans) feature as part of the education experience because teachers were inspired to set up Outdoor Activity Clubs (ODAC) in their schools.
After a stint at the Ministry of Education, Tan spent 25 years at the Singapore Sports Council, finally becoming its first director of sports excellence in 1994. He was given the task of winning us an Olympic medal, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the women’s table tennis team took the Silver at Beijing. By then, Tan had retired as the general manager of a golf club, having left the Sports Council.
“At that time, I feared the day of retirement. But realistically, I should have done this five or ten years ago. Perhaps that’s the bad part of the system: they say prepare, work, save for the future, but the future never seems to come. Now, how many more active years do you think I have? Nine years? Ten years?” Tan asks.
Remind him of his fitness at 70, and he quickly counters – “It deteriorates fast. You’ve heard of the term ‘running out of holes’? In golf, when you’re at the 16th hole and two down, you can't beat your opponent. Your time’s run out, but you just have to go all out.”
So whether on sampan or bicycle, water or wheels, Tan will to the end be out in the open, making up adventures in a civilised society.
Words & Images Dan Koh