Ex-national water polo player Tan Eng Liang dies at 85
Former national water polo player and veteran sports official Tan Eng Liang, who died on Sunday aged 85, was a “sporting giant” with a “heart of gold” who will be missed dearly by his family, friends and the Singapore sports fraternity.
He is survived by his wife Kathryn, three children and five grandchildren.
His family said in a statement on Sunday: “Our dearest father, Dr Tan Eng Liang, passed away peacefully. He had been battling advanced cancer. We grieve deeply as he was a devoted father and doting grandfather who loved us unconditionally. He taught us strong values to live by and exemplified these principles in his own life.
“We will miss him dearly. Dad devoted his life to serving the community particularly in the field of sports. Even in the midst of illness, he continued to contribute with grit and courage. He was an inspiration to us all. A bright star has dimmed but it shines in our hearts forever.”
Dr Tan and his older brothers Eng Chai and Eng Bock, who both died in 2020, represented Singapore in water polo at major events such as the South-east Asian Peninsular (Seap) Games and Asian Games.
The siblings learnt to swim in the open sea and Dr Tan’s love of sport was clear from a young age. To earn a spot on the national water polo team at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games, he had to put his studies aside, resulting in a failed attempt to enter medical school. He went on to win three medals – a bronze and two silvers – at the Asian Games and two Seap Games golds.
Outside the pool, he was Singapore’s first Rhodes scholar. He obtained a doctorate in chemistry from Oxford University in 1964.
He then went into politics as River Valley’s Member of Parliament before becoming Minister of State for National Development from 1975 to 1978. He was the senior minister of state for Finance from 1979 to 1980.
Even after his days as a water polo player, Tan continued to contribute to local sport. From 1975 to 1991, he was chairman of the Singapore Sports Council (SSC), now known as Sport Singapore.
He served as vice-president of the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) for 28 years, stepping down in 2020, the year he was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.
The veteran sports administrator helmed 12 major Games as chef de mission, starting from the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.
SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin said in a statement: “He was not only a sporting giant on whose shoulders we stood on... he was a veritable roaring, no-nonsense giant who demanded the best not only from athletes and officials but from himself too.
“He also had a heart of gold and cared deeply about our athletes, sports and Singapore.”
“The best way to honour Eng Liang is to keep flying our flag high as we compete in the region and beyond… to give of our best, to conduct ourselves with honour, to train hard and to compete with all our heart. Nothing would please him more than to know that our flag flies high, not just because we won gold, but because we have made all of Singapore proud.”
Calling Dr Tan a “great athlete and passionate sports leader”, International Olympic Committee vice-president Ng Ser Miang said: “I learnt a lot from him... Over the years we worked closely and seamlessly for Singapore and the Olympic Movement.
“He laid the foundation for sports infrastructure and sports eco-system for Singapore and contributed much to sport internationally, in particular to the SEA Games. I have the greatest admiration and respect for him.”
Dr Tan’s dedication to sport was unshakeable. Just one month after undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, he led Team Singapore to a then-record outing at the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne where they brought home 18 medals, including five golds.
He also defied doctors’ orders and travelled to the 2008 Beijing Olympics after sustaining a slipped disc just 10 days before departing for China as Singapore’s chef de mission. He had to rely on painkillers to cope with the pain.
It was there that the women’s table tennis team won a silver – Singapore’s first Olympic medal after a 48-year l drought.
In March 2021, Dr Tan and his family donated $500,000 to kick-start the Singapore Olympic Foundation-Tan Family Water Polo Fund to develop the sport through bursaries, scholarships and other programmes. It was one of the biggest contributions made by an individual in local sports.
In May, he was conferred the fifth-dan black belt by the Singapore Taekwondo Federation, the highest honour bestowed by the national sports association, in recognition of his contribution to the promotion of the sport here.
He took charge of the STF on an interim basis following their suspension by the SNOC and the sport’s world governing body, World Taekwondo (WT), in 2019.
Before his death, Dr Tan gave his family a message to share with his friends in the sporting fraternity.
It said: “It has been a great experience serving in sports all these years. I have enjoyed my time tremendously. Please convey my gratitude to all whom I have worked with. It has been my privilege and honour to serve them throughout these years. I wish them the very best and continued success locally and internationally.
“Majulah Sports Singapore!”
Dr Tan’s wake will be held at The Garden of Remembrance (Chapel Hall), 920 Old Choa Chu Kang Road, from Monday 2pm. The service will be held on Wednesday at 8pm and the cortege will leave for Mandai Crematorium on Thursday at 1.20pm.