Singapore swimming has a winning blueprint for all NSAs to follow
Water polo fightback underway as Lee offers insight into how NSA stays on top
I told him I was a swimming fan and a track and field nut, and when I lamented about Singapore Athletics' (SA) struggles, I swear a smiling Lee Kok Choy somehow turned serious.
I wondered aloud if the president of the Singapore Swimming Association (SSA), the most successful national sports association (NSA) in the country, could help SA president Tang Weng Fei arrest athletics' alarming slide.
Lee replied: "I would be willing to spend some time with them, but I don't know if we have the capacity to help much because we also have to improve.
"Remember, we have Ang Peng Siong on the SA exco. He was on our exco and our former national coach.
"It's not so simple to say look at our playbook and copy (it). It's not so similar."
Singapore swimming has enjoyed remarkable success on grand stages since the 1950s and champions like Ang, Neo Chwee Kok, Patricia Chan, Junie Sng, David Lim, Joscelin Yeo and Joseph Schooling roll off the tongue easily.
Lee, 67, became SSA chief in 2014 and Singapore's swimmers have continued to dominate at the SEA Games and win at the Asian Games, while Schooling will defend his 100m butterfly gold at the Tokyo Olympics in July.
Our coffee chat comes right after a rare failure, though.
The men's water polo team failed to win gold for the first time in 52 years at the SEA Games in the Philippines a little over two months ago.
On Tuesday, the SSA held a briefing to reveal their blueprint to wrest gold back from Indonesia at next year's Games in Vietnam and reassert their dominance.
There is no magic wand to wave. Hard work, compromise and commitment, better and more frequent sparring matches as well as club attachments abroad are all must-dos, said SSA vice-president (water polo) Dominic Soh.
Some will describe this as an over-reaction, because such a remarkable streak was always going to end.
But, maybe SSA's reaction offers a small window into why it has been so successful. Its attitude is to ensure the taste of failure has no chance to take seed.
It is why there are 11 swimmers - the most of any sport - and eight water polo players among the 57 members in Singapore's Sport Hall of Fame.
In a remarkable turn, Singapore featured three golden girls in Chan, Sng and Yeo across five decades, from the 1960s through to the 2000s.
Yeo is the SEA Games' most successful athlete with 40 golds.
Today, more Singaporean swimmers are qualifying on merit for the Olympics, as Schooling pushes the envelope and raises local standards.
Lee, a former country manager at Micron Semiconductor Asia, said it helps that within the fraternity, there is a genuine interest in the SSA doing well and that its management team has top-notch expertise.
He said: "There is no private agenda, just a degree of trust within our exco and among the (swimming) clubs.
"That has been built over time because we have also emphasised continuity.
"We built on from previous SSA president Jeffrey Leow and his team and continuity leads to consistency.
"Our exco also has people who have run or are running large successful organisations.
"There are highly capable people in swimming and everybody wants the sport to do well."
As outstanding as their athletes have been, and as remarkable as Schooling is, swimmers come and go and what is vital is the coaching system in an NSA.
Swimming gets it, and maybe that is the example it can offer to all NSAs in Singapore.
"We must get the coaching system right, from those who coach the very young right the way through. We must have top coaching capabilities and that is a crucial part of our strategy," said Lee.
"The SSA approach is to identify coaches, enable them and get them to develop more coaches.
"We must get world-class coaches. Our national coaches must be benchmarked against the best in the world.
"If we identify a local coach, then we must make sure we support them."