Vijiaratnam – Man of All Season

Vijiaratnam Singapore/Malaysia Golden Oldies: Arumugam Vijiaratnam
Four sports for Singapore
Suresh Nair

HE shakes his head repeatedly as he nostalgically looks at his biggest sporting achievement, which is recorded in the Singapore Guinness Book of Records: To be a quadraple international – donning the Singapore jersey in four sports.

“Who can ever do it now?” he challenges with a wry smile. “Even playing two sports for the country is close to impossible in today’s world, where the ‘paper chase’ beats sporting triumphs. That’s why I was hailed by the media as ‘Jack of all trades and master of all’ because I excelled in four team-sports at national level.

“The kids nowadays do not have the time to train, play and enjoy. The homework and domestic pressures turn them more to bookworms rather than star-quality sportsmen.”

Arumugam Vijiaratnam at 92, Singapore’s oldest surviving Olympian, still sports a gutsy smile and gritty demeanour and vividly recollects the glory-blazing era of the 1950s and 60s when he was a rare breed of sportsmen, who donned national colours in football, hockey, rugby and cricket.

Representing Singapore in four different sports still remains an extraordinary achievement, if not impossible, in an era of the “paper race”, where academic glories superceded sporting triumphs. But he was a rare exception in excelling in both sports and studies and continues to be a role-model legend.

“We enjoyed sports those days, we were out there in the field right after mid-day school and during weekends, literally from dawn to dusk, polishing up on sporting skills and to be fighting fit to last more than a match,” says “Viji”, as he is popularly known.

At his sporting peak, he represented Singapore at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games at 35, playing the role of striker – the first and last time Singapore ever took part in a team event at the pinnacle of sports competition.

“I always enjoyed the striker’s role, be it hockey or football because that was where the glamour was,” he recalls during the interview at his Holland Road residence. “Scoring goals were a pleasure and you get the biggest cheers when you put the ball at the back of the net. You become a hero instantly and you get a lot more fans chasing you for the autographs!”

Viji remembers how he grew up in Spottiswoode Park and played football for his club team by the railway near Kampong Bahru. From Outram School, he moved on to Victoria School before the war. He made his name playing for Rovers in Singapore and then the Tamil Physical Cultural Association (TPCA) in the then-Malaya, the leading sports club, who were the equivalent of today’s Manchester United.

The TPCA team was ultra-dominant during the Japanese Occupation and Viji was able to represent his adopted state (Selangor) in 1943. At the end of the hostilities, when the Malaya Cup was revived, he played for Selangor in 1947 and 1948 before heading back to Singapore for part of the 1949/50 season.

Perfect sporting example

He stood out magnificently because he was a perfect example of a young sportsman who combined sports and studies brilliantly. He was one of the first government scholars to demonstrate that sports and studies could be balanced successfully. He secured a scholarship to pursue a course in civil engineering at Brighton College and while studying in England, he captained the hockey team and figured prominently in the cricket team, too. He also played for Corinthians, the famous amateur football club, during his stay abroad.

He recalled that on his return in 1955, and in part because of a thigh muscle injury, he turned his attention to hockey again. An attacking player by instinct, he played for Ceylon Sports Club and by early 1956, he forced his way into the team that would tour Indonesia as part of the Olympic Games build-up. Out of 28 goals scored, he was responsible for nine of them!

His journey to the ultimate sporting stage – the Olympic Games – took place when he has reached a mature 35 years. He played at inside-right, a frontline position he shared with Chai Hon Yam. He switched to centre-forward against Belgium, perhaps his best match at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and he was always a dangerous threat.

An enduring impression of Viji is that he remains the most vibrant of individuals. He is easy going and enjoys the camaraderie of fellow Olympians  and sportsmen alike, who, it must be said, hold him in the highest esteem as one of Singapore’s sporting greats.

“If you ask me for the secret of my success it is always to be in the pinnacle of potential,” he says. “I prepared for the best and played my best, be it football, hockey, rugby or cricket. I gave nothing short of 100 per cent every time I took to the field.

“I relished team sports because of the teamwork and camaraderie and I thrived in playing upfront as a striker where my goal was always to score and to make sure my team wins!”

First Singaporean engineer

After he returned to Singapore in 1953, as the first Singaporean engineer, he worked for the Public Works Department and Port of Singapore Authority (PSA). And he was hailed by the government for his strategic work behind the development of Singapore’s first container port at Tanjong Pagar.

He retired from the PSA as the director of engineering at 75. He became the first Pro-Chancellor of Nanyang Technological University in 1992 and served until 2005. He was also President of the Institution of Engineers (Singapore), Board Chairman of Tamil Murasu (the only Tamil-language daily newspaper) and a World Bank consultant.

His expertise in engineering was world-class and the-then President Wee Kim Wee appointed him one of the commissioners of the 1986 Hotel New World disaster inquiry. The bodies of 17 men and 16 women were recovered from the rubble. Eight men and nine women survived the collapse.

Back to sports, Viji, a father of four and grandfather of eight, whose wife passed away at 85 last December, notes that “no one motivated us in the 1950s or 60s with money or gifts…we played just for the love of sports and that made it all the more beautiful to succeed.”

Rarely ever will Singapore see another Viji, a legendary quadruple sportsman, who perfectly combined sports and studies to be a distinguished Olympian.

Photos from Vijiaratnam family.

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