Tall, strong, sturdy, confident, friendly and sociable, he was endearingly called the ‘Gentle Giant’ by those who knew him. Always wearing a smile, the late Captain Manmohan Singh was ever ready to provide a helping hand to anyone in need. However, when he wore his black belt and took to the judo mat, he became an unbeatable fighting machine who had few equals in Singapore and the region.
Manmohan was born in Ipoh in Malaysia in 1951. His father, Mr Sardool Singh, was a Superintendent of Prisons while his mother, Madam Narindar Kaur, was born and raised in India. Along with his siblings, Manmohan grew up in a close knit and supportive family. A keen interest in sports characterised all members of the family. An active participation in sporting events defined the household, with Sardool leading the way for the young Manmohan and his brother. The family offered active encouragement by attending the many sporting events in which the father and sons trio participated.
Manmohan, or Mohni as he was affectionately known to family and friends, attended Anglo Chinese School right from primary education. According to his sister, Mrs Rajpal Kaur: “As a boy, although Manmohan was endearingly playful and at times, even mischievous around his family and friends, he was in fact well behaved and obedient in school. He was never a bully.”1 Manmohan’s discipline could be attributed to the considerable time he spent participating in sports meets in school and at the national level throughout his youth. The sportsman matured to become a responsible young man who was extremely protective of his parents and siblings and who continued to be anchored by the nurturing environment and close bonds of his family.
When it was time to choose a career, Manmohan decided to join the SAF [Singapore Armed Forces]. He was commissioned as an officer in 1972 and rose to the rank of Captain in 20 Singapore Artillery (20SA). He held a number of appointments in the formation, including that of Manpower Officer, Training and Operation Officer (S3) and Logistics Officer (S4). During his service with the SAF, Manmohan won numerous awards. This included the ‘Top Trainee’ award in several of the courses that he attended. He was also very popular in the SAF, given his friendly disposition and his unhesitant willingness to help those around him. His dedication, determination, loyalty, honesty and sincerity were qualities that stood out. He always had an extremely positive outlook of life and was viewed by his fellow officers and soldiers as a man of impressive qualities.
ALL ROUNDED SPORTSMAN
It was this outlook, attitude and the desire to excel that enabled Manmohan to hone his skills and become an all-rounded sportsman. He dabbled and proved to be a successful athlete at track and field events, race walking, hockey and rugby, winning many awards and medals in these sports. However, it was in judo that he would go on to truly excel and carve a niche for himself. He took up the sport in his early teens and trained extremely hard every day. His efforts and determination paid off. At the age of 18 years, Manmohan became the youngest champion on record to win the National Light Heavyweight Judo Championship in 1969. Thereafter, he qualified first for the Black Belt (1st Dan), rising later to the coveted 4th Dan, both awarded by the Kodokan Judo Institute of Japan.2 The 4th Dan3 is rare among Singaporeans even till today.
“Manmohan was truly a 20SA thoroughbred who held numerous appointments in the formation. rough his career in the SAF, he was well remembered as a man of remarkable qualities. He was also one of the most likeable persons, both as an o cer and a gentleman. Manmohan’s keenness in sports did not go unnoticed – he brought numerous honours to his unit and the Artillery Formation as well as Singapore. His extreme love for judo was a fact well known beyond the Artillery formation.”
The Legend, SAF Publication (1989)
While in the SAF, Manmohan was able to combine his passion for the green uniform and the judogi.4 He made the effort to promote judo in the SAF and organised several judo competitions. He also became the undisputed judo champion in the SAF, winning the Heavyweight title for an extended period of time.
Manmohan’s favourite sport soon took him to the national and international stages, where he carved out a name for himself and, in the process, brought glory to Singapore. In 1973, Singapore hosted the Southeast Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games. Manmohan represented his country in the Heavyweight category. Not one to disappoint, Manmohan worked extremely hard to prepare for the Games. His toil and sweat were aptly rewarded when he won the silver medal at the Games. He continued to impress and won silver and bronze medals at the Southeast Asian Games (formerly called the SEAP Games) in Malaysia in 1977 and in 1983 in Singapore respectively. It was a remarkable achievement for Singapore, a nation then not known in the region for its martial arts prowess. Together with other judokas like Mr Low Chee Kiong, Mr Stephen Loh and Mr Low Sai Gek, Manmohan helped change that perception.
In 1976, Manmohan competed in the first ASEAN Judo Championship in Penang in Malaysia. He did remarkably well and improved on his 1973 SEAP Games showing by clinching the gold medal and, in the process, becoming the region’s Heavyweight judo champion. He repeated the feat in Jakarta in 1981. At that point in time, he was the top judoka in Singapore and it was no surprise that he was Singapore’s sole representative at the Asian Judo Championship in Kuwait in 1985.
Manmohan’s love for judo saw him making contributions in other areas of the sport as well. He became a qualified judo judge, in addition to being a race walking judge. He took the lead in promoting judo in schools as well as volunteering to organise sports and judo events in schools, at athletic associations, at the Singapore Judo Federation and at other judo associations in the region. He also held committee positions, including Honorary Secretary in the Singapore Judo Federation for many years.
Manmohan displayed great compassion to his friends and fellow beings. According to his brother, Professor Kulwant Singh: “He was always willing to go out of his way to assist many of his current and former soldiers. He usually did this informally as he did not seek any rewards or limelight for doing so.”5 A further example of his empathy was when he was on an overseas posting. Realising the plight of the poor in the area, Manmohan organised the provision of food for poor children in the village bordering his camp.
By the mid-1980s, Manmohan was riding high in both his professional and sporting careers. However, he was diagnosed with cancer at an advanced stage in 1986. Any lesser being would have had difficulty overcoming such a setback. However, Manmohan remained resolute and continued to live a normal personal and working life. He also continued to contribute to the community whenever possible. He remained active in his advocacy for sports events, organising and volunteering at events in schools and at several other platforms. He refused to be held down by what was not within his control.
In 1989, despite his strength and determination, Manmohan succumbed to his illness and passed on when he was only 38 years old. He is survived by his wife, Madam Samrita Kaur and son, Mr Arvind Singh, who now reside in Perth in Australia.
Hailing from a family of sports persons and sports enthusiasts, Manmohan was able to excel in a number of sports. Eventually, he decided to take up judo, a decision which resulted in him attaining glory for Singapore on the international stage. It has been more than 25 years since the passing of Manmohan. Even today, the ‘Gentle Giant’ continues to remain an inspiration to those who are close to him, the judo fraternity, the Sikh community and the wider Singapore society.
1 Interview with Mrs Raspal Kaur, October 9, 2015.
2 The Kodokan Judo Institute of Japan is the headquarters of the worldwide judo community. See http://kodokanjudoinstitute.org.
3 There are ordinarily 10 Dan ranks, which are ranked in ascending numerical order, though in principle, there is no limit to the number of Dan ranks. Ibid.
4 The judogi is a loose-fitting judo uniform worn by the judoka. It consists of pants, a jacket and a belt tied at the waist. See www.olympic.org. 5 Interview with Professor Kulwant Singh, October 9, 2015.
[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published in 2015 by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]
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