It is something of a secret to newer dragonboaters in Singapore: A rarely mentioned incident that thrust the sport into the public eye for the first time in its 30-odd-year history, and shook the entire nation, says Gavin Chian.
He was part of the national dragonboat team in 2007, when five of its members drowned during a competition in Cambodia.
Chian did not travel to Phnom Penh for the race, but clearly remembers the paranoia, misconceptions and negativity stirred up in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy.
Yet skip 10 years ahead and he - along with dozens of other athletes, coaches and officials - agree that the deaths ultimately played a part in shaping the local dragonboat scene.
Today, the sport is thriving with climbing mass participation rates and growing success in elite competition globally.
“The event helped trigger some shaking up of the whole ecosystem,” said Bryan Kieu, current coach of the women’s national team and a former national paddler who started in 2000. “Attention, resources and energy were pooled to make things happen.”
The driving forces at the beginning were surviving members of the crew in Cambodia, who either continued as athletes or left previous professions to become coaches. Crucially, some later joined the governing Singapore Dragon Boat Association (SDBA) to take on important management roles.
“They wanted to strive for better results, for our late teammates,” said Andrew Ng, who was part of the national setup in 2007, and continues to paddle today. “And for all the goals set together with them, which had not yet been achieved.”
“DO THINGS MORE SERIOUSLY”
In 2009, the men’s national team took part in the world championships for the first time. This was an important moment in the renaissance of the sport in Singapore, but Adrian Low - a member of the squad then - remembers how the trip to Prague was financed by the paddlers themselves, as they pushed to reach higher goals in the wake of the tragedy.
“There was much willingness and determination. The team persisted in going regardless of the financial difficulties,” said the 39-year-old veteran of the sport, who was also part of the ill-fated 2007 crew in Cambodia.
Since then, national teams, both male and female, have gone on to make their debut at the 2010 Asian Games, win medals at the Asian Championships in the same year as well as in 2012 and 2016, and secure a handful of bronze medals at the 2013 and 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
The latter feats were especially noteworthy given the quality of the regional competition, with the Philippines and Indonesia often emerging as world champions.
“Every year, our performances tend to close in on the stronger nations,” said Kieu, who previously coached the men’s national team as well.
These major achievements can be traced to how the community was “determined to do it right, and move forward on a fresh note” in the months after the Cambodia tragedy, he recounted.
When a recruitment drive was held in 2008 to rebuild the national team, hundreds turned up, to everyone’s surprise. “We weren’t expecting that number. We ended up doing the testing and selection over a few days,” said a former official, who declined to be named.
“Some said they were there because of the five, that they wanted to chip in and help out.”
Said dragonboat coach Ng Kim Hwa: “Many looked to the five paddlers as national heroes - many aspired to have their discipline, dedication and physique.”
In the years that followed, SDBA put in a conscious effort to “do things more seriously” on the national team front, said the official.
Squads were only allowed to compete at overseas races sanctioned by international or Asian governing bodies. SDBA also increased the number of coaching and steering courses, and funds were spent on hiring foreign technical expertise.
“Both ground-up and top-down, there have been significant improvements in every area,” said Chian, who now coaches while co-owning a dragonboat events company.
“MORE PADDLES THAN RACKETS”
Chian’s business, Dragon Boat Innovate (DBI), has also seen a surge in requests from local corporate groups in recent times. “At last count, we engaged more than 70,000 participants over the past six years,” said the 30-year-old, who acknowledged that his career choice had been influenced by his stint with the national team.
Anecdotal evidence also points to the growing popularity of the sport. As coach Ng described: “If you take the MRT, you will see more people carrying dragonboat paddles than, say, badminton or tennis rackets.”
“In the past, the main events were the Singapore Dragon Boat Festival, Singapore River Regatta,” he added. “Today, we also have the DBS Marina Regatta (DBSMR), PA Paddlefest, Jurong Island Race, Singapore National Games, Tug of War etc., etc.”
It is the annual DBS-backed regatta, set against the Marina Bay skyline, which perhaps stands out for paddlers and the general public alike. Originally conceived with help from DBI and SDBA, it kicked off in 2012 with 2,000 paddlers competing in seven categories.
Come 2017, there were 3,000 paddling across 14 categories at what is now Singapore’s largest watersports festival, said Karen Ngui, head of group strategic marketing and communications at the bank.
SDBA has also taken steps to seed the sport amongst youths, said former national paddler Sean Chua, now a teacher.
“Every student in my secondary school would have gone through at least one dragonboat session during their four years, as it's recognised as an enriching program for teamwork,” he observed. “And many schools actually go to Kallang for dragonboat all year round, for school camps. They are very popular these days.
“With almost every polytechnic and university collaborating with SDBA to have dragonboat as a CCA, it’s also helped the sport grow.”
A LEGACY... TO WHAT END?
Yet the Cambodia incident’s most tangible footprint may lie in the area of safety protocols. The five paddlers died after strong currents upended their boat and sucked them under a pontoon - leading to unresolved debate over whether life vests would have saved them.
Nonetheless, SDBA pushed a mandate for the national team to wear life vests during training and racing - whether local or overseas, and even if not practiced by other competitors or required by event organisers. Tests are also conducted to ensure all national team paddlers can swim and tread water without life vests, said Kieu.
The rule for compulsory use of live vests extends to mainstream dragonboating activities as well, on top of a ban on nighttime paddling.
Another former national paddler turned coach, Cheryl Tay, said the accident continues to serve as a reminder to be more vigilant and to never underestimate the environment.
“The incident taught us never to take safety for granted,” added Lam Yi He, a current member of the national team.
Chian concluded: “While in hindsight, it’s frustrating and saddening that it took such a tragic event for dragonboat here to grow by leaps and bounds, I think our brothers watching over us will be happy to see the state of our sport today.”
But a member of the Cambodia crew, who stayed on to compete as an athlete and later served as an official, said the milestones of the last 10 years “meant nothing”.
“I’d rather not have all these achievements - if I could have the five of them back.”
This is the fourth part of a series marking the 10th anniversary of an accident in Cambodia which left five Singaporean national dragonboaters dead. Read the first, second and third parts, or view our special interactive site here.