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From combat to football boots: The 'crazy' 22-year-old who interrupted NS to chase a SEA Games dream

From combat to football boots: The 'crazy' 22-year-old who interrupted NS to chase a SEA Games dream

Singapore U-22 footballer Lionel Tan poses for a photograph. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

SINGAPORE: Elbows pressed against concrete, body parallel to the ground, the soldier holds steady. 

First are the planks, next the crunches, and then the stretches. 

But there are no yelling of instructions, no rapid counts of four, no groans of sweaty anguish.

All Corporal First Class Lionel Tan has is the light emanating from his digital watch to keep the time and the rhythm of his bunkmates' snoring to keep him company. 

The sun has yet to rise at Mandai Hill Camp, but with his muscular frame wedged in the space between two bunk beds, Tan's day has just begun.

This daily routine isn't merely about being fighting fit, 22-year-old Tan's goal is to be match fit.

And he will do anything in his power to make sure that is the case.

"My friends are like: 'Who is that on the ground?'" recalled Tan. "I remember my camp mate saying: '6.30am is our time to get up but why is this guy awake at 6am?' He was saying like this guy is crazy!"

Not that Tan would disagree. He is indeed crazy - about football.

A signaller with the 1st Singapore Infantry Regiment, Tan is also a footballer with Singapore Premier League side Young Lions and represents the nation at the U-22 level.

But while most footballers opt to serve the full length of their National Service (NS) before resuming their football careers, Tan has gone down a different path. 

Months away from his Operationally Ready Date (ORD) in August this year, Tan opted to interrupt his time in the army in pursuit of a dream.


A former graduate of the Singapore Sports School and the National Football Academy (NFA) set-up, Tan's budding club career has gone full circle once.

In 2016, he grappled with the rejection of not making the Young Lions squad after graduating from the NFA.

Fast forward three years, and he donned the skipper's armband for the very same team he was deemed not good enough for.

Lionel Tan during a training session with the Singapore U22 team on Jun 6. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

But it is on the international front where Tan has some unfinished business.

In 2017, he was selected for the SEA Games - but failed to play a single minute for Singapore as the Republic crashed out in the group stages.

Fast forward two years, and he now has "a second chance".

"After that tournament, I reflected," said Tan, who has also featured for Home and Hougang United. "I was very upset and I took a few days to get over it. 

"When I went back to Hougang for training, I didn’t speak much of my experience at the SEA Games because it wasn’t the best of memories, especially when Singapore didn’t qualify as well. After maybe about two, three weeks, I stopped football and enlisted."


Upon completing his Basic Military Training in December 2017, Tan was handed his new posting as a signaller.

Lionel Tan fends off a defender in Singapore U22s' 3-0 win over the Philippines in the Merlion Cup on Jun 7. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

“It was tough initially to juggle between football and being in the army," he explained. "Although I had the support of my commanders, I wanted to be fully focused and have energy when I came out of camp for training sessions.”

But, Tan could only book out on Friday evenings, and was only permitted to attend training sessions on weekdays if he had no in-camp activities after 6pm. 

Generally, he was permitted to leave two hours prior to training and had to return to camp two hours after. But that wasn't always possible.

“There was a time where I had to go through the signal course and what happened was that I couldn’t even come out to train," Tan recalled. "Sometimes in army, it’s just like there's something that will come up at the last minute and I can't go out.

"In the army, you’re not in control of your time, you’re not in control of what you are doing."

But rather than mope about, Tan channelled his frustrations more productively. 

While others used pockets of free time in the afternoon to tune in to their favourite TV shows, Tan snuck off to the gym.

When he was not able to leave camp in the evenings, Tan took the opportunity to work on his core muscles. 

"My bunkmates think that I’m crazy at times but they do get influenced and joined in (my workouts), and it is good that way,” he said.

But with the SEA Games looming at the end of 2019, Tan had to make a drastic change to chase the opportunity. This meant putting NS on hold to rejoin the Young Lions in order to stake a claim in coach Fandi Ahmad's U-22 squad.

With the help of the Football Association of Singapore, Tan applied for disruption in February, and has been allowed to put NS on hold until December.

"I had to be really patient throughout this journey and when they told me there was a possibility for disruption … I said: 'Yeah sure, go ahead''," said Tan. "In my head, I knew that this is my last SEA Games and I wanted to do something for the team.”

“Full-time National Servicemen may be granted time-off to train and win medals for Singapore in major international competitions, if they are assessed together with Ministry for Culture, Community and Youth, to have the potential and commitment to advance our national interests," said the Ministry of Defence in response to a query from CNA. "Their commitment to and performance in National Service (NS) are also taken into account. Each request is assessed on a case-by-case basis and subjected to exigencies of service.
"Lionel Tan has been granted disruption from NS ‪from Mar 7 to Dec 12 to train and represent Singapore in the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games. MINDEF and the SAF wish him all the best in the SEA Games."

With this green light, Tan has been able to play for the Young Lions side this season and has also featured in Singapore's unbeaten Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Championship qualification campaign in Mongolia.

The Republic registered a 3-1 win against the home nation, and two 1-1 draws against North Korea and Hong Kong. The scorer of Singapore's equaliser against Hong Kong? None other than Tan.

Regardless of whether he's in camp or out, it's all about the team for Tan, and this is made abundantly clear when Fandi talks about his player, who has also been selected to play for Singapore in this weekend's Merlion Cup.

The tournament features home side Singapore, as well as regional rivals Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines. 

Tan was part of the side which beat Philippines 3-0 on Friday and Singapore will face Thailand in the finals on Sunday.

"I'm happy for him that he's in the team," Fandi told CNA. "He has that passion and he is really motivated to help the team ... I really appreciate what he has done and I hope he can improve with the players we have now."


Tan's decision is not without its risks. For one, the return to NS in December will delay Tan's ORD date and eat into his pre-season next year.

Lionel Tan in action for the Singapore U22 side during their game against the Philippines on Jun 7. (Photo: Matthew Mohan)

"First of all, I don’t know if clubs want me considering that at the start of the season, you can’t be with the team training for pre-season and everything," said Tan, who will be ineligible to rejoin Young Lions as he will be too old. "The main concern for me is career-wise."

"Even though he doesn't know what the outcome may be, he is willing to sacrifice, whereas there are some players not willing to sacrifice," added Fandi. "Football not only requires good technical ability, but personality, intelligence, it's all important.

"He's a brave guy, I respect that and he's always willing to listen and learn."

Tan isn't alone in making this leap of faith - he has the backing of his fellow enlistees as well as his commanders.

"At first when I spoke to my CO (commanding officer), he said go on, because he knows that is my dream and after all, I want to be a footballer. He's quite supportive of me," explained Tan. "Although I was frustrated, I try to speak with the commanders and the closer ones understand me better and they respect my decision to take the option to disrupt."

Tan's parents stand by him too.

"My mum was very supportive of me and she knows I want it as a career. She told me go ahead and do it, as long as you are passionate about it and you want to do it.

"Even if my parents didn’t allow me (to do it), I would have gone ahead!" quipped Tan with a laugh. "99 per cent of the people told me that I should have not disrupted because it would affect my career in the long run. Most people would want to ORD as soon as possible.

"I still have the fire, the passion to do well at the SEA Games. I don’t know why but something told me that I needed to do it."

Source: CNA/mt


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