Singapore Squash fights its corner to stay alive at Kallang
Rod Gilmour reports – originally published on Yahoo
The man who has invested so much into Singapore Squash is outlining a trenchant defence of his sport’s current plight with typical passion. “All I am asking for is a centre,” says Patrick Thio, Singapore Squash’s president. “Give me that and I can do so much for it.”
Thio is speaking on the sidelines of the biggest squash tournament to be held in Southeast Asia, an event largely down to his backing. This week’s Marigold Singapore Open is a US$220,000 (S$302,000) event, with equal prize money across the men’s and women’s competitions. A glass court has been erected at the spacious OCBC Arena, while first-round matches have been played at the Kallang Squash Centre.
The latter venue is a moot point for squash enthusiasts. Singapore once boasted around 200 courts from the sport’s booming heyday in the 1980s. Now, the seven-court national centre is set for demolition next year. Once flattened, it will leave Singapore with just 19 courts and, perplexingly for Thio, no like-for-like replacement.
“We knew about the demolition under the previous president,” he says. “I came in hoping to try something different to let the government reconsider not giving us a replacement.
“All the things we are doing are aligned with everything the government wants – working with the handicapped, underprivileged, corporates and bringing in this Professional Squash Association (PSA) tournament, big events is what they like.”
Thio has yet to meet the de facto sports minister Edwin Tong, who is set to attend finals day on Sunday where, he hopes, national agency Sport Singapore will see the merits of hosting a major squash event in the city-state.
He has also invited the ambassadors of all the competing nations at the business end of the tournament. “The response has been great. It just widens the reach of what we are doing,” he says.
Singapore Squash has a government check list of 20 items, which includes incorporating interactive court technology and art into the sport (a creative project is visible on the sidelines at the Singapore Open), as well as being carbon neutral.
“Why do we have to move out when we are here already?” Thio says. “All we need is a space of 40×40 square metres. I’ve already got a blueprint and it will be a three-story building and I can offer land intensification.
“I only need the space of two tennis courts. I’m not asking very much and to do a carbon neutral building, the cost will be S$20 million, with 10 singles courts on the ground floor, five courts on the first floor, with moveable walls to turn into three doubles courts, and two jumbo courts.”
A former junior national player, Thio became Singapore Squash president in 2020. He has long been a key benefactor of squash, and is also deputy managing director of family-run business Marigold, the tournament sponsor.
He says that without a replacement centre, squash events will be heavily impacted in Singapore. Burghley Squash Centre in Serangoon Gardens is mooted as a potential national headquarters, but Thio admits that the venue is a training centre at best.
“It will be challenging for me to hold any international events in Singapore,” says Thio, who has inked a three-year deal with the PSA to stage the Singapore Open.
Next month, the Singapore Junior Open will also take place, with a generous sponsor in Oncocare. Thio, who is also vice-president of the Asian Squash Federation, knows the value of hosting the junior showpiece, given the appetite for an “Asian swing” with events in Malaysia and Hong Kong.
“That’s what we are trying to pitch,” states Thio. “It’s a big event with 400 players. If you don’t give me a centre I won’t be able to hold an event. The largest centre I will have is six courts with no viewing gallery. How am I going to host this type of event?
“The Singapore Tourist Board wants numbers to come in, while a junior open attracts an entourage with parents. I also want to be a central hub where players can come to a training facility. We have the full format, with singles, doubles and jumbo courts. The government is interested in medals and we can specialise in doubles.”
Thio’s unwavering, impassioned stance continues. “They want the youth? We have reached out to 100 schools and we have had 500 juniors signing up. I have made my level best effort to push for squash. If I still can’t get a centre then it’s beyond me already.”
Players sad at imminent loss
Squash clearly hasn’t given up hope of still being included in the looming Kallang Alive project, which is set to see new developments including a tennis centre, football hub, theatre and velodrome.
National women’s champion Au Yeong Wai Yhann, a wildcard at the Singapore Open, first started her squash career at the Kallang centre. “It is really sad,” she said of the current situation.
Yet she knows that the sport is not dying, given that she has problems booking courts outside of the elite window. “On the weekends all the courts are full,” says Au Yeong, a psychology student at the University of West of England, Bristol.
Fellow multiple national champion Samuel Kang takes the same stance. He says, “It’s important for the next generation to play. Having a centre doesn’t guarantee a world champion but being visible is important for squash in Singapore. Having no centre will be detrimental to the sport and will hurt the pipeline going all the way down to grass roots level.”
Another Singapore player, Marcus Phua, perhaps best summed up the situation. “Kallang is so accessible,” he says, “and the impact is so much greater than the loss of a squash centre.”
Singapore Squash has been petitioning for an updated replacement centre since 2019, while Thio believes that staging this week’s event underlines the national governing body’s upbeat stance on the sport’s future here, with the sports minister watching the tournament denouement.
“He will see the crowd, the professionals playing, the quality,” adds Thio. “Will he be willing to support it? The ball is in his court.”