SEA Games: Lawyer Tan Zong Yang wins Singapore’s first men’s 400m medal in 47 years

HANOI – Put Tan Zong Yang in front of a judge at a pre-trial conference, and the young lawyer will sweat bullets.

But on the track in front of thousands of spectators, the 27-year-old is far more relaxed. Enough, in fact, to run the race of his life and pull off a milestone for Singapore track and field.

On a blustery evening yesterday at the My Dinh Stadium in Hanoi, Tan burst out of the starting blocks and clocked 47.46sec in the men’s 400m to finish third at the SEA Games, behind Thailand’s Joshua Atkinson (46.44sec) and Vietnam’s Phuc Le Ngoc (47.27sec). Another Singaporean, Thiruben Thana Rajan, was seventh in 48.22sec.

Tan’s bronze medal was the Republic’s first in the event for 47 years. Only Ho Mun Cheong, in 1969, and Cheah Kim Teck, in 1975, had been on the podium before, with both winning silvers.

While he was not aware of the almost half-century long drought and pleased he ended it, Tan had no intention on dwelling on the past, and instead looked forward.

“It feels great, but I’m not the youngest any more,” he said. “There’s a good batch of talent coming up with people like Thiruben (21) and Reuben Rainer Lee (19), who will be running with me in the relays too… I’m hoping they can go one or even two steps further than me in the future.”

Tan had taken five months’ no-pay leave from work – he is an associate at Niru & Co LLC – to focus on preparing for the SEA Games and said this paid dividends.

“I am still in work group chats but my company has been very understanding, so I have an ease of mind to train,” he said.

“I don’t think many people get this opportunity, so I’m very grateful to my firm.”

He added that “the learning curve for a lawyer is steep” and planned to return to work soon after returning from Hanoi. He admitted that, for now, he still feels more at ease on the track than working on cases.

“I haven’t really attended major trials, but even at pre-trial conferences I get nervous… and I find myself perspiring in front of the judge, even on Zoom,” he said, with an embarrassed laugh. “It is a different kind of nervousness, I would say.”

Tan is the second athlete under the charge of Portuguese coach Luis Cunha to win a medal at the Hanoi Games.

A day earlier, Shanti Pereira had pulled off a spectacular win in the women’s 200m to win a second title, seven years after she won her first.

But Cunha brushed aside his impact on his athletes, instead saying: “It’s always a rewarding feeling when you help athletes achieve their goals. As a coach, you are in the business of helping others. Coaches are good only if the athletes are good.”

Meanwhile, in the women’s high jump also on Sunday, Michelle Sng leapt 1.75m to become the first Singaporean woman to win three SEA Games medals in the discipline with a second-place finish. She had claimed a bronze in 2015 and won the gold in 2017.

The gold went to Vietnam’s Pham Thi Diem (1.78m), with the bronze also going to a home jumper, Pham Quynh Giang (1.70m).

While she admitted she was disappointed she was not able to clear a higher mark – her national record is 1.86m – Sng noted that strong winds had affected the entire field and she was still satisfied at making the podium again after missing out two years ago.

“If you look at the overall results, it’s quite a poor showing this year compared to previous years… So in general everyone underperformed today and it’s just too bad for me. But I’ll take the medal.

“At least I have the full medal collection now,” she quipped.