By Suresh Nair
NANTHA Kumar (third from left) may have been one of the biggest names in Asean sports if he stayed in town and not opt to seek greener pastures, for longer-term family and career, in Australia.
He was a stick-and-ball icon on grass before hockey went on the artificial way and in the late 70’s and early 80’s, he was hero-worshipped as one of the finest hockey strikers in Singapore’s backyard. He played in the 1973 SEAP Games gold-medal winning team, the first (and probably the last) time Singapore won the iconic hockey regional gold.
But a decade later, in 1982, he decided to move Down Under for personal reasons best known to him. But believe me the grass was never always greener at the other Oceania-end and in Mooroolbark, a suburb of Melbourne, Victoria, 31 km east of Melbourne’s central business district, Nantha worked his socks off, overcame massive personal and professional hiccups and raised a family of three, two boys and a girl, with sporting tweaks in their lives.
Notably so, his eldest son, Shaun, went on to skipper Victoria State Under 16s, the state that traditionally produces the cream of hockey prodigies. And second son, Nicholas, played prime competitive State hockey, perfectly following the hockey footsteps of their legendary father, who would’ve been the “Fandi Ahmad” of hockey, if he remained in the little red dot island.
I’m singing praises of Nantha because he just finished his fortnight’s homecoming, an annual pilgrimage he undertakes to meet family and friends. And, rather arrestingly, whenever he’s in town, there’s the special sense of a Made-in-Singapore ‘Pied Piper’ in him, where scores of his social and sporting mates organise quick reunions to review past nostalgic tales with an unique role model, who inspires and encourages us to strive for greatness, live to our fullest potential and see the best in ourselves.
In my early schoolboy books, since meeting Nantha in the early 1970’s at St Joseph’s Institution, along Bras Basah Road, he’s been an exemplary idol. Someone Josephians admired and someone we aspire to be like. He went through tough teenager years, living in a modest one-room flat in Kempas Road, with a Thanigasalam family of eight, where the five brothers played top-level hockey, including the youngest striker-twins, Ashok and Selva, who played for Singapore at the 1979 Junior World Cup Finals in Paris.
But sports, particularly hockey and football, brought the outstanding chivalry and fighting spirit in him. He never gave up without giving anything his best shot and come the worst of crying financial times, he held his own and fought it out in his own trademark silent way.
His last homecoming during the National Day fortnight celebrations was memorial because a record number of more than 50 former hockey stalwarts, from Australia, Malaysia and Singapore, congregated for a fun-and-fellowship on July 29 at the Singapore Indian Association along Balestier Road.
And Nantha, in an extraordinary remote-control-way from Melbourne, organised the nitty-gritties of this get-together of former contemporaries from players, officials, coaches and even umpires, which ended as an unprecedented blessed reunion.
Nantha’s personal and professional trademarks sparkled from his early flight steward years with Singapore Airlines in the late 1970s. But his remarkable quality to inspire stands out as a beacon because he’s got the fire in the belly to never give up and try again, and again, and again. Be it sports, work, family or anything in life, the passionate spirit of teamwork was overwhelming. For him, a sportsperson is defined as person who engages in “team” sports.
Over the years observing him, I realised that his biggest motivator in the world is the fear of losing. Something like a Usain Bolt, he simply never wanted to lose. That fired his in-born element of being ultra-competitive and that drove him to be absolutely focused and to work harder and train harder, working harder than anyone else.
Few things in life felt on the platter for Nantha and I reckon his ability to be street-smart was an endearing plus-point that gave him the distinct edge, in family, work or social lifestyle.
In my mind, Nantha build on his success on the guiding principles to be honest, very strict in his personal principles and, deep down, a real disciplinarian to set the correct role-model standards for family and friends.
His basic principle was to enjoy whatever he did and if you probably ask for the best advice, he’d say always just enjoy the sport and life. Simply because if you enjoy what you do, you can really put your heart into it and give off the very best shots.
Indeed, he ranks as a sportsman, or a family man, who could control aggression. In sport, Nantha’s principle was that if you’re too aggressive, you don’t know how it’ll end. He never took those kinds of risks. In my mind, he ranks as a calm, laid-back person. He prefers to just wait to see what will happen. He doesn’t believe in gambling with any part of life, and I think that aggression is probably a gamble.
ART OF SPORTSMANSHIP
In the greener art of sportsmanship, Nantha was an outstanding inspiration and he never wrote anyone off. Playing or coaching, he ranks as the absolute mentor, who believes in giving everyone a chance. Whereas other people might say, “You’re not going to make it”, Nantha made sure that everyone got the best chance to succeed. He puts in a lot of effort and work for everyone he mentors, especially his two hockey-starring sons, Shaun and Nicolas, now in their mid-30s, and that’s the most admirable thing I can think of.
Few know that during his early migration years Down Under in the 1980s, he started his work career being held at gun-point at a highway bistro and survived umpteen letdowns and hardships, if not handicaps, before he rose to be an award-winning manager at Princes Park Motor Inn Melbourne, where’s a rousing role-model for more than three decades.
Coming back to his homecoming charms, from former colleagues at Singapore Airlines to ex-schoolmates at St Joseph’s Institution and Whitley Secondary School to contemporaries at Singapore Recreation Club and the Singapore Indian Association, they take their hats out to him because he has cemented his sporting and sociable greatness, simply by his humility, discipline and passion for sports and gamesmanship.
Be it in hockey or football or cricket, the three sports he played at international levels, Nantha simply strikes terror because he never gives anything below 100 per cent. A perfectionist of sorts, who runs by his sporting adage that talent without discipline is useless.
Another special trademark is his respect for elders and he reveres his senior players and takes tips from them to further improve his game. An exceptional hockey role-model for him was 1964 Tokyo Olympian midfielder Douglas Nonis, who diligently taught him the finer art of scoring. And he’s always thankful to personal sporting gurus like Douglas, who showed him what inspirational behaviour on the field really means.
Over the four decades I’ve known him, Nantha remains an epitome of discipline and dedication as a Padang buddy, he lives his life large, he plays his game large, he has a heart as large as all outdoors and he wears that heart very prominently on his sleeve.
That makes him the special gentleman he is, always revered simply because he lives in the moment and he feels the moment vehemently, sometimes even venomously. And in good or not-so-good times, his contemporaries celebrate such moments, or condemn them, depending on whether he goes the ultimate way in personal leadership or in other ways, as humans tend to err, when he goes down the quick-sand-way, yet picking himself up and encouraging others along the way.
Remember, nothing happens by chance in this world and managing to achieve everything Nantha has done even less so. It has all been built up from when he was very young, from his Kempas Road childhood days that is where the key to it all begins, with family and friends, working in unison to make Nantha what he is today, a really fantastic human being and professional. Probably an extraterrestrial!
At the moment of maximum pressure, of maximum stress in family or lifestyle, in any sporting situation in the field of play, what always comes out is what is worked on every day. It is the sum of the visible training plus the inspiring training that cannot be seen.
Behind it lies a hard-fought endearing life. A life forged by him and all his family and friends under two irremovable non-negotiable pillars: Values and attitude. That is what builds a character, a personality, a unique mentality.
I only hope that with time, we come to live in a world where values of which we feel proud predominate in all fields. For the moment, every homecoming, Nantha teaches us and conveys to us what they are.
What more can I say: Let us enjoy him and take notice of him and, starting from there, each one of us should try and do our little bit to help, in sport and in life, to the younger generation. And in remembering and cherishing good ‘ole family and friendship, like Nantha.
But beyond the already-storied sporting and gentleman prowess, beyond those strokes of creative concept and impeccable execution, the now silver-haired Nantha, in his most recent homecoming, has continued to reveal something even more worthy of our adulation: Class. Grace. Character.
Nantha, you’re a true heartlander-styled family-friendship champion.
Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who, over four decades, revered the sportsmanship and gentleman traits of Nantha Kumar, a rare breed of Asean sports heroes, who never fulfilled their longer-term global potentials.