IN remembering the late Arumugam Pancharatnam, the nine-letter word ‘Character’ was repeatedly emphasised by Senior Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam.
“It is important for success as it’s what makes us authentic in every facet of life. It makes us, us. Being self aware about character is what will make you stand out in a good way,” the guest-of-honour said at Friday’s annual memorial match for the distinguished sports personality at Balestier Road.
He says there are four reasons why good character builds the trust needed for success:
(1) Character helps you perform your role; (2) Leaders with morals motivate their employees; (3) Your character gives you empathy.
The late ‘Punch’ as he was lovably known, was perhaps the epitome to what character stands for. He was a rare breed of sports personality: Tough coach, caring manager and dedicated educationist in most senses of the word.
Unflinching in the face of criticism or questioning, unrelenting in his selection of certain players over others and absolutely willing to stand up for himself or his players when needed, his character genuinely exudes mental toughness.
His quest for perfectionism in his own style of play, be it in hockey, cricket, athletics, rugby or football, and he can certainly be a nightmare to deal with even for his own players.
Not to mention his family of four, sons Jeyaratnam, Jeyasuria, Jeya Putra and daughter (the late) Sushila, and wife Padmavathi Vellupillai.
HONOUR IN CHARACTER
Senior Minister Shanmugaratnam, who is also Coordinating Minister for Social Policies, and advises the Prime Minister on economic policies, emphasised that character, like honour, is a word we take for granted and probably have an affinity for, but likely have never really had to define and may struggle to do so when pressed.
He says: “It’s a word most men desire to have ascribed to them, and yet the standards of its attainment remain rather vague in our modern age.”
He knows it at the back of his hand as “Punch” trained him at hockey from Anglo-Chinese School days in the 1970s.
Shanmugaratnam also played for the Combined Schools team and among the Cabinet, at 62 years, he’s the most prolific as a sports-minded personality who unfailingly stresses on the importance of the “culture of character” in sportsmen.
“Punch”, in Shanmugaratnam’s mind, was an “iconic character-based sportsman in every sense of the word”.
He explains: “There are many things that engrave our character upon the clay of our lives, and shape our character for better and for worse into a unique set of scratches and grooves. Our character begins to be shaped from the very time we are born and is influenced by where we grow up, how we are raised, the examples our parents provide, religious and academic education, and so on.”
Born in the-then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), “Punch” moved to Selangor, he represented Malaya in regional meets over the middle-distances in the 1950s as a state champion and later joined the TTC (Teacher’s Training College) in Singapore in the mid-1950s after his marriage.
With a Colombo Plan scholarship in 1963, he specialised in sports education at New Zealand’s Palmerston North University.
He studied at the Methodist Boys School (MBS) in Kuala Lumpur and later ensured his children were educated the Methodist-way at the Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) in Singapore.
At ACS, he made heads turn in the 1970s when he introduced rugby during an era where Raffles Institution (RI) and Saint Andrew’s School (SAS) overwhelmingly dominated the oval-ball sport.
Today, ACS ranks as a rugby powerhouse in the ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ divisions with ingredients of the Pancharatnam-philosphy of the highest standards of discipline and sportsmanship.
The eldest son Jeyaratnam recalls his father as “straight as an arrow as a sportsman, at work, home or wherever he went”.
He says: “He never minces his words and had very high principles in life and that’s the ultimate in character-building. He never believed or tolerated any short-cuts to win and always preached merit in winning. There was absolute honour in whatever he did.”
Lawyer Jeyaputra, the third son, who played in the Pancharatnam XI winning team that beat India Association XI 2-1 in the memorial match, adds: “Winning is always great, but his philosophy, my dad advocated, was for the boys of ACS to be champions on and off the field.
“He had class and charisma, too. You can be a champion on the field, but that must translate into your personal life as well, where you set goals and work hard.
He believed that as long as the boys get something out of this they’d be able to give back in some ways, that’s motivation enough to keep the ACS sporting spirit going.”
Ceylon Sports Club (CSC) President M. Lukshumayeh, who hosted the memorial match and played for IA XI, saluted “Punch” for “grooming hundreds of schoolboy sportsmen in multiple fields, from hockey, rugby, cricket and athletics to be of international calibre”.
He praises: “Good sportsmanship, as what Senior Minister Tharman says, encompasses many aspects of a man’s character, the most fundamental being respect.
The good sportsman respects both his teammates and his opponents as equals. He plays with integrity. A win that does not come fairly holds no satisfaction for him.
He is honest in his dealings with opponents, because he treats them the way he wants to be treated.
“He is unselfish in his desire to see all his teammates participate and enjoy the game. He is humble in his victories, and has the proper perspective on his losses. In short, the qualities that go in to making a good man are the same ones that contribute to being a great sportsman.”
Retired police officer Mohanavelu Neethianathan, who represented Singapore in hockey, football and cricket, recalls Pancharatnam as an “extraordinary leader who knew how to call the right shots at the right time”.
“He advocates that ‘patience is a virtue’ and you must have patience to handle the long season, training schedule and sometimes frustrating attitudes of players,” he says.
“He was born to coach the younger generation as it required a rare patience to handle the growth and development of the young players. This patience is displayed through his own self-control and discipline, which can rub off on the players, coaches and even parents and ultimately lead to improved performances by the team.”
SEAP Games 1973 hockey vice-skipper Arul Subramaniam from St Joseph’s Institution (SJI), who umpired the memorial match, recalls “Punch” as a “very strict and fair-minded disciplinarian”.
He says: “While I played for Combined Schools in the 1970s, he made sure we were punctual for every training session and matches. No trouble on and off the field. He gives positive comments when you play well and constructive criticisms when you’re off-form or not up to mark. He won’t hesitate to substitute you even if you are a star player.”
Personally, In the six months before the 1974 India hockey tour when I trained under “Punch”, for Combined Schools, I remember him specifically saying that to play for him, “each individual must totally submerge his own personality for the good of the team…each person must make the sacrifice and if he isn’t willing to do that I don’t want him in my programme”.
I recall, too, that he reminded me many times that his no-nonsense coaching style would help his players in later life. How true his poignant words stand out now:
“Ninety-nine per cent of all adult players must take orders from someone during their lives and I teach people how to take orders, in my coaching. I’m all for students’ rights, but when I’m coaching, they listen to me. And they will know later, through my strict philosophy, that I made them to be better individuals.”
Former 1973 SEAP Games gold-medal winning skipper Vear Singh, remembers Pancharatnam as a “true Singapore sports icon”.
He says: “He was a caring and fair sports official, who truly valued the elements of discipline in youth development. ‘Punch’ was a true sports master, in calculating the values of discipline and teamwork. A true Singapore sports icon. We will miss him.”Long live the memory of the “Punch”.
Truly a rare breed of respected sports gurus who set the highest standards for the best of ‘C’s: Character. Class. Charisma. – BY SURESH NAIR
• Suresh Nair, as a schoolboy hockey goalkeeper at St Joseph’s Institution, trained under the late Pancharatnam in the mid-1970s. He was on the 1974 two-week Indian hockey tour, managed and coached by ‘Punch’ and later as a sports journalist, he learnt many endearing lessons from him.