By Leslie Tan, Colin Tung, Lim Yong Teck, Jasmine Goh
Lawrence Wong, 41, was elected to the Singapore Parliament at the 2011 general election. A member of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP), he is currently the Minister, Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, and Second Minister, Ministry of Communications and Information.
Mr Wong studied at Haig Boys’ School, Tanjong Katong Secondary Technical School (the school was renamed Tanjong Katong Secondary School in 1993) and Victoria Junior College, before going on to the University of Wisconsin–Madison in the United States where he completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics in 1993. He subsequently obtained a Master of Arts degree in Economics at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, and also a Master of Public Administration degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
In an exclusive interview with Red Sports, he talks about National Service, foreign sports talent, the S.League, the Sports Hub, sports funding, ActiveSG, sports trends, and his personal best times for running.
Colin Tung: The Standard Chartered Marathon is coming up. Globally, a lot of marathons, for example New York and Boston, they have a connection with the community. People go out and run, people are lining the streets. Do you see any way possible we can help make the Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore draw out the crowds from the heartlands? Maybe design a course that goes through the heartlands instead of the usual city route so that people and families can come out of their HDB blocks, watch the marathon, support people? How do you think the government can help because there’s difficulty in terms of closing roads. Is there any way to strengthen community bonds through an event like the marathon?
Minister Wong: We are trying. It’s already much improved compared to the past. I ran my first marathon in 1997. I have done two. Including a few half marathons. The other one was maybe 2004, I think.
Leslie Tan: What was your time?
Minister Wong: The one in ’97 was about four hours plus. The other one is five hours plus.
Colin Tung: Both were in Singapore?
Minister Wong: Both were in Singapore. Those days, they called it the Mobil Marathon. It was very quiet, not just small but nobody is there to cheer you! You’re running alone, literally. Not all the roads were fully closed, but, basically, you are running alone. The environment is very different. From start to finish, you’re on your own. Now, at the start, you get people cheering.
It’s not the same as in Boston. I’ve ran in Boston too. I didn’t do the marathon in Boston. I did the half marathon because, in Boston, to run the marathon, you have to have do timings like under three hours or something like that, which is impossible for me.
It’s clearly different: people come out and it’s a whole festival – they come out with picnic mats and they’re all cheering for the runners. So it’s different but I would say we’re making progress if you look at where we were 20 years ago and now. And we’re continuing our efforts to reach out to the communities and support our athletes, in this case, runners, but it’s all part of that same process to get Singaporeans to want to come out, watch, and support our people who are participating in sports.
Leslie Tan: Do you recall your motivation to run that first marathon?
Minister Wong: Well, I was just out from NS (National Service), very fit at that time. I just started work and there were a couple of people at the workplace who were avid runners and so we decided to do something together. We trained in a group, but not everyone decided to do the marathon in the end. Eventually, only two of us did it and I think the second one didn’t finish the race. I think I was the only one who finished in that group.
We started early. it was the old National Stadium and we ended at the old National Stadium. Even today, it starts very early but, at least, you see more crowds and I remember the ending point is also much better than it used to be.
Leslie Tan: What other sports do you regularly play, besides golf and tennis?
Minister Wong: I play all sorts of sports, but not so regularly. They’ve asked me to go canoeing, kayaking, and I’m happy to join them in all these sports. I’ve done sailing before. So I’ve dabbled in a whole range of different sports but the ones that I do more regularly now are tennis and golf.
Leslie Tan: So that’s part of your regular fitness schedule?
Minister Wong: I didn’t mention jogging – I still jog and I still run. I did the Ekiden [at Standard Chartered Marathon Singapore] last year and I’ll be doing it again this year. Last year I did it with the SportCares team.
Leslie Tan: On an average week, how many times do you go out whether to play golf, run, or play tennis?
Minister Wong: Not so much golf and tennis. That, I don’t really have the time to do so regularly but jogging or going to the gym, I do twice a week, which is not enough.
Leslie Tan: If you could play a particular sport professionally, what would it be?
Minister Wong: The one that comes closest to mind is tennis, because I play it most regularly since secondary school days although we didn’t have CCA (Co-Curricular Activity) then. This was at Tanjong Katong Secondary. There was no tennis as a CCA so I played in a community centre with my friends. Then I went to Victoria Junior College but couldn’t make it into the school team. But I still continued to play.
Colin Tung: Double-handed backhand?
Minister Wong: In those days, we didn’t learn double-handed (backhand). If you played tennis in those days in the ‘80s, the strokes are very different. You played the flat stroke rather than the topspin stroke, and your backhand is one-handed.
Leslie Tan: If there was an athlete you wanted to meet, who would that be? Or is there an athlete that motivates you in any particular way?
Minister Wong: Well, the people that I used to enjoy watching when I was growing up, this is in the late ‘70s, 80s, I watched tennis so I watched the John McEnroe–Bjorn Borg duels. I supported Tottenham Hotspurs then and I still do but they’re not doing very well! But, at that time, they were quite a good club. They had Ossie Ardilles and Glen Hoddle, that era, that generation. They did quite well.
I watched movies like Chariots of Fire, Rocky — not the subsequent Rocky movies that became sort of cheesy — but the first Rocky was very good and those were very inspiring sports movies.
Leslie Tan: Do you have a PB (personal best) for 5km or 10km?
Minister Wong: Half marathons I used to be able to do them under two hours. That’s a decent pace. Now I guess I would do 5km in 30 minutes. I could probably do it at 20 minutes back then but not now.
Leslie Tan: What about your IPPT 2.4km?
Minister Wong: I could do a sub-9:45. That was the gold standard so you had to do it as an officer. But I certainly am very far behind and I don’t think I can do anything close to 10 (minutes) today. The last time I did my IPPT was probably three or four years ago. Maybe at that time, I can still do sub-11 but that’s pushing it.
Leslie Tan: That’s still faster than a lot of NSmen (National Servicemen)!
Minister Wong: Well, you have to set an example! You got to push yourself.
Colin Tung: We know you like to play the guitar. What is one tune that you like to play most, and that is also motivating for you to listen to?
I play a lot of rock and blues. So the popular names will be musicians like Eric Clapton or maybe the Eagles.
For listening, I listen to all genres. What I have on my playlist is The Killers, I have U2 (on my playlist), I’m a big fan of U2 too, although not their latest album; I also have Oasis and I’ve got Taylor Swift’s latest album, 1989, too. I listen to a whole range of different genres.