Tan Howe Liang

Singapore Infopedia

by Chow, Alex


Tan Howe Liang (b. 5 May 1933, Swatow, Guangdong, China – ) holds the distinction of being Singapore’s first Olympic medallist, having won a silver in the lightweight category for weightlifting during the 1960 Rome Olympics. Until the Singapore women’s table tennis team won silver in 2008, Tan was the only Singaporean athlete to have won an Olympic medal. To date, he remains the only one to have won a medal in not only the Olympic Games but also the Commonwealth, Asian and South East Asian Peninsular (SEAP) games. Since his retirement from active competition, Tan has served as a national weightlifting coach and has been employed by the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) as a gymnasium supervisor.

Early life
Tan was one of seven children born to a family in Swatow, China. In search of a livelihood, his father brought the family to Singapore when Tan was around 4. Tan was sent back to China a few years later to receive his early education and returned to Singapore to further his studies at Tuan Mong Secondary School, from which he withdrew after a year. Sports did not figure prominently in Tan’s early life. Although he tried his hand at various sports while he was schooling, he was prevented from pursuing any of them as he had to help to support his family.1

Early weightlifting career
Tan’s first encounter with weightlifting was when he chanced upon a strongman competition at the Gay World Amusement Park (originally known as Happy World). Impressed by what he saw, he joined the Evergreen Weightlifting Party in 1952, working out on his own and with only a single set of barbells. After just one year of intensive training, he was able to clinch the National Junior and Senior Weightlifting Championship titles for the lightweight division at the relatively late age of 20.2

The following year, Tan was placed fourth at the Asian Games in Manila, Philippines, and in 1956 he participated for the first time in the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Tan lost consciousness at one point during the Melbourne Olympics but returned to the competition and eventually finished in ninth place.3 At the Commonwealth and Empire Games of 1958, he broke his first world record by lifting 157 kg in the clean-and-jerk. He went on to clinch the gold at the Asian Games that same year, and in 1959 obtained top honours at the First SEAP Games held in Bangkok, Thailand.4

Throughout much of his athletic career, Tan faced a lack of financial support and had to take on jobs on the side for his personal expenses, as well as costs incurred while competing overseas. As such, Tan worked a variety of odd jobs such as an electrician, a store clerk and a dockworker.5

The 1960 Olympic Games
Despite the lack of funding, Tan finished second out of 33 competitors at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. The victory was a hard won 10.5-hour trial that did not begin well for Tan as he was faulted by the judges for two of the three competition lifts, the press and the snatch. He then suffered cramps in both thighs before his attempt at the clean-and-jerk. Although the medical personnel recommended that he have complete rest, Tan and his manager Chua Tian Teck were unwilling to withdraw from the event. In what was termed a miracle by the press, the cramps in Tan’s legs began to ease half an hour before his turn and he went on to lift 155 kg at the clean-and-jerk, winning the silver medal with a total of 380 kg.

Tan’s Olympic feat did much to raise Singapore’s profile internationally, though not before the Japanese flag was mistakenly hoisted in place of Singapore’s during the medal presentation ceremony. At the time, Japan was widely recognised as the eminent sporting powerhouse in Asia, hence the impression that Tan was a Japanese athlete. However, the error was corrected and the ceremony was repeated with the right flag.6

For his achievement, Tan was presented with the Meritorious Service Medal at the 1962 National Day Awards.7 The leotard and belt that Tan wore at the 1960 Olympics as well as his silver Olympic medal were displayed at the SSC Museum and moved to the Sports Hub when it was completed in 2014.8

Post-Olympics sporting career
In 1961, Tan competed for the first time in the middleweight category when he represented Singapore at the SEAP Games held in Rangoon (present-day Yangon) and clinched the silver medal.9 Following this, he won gold in the middleweight division at the Commonwealth Games held in Perth the following year.10

Tan was appointed as the national weightlifting coach in 196811 and gradually retired from active competition. His last major overseas meets include the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh where he finished 10th,12 and the Singapore-Malaysia Weightlifting Clash held in Ipoh, Malaysia in 1977.13

As a coach, Tan displayed the same drive and commitment, guiding his protégés Chua Koon Siong, Tung Chye Hong and Teo Yong Joo to medal wins at various international competitions such as the ASEAN Weightlifting Championship, South East Asian (SEA) Games and Commonwealth Games.14

Tan began working for the SSC as a gymnasium supervisor in 1982, first at the National Stadium15 and later in Bedok. It was at this gym in Bedok that he talent-spotted Jamie Wee, a 16-year-old who would later represent Singapore at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games in 2010.16

Since 2011, he has partnered NTUC FairPrice as its Ambassador for Active Ageing to promote a healthy and active lifestyle among seniors.

In 2010, it was reported that Tan’s wife was undergoing treatment for cancer. To help his family cope with the financial strain, an anonymous donor stepped forward with a significant but undisclosed sum of money.17

The couple have three children.

Major sporting achievements



Host city


Total weight lifted



Commonwealth Games



358 kg



Asian Games



375 kg



SEAP Games



369 kg



Olympic Games



380 kg



Commonwealth Games



390 kg


Awards and honours
1962: Bestowed the Pingat Jasa Gemilang (Meritorious Service Medal) at the National Day Awards.18

1984: Received the International Weightlifting Federation’s Gold Award.19
1989: Awarded the silver pin by the International Olympic Committee for his Olympic victory in 1960.20
1996: Featured in a medallion set launched by the Singapore Mint to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Olympic Games.21
1999: Ranked second greatest Singaporean athlete by The Sunday Times. Wong Peng Soon, a four-time All-England badminton champion in the 1950s, was ranked first.22

Alex Chow

1. Aplin, N., Waters, D., & Leong, M. L. (2005). Singapore Olympians: The complete who’s who, 1936-2004. Singapore: SNP International Publishing, p. 233. (Call no.: RSING 796.09225957 APL)
2. Aplin, N., Waters, D., & Leong, M. L. (2005). Singapore Olympians: The complete who’s who, 1936-2004. Singapore: SNP International Publishing, p. 234. (Call no.: RSING 796.09225957 APL)
3. Courageous bid. (1956, November 25). The Straits Times, p. 20. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
4. Aplin, N., Waters, D., & Leong, M. L. (2005). Singapore Olympians: The complete who’s who, 1936-2004. Singapore: SNP International Publishing, p. 234. (Call no.: RSING 796.09225957 APL)
5. Phoon, K. H. (2005). A weightlifting hero ahead of his time. In K. W. Phoon (Ed.), Achievements off the beaten track: Stories of Singapore sports veterans. Singapore: Candid Creation Publishing, p. 211. (Call no.: YRSING 796.09225957 ACH)
6. Robert, G. (1984, July 29). The one and onlyThe Strait Times, p. 22. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
7. National Day Honours. (1962, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
8. Low, L. F. (2010, December 30). 50 years on ...; Life is not exactly a bed of roses for Singapore’s first Olympic medallist. Today, p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
9. SEAP Games Tan Howe Liang beaten. (1961, December 15). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
10. Moment of triumph for Howe Liang. (1962, November 30). The Straits Times, p.1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Rajendran, J. (1987, June 19). Howe Liang to train Sea Games lifters. The Straits Times, p. 36. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
12. Commonwealth Games Federation. (2014). Results: 1970 British Commonwealth Games – weightlifting 75 kg Combined- Men. Retrieved from Commonwealth Games Federation website: http://www.thecgf.com/games/tally_cat_results.asp
13. Johnson, A. (1977, June 23). Howe Liang returnsThe Straits Times, p. 23. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
14. Aplin, N., Waters, D., & Leong, M. L. (2005). Singapore Olympians: The complete who’s who, 1936-2004. Singapore: SNP International Publishing, p. 235. (Call no.: RSING 796.09225957 APL)
15. Seah, J. (1982, November 4). Olympic hero Howe Liang just perfect for gym jobThe Straits Times, p. 37. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
16. Low, L. F. (2010, December 30). 50 years on ...; Life is not exactly a bed of roses for Singapore’s first Olympic medallist. Today,  p. 40. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
17. Goh, P. H. H. (2011, February 23). Howe Liang fit for the part. Today, p. 8. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
18. National Day Honours. (1962, June 3). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG
19. Rajendran, J. (1984, September 7). IWF honour Howe Liang with plaque. The Straits Times, p. 45. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
20. Johnson, A. (1988, December 13). Top athletes get awards. The Straits Times, p. 39. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
21. Coin set features Olympic medallist. (1996, June 27). The Straits Times, p. 44. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
22. Yap, K. H. (1999, December 19). The greatest. The Straits Times, p. 56. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Further resources
Japanese flag made Mr. Chua shout ‘like a crazy man’ (1960, September 10). The Free Press, p. 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

Robert, G. (2008, August 16). He’s tired of telling his Olympic storyThe New Paper, p. 10. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.

The information in this article is valid as at 2012 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.


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