Water polo

Singapore Infopedia

by Koh, Jia Jie


Water polo in Singapore started with a group of boys who just wanted to have fun. However, a sense of camaraderie and team bonding soon pushed them to compete and they eventually emerged victorious. Today, water polo is a national sport.1

Elitist beginnings

J. W. Jefferson, who arrived from England in 1920, first introduced water polo to Singapore. He was the first physical director at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which owned a swimming pool at Fort Canning. It was there that water polo was first played in Singapore. By the 1930s, three swimming clubs formed the main foundation of Singapore’s water polo scene. These three clubs were: the Singapore Swimming Club, an all-European club then situated in Tanjong Rhu; the Chinese Swimming Club, formed in 1905 and whose members included many prominent local Chinese figures; and the Tiger Swimming Club, which had splintered from the Chinese Swimming Club and was sponsored by the Aw family of Tiger Balm fame.2

Initially regarded as a high-end sport available only at a few exclusive swimming clubs, its popularity grew steadily in the following years, owing largely to a few early champions of the sport, such as the Tan family. Three generations of the family have been playing the sport, starting from the 1930s.3 Upon recognising the potential for community outreach, these pioneers envisioned water polo as a sport to be enjoyed by the masses and as a means of reaching out to the heartlands. By starting a water polo training programme to cater to neighbourhood boys at designated centres, they not only managed to boost local interest in the game, but also kept more youths off the streets and away from mischief.4

National team achievements
SEA Games

Following its maiden success in winning the gold medal in 1965 at the Kuala Lumpur games, the men’s national water polo team has continued its domination in the region, garnering the top prize on every occasion. The national team clinched its 84th gold medal at the 28th SEA (Southeast Asian) Games in 2015.5

Asian Games
Notwithstanding its dominance in the SEA Games, Singapore was more of an underdog at the Asian Games. Despite this, it still managed an impressive number of podium finishes, including a gold in 1954 when the team managed to sink the Japan opposition, who had been the overwhelming favourite throughout the tournament, with a score of 4–2 in the finals.The national team’s best performance at the Asian Games was in 1986 when it clinched the bronze medal in Seoul, South Korean.7

Olympic Games
Singapore’s participation in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in Australia remains the only Olympic experience by the national water polo team.8

Official accolades
In view of its success at various regional sporting events, over the years the national water polo team has been the recipient of several special awards including the Special Award from the Singapore National Olympic Council in 2004,9 and the Sporting Excellence honour conferred by the International Olympic Committee in 2006.10

Local water polo scene
In recent years, the local water polo scene has evolved from being available only at a few select clubs to one of the more popular sports in Singapore. The sport’s popularity is manifested in the variety of local tournaments and weekly leisure groups. Annual tournaments such as the “Interschool Knockout”, under-16, under-18 and under-20 competitions allow local students and youths to participate and compete on the basis of representing their schools, while the Open League welcomes water polo enthusiasts of all ages.11

At the same time, efforts to attract individuals outside the typical age groups have been stepped up, with the advent of “Water Polo Masters”, which caters to those above 30 but still interested in picking up the sport or playing competitively. A more light-hearted version of the game, Flippa Ball, takes place in the shallow pool and it is meant to attract children and non-swimmers to water polo.12

With the growing popularity of water polo in Southeast Asia, coupled with the men’s team’s winning streak of 26 straight SEA Games gold medals, in 2016 the Singapore Swimming Association announced plans to set up five national age-group teams ranging from 13 to 17 years old. The groups would undergo centralised training for six months to a year, after which they would be involved in overseas competitions to gain experience. In five years’ time, the pioneer batch would be ready to play in the national team.13


Koh Jia Jie

1. Glory: The Story of Singapore Water Polo (Singapore: Singapore Swimming Association, 2005), 8. (Call no. RSING 797.25095957 GLO)

2. Nick Aplin, Singapore Olympians: The Complete Who’s Who, 1936–2004 (Singapore: SNP International Pte Ltd, 2005), 303. (Call no. RSING 796.09225957 APL)
3. Ken Lim, “Meet the Tans: 3 Generations of SEA Games Water Polo Players,” Channel NewsAsia, 23 June 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
4. “Water Polo,” Singapore Aquatics, accessed 21 February 2017.
5. N. Tan, “Water Polo: With SEA Games Gold, Focus Back on Asia for Singapore,” Channel NewAsia, 17 June 2015. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 
6. Aplin, Singapore Olympians, 303–04. 
7. Tan, “With SEA Games Gold, Focus Back on Asia for Singapore.”
8. Aplin, Singapore Olympians, 306.
9. “Special Awards,” Singapore National Olympic Council, accessed 21 February 2017.  
10. Leonard Lim, “IOC Award for S’pore,” Straits Times, 25 June 2006, 32. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Singapore Aquatics, “Water Polo.”
12. Singapore Aquatics, “Water Polo.”
13. Noah Tan, “Singapore Water Polo To Set Up Five National Age-Group Teams,” Today, 7 January 2016, 57. (From NewspaperSG)


Further resources
Achievements off the Beaten Track: Stories of Singapore Sports Veterans, vol. 2. (Singapore: Candid Creation Pub., 2005), 185–201.

(Call no. YRSING 796.09225957 ACH)

D. Loh, “SEA Games: Water Polo Team Continues Winning Streak With 22nd Gold,” Channel NewsAsia, 11 December 2007. (From Factiva via NLB’s eResources website) 

Lew Hin Kim, ed., SEA Games Records 1959–1985 (Malaysia: Eastern Press Sdn. Bhd., 1986). (Call no. RSEA 796.0959 LEW)

Terrence Voon, “RJC Bags First A Div Water Polo Title for Girls,” Straits Times, 14 April 2009, 33. (From NewspaperSG)

The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to 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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