Ong Poh Lim

Singapore Infopedia


Ong Poh Lim (b. 1923, Kuching, Sarawak–d. 17 April 2003, Singapore) was one of the greatest badminton players of the late 1940s and ’50s.1 A versatile player with an aggressive game, Ong won numerous singles and doubles titles, including the Singapore, Malayan, All-England and Thomas Cup championships. He pioneered the “crocodile serve”, which has become a standard feature of the modern game.Ong was a close rival to singles champion Wong Peng Soon.3

Career highlights
Ong excelled in badminton during his school days and held the Sarawak singles and doubles titles for a number of years. He moved to Singapore after World War II, where he played for the commercial house team of Fraser and Neave and also for the Marigold Badminton Party and later the Bournemouth Badminton party.4

Over the course of his career, Ong won numerous national and international titles. He held the Singapore Open singles title from 1952 to 1955; the 1953 finals match against Omar Ibrahim lasted only 15 minutes. Ong held the doubles title from 1950 to 1956, and made history by sweeping the singles, doubles and mixed-doubles titles over three consecutive years, from 1952 to 1954.5

Ong’s greatest achievements was as a member of Malaya’s victorious Thomas Cup teams in 1949, 1952 and 1955.6 He was the only Malayan player to win all his matches over the three championships, playing singles in 1949 and both singles and doubles in the subsequent two tournaments. In 1952, he won his doubles match with partner Ismail Marjan, and his singles defeat of American Bob Williams was instrumental in securing Malaya’s championship victory. That year, Ong was voted Sportsman of the Year by readers of the Singapore Free Press. In 1955, Ong played doubles with Ooi Teik Hock, again scoring the championship point for Malaya when he defeated Ole Jensen in the singles.7 Although he was also part of the 1958 Thomas Cup team, Ong was not selected to play in the finals, in which Malaya lost to Indonesia.8

Ong’s doubles partnership with Marjan was described in a 1952 press report as “the best doubles combination in Malaya”.9 In 1951, Ong and Marjan swept all major tournament titles during their tour of Europe, including the Danish, French and British doubles titles. At the 1954 French Open singles semi-final, Marjan gave Ong a walkover so that the latter would be better rested for his finals match against Wong. Ong went on to defeat Wong and also took the doubles title with Marjan. Ong too had an effective doubles partnership with Ooi Teik Hock, with whom he won the All-England Championships (1954), United States (1954) and Scottish (1956) titles.10

After Ong retired from top-level badminton in 1958, he kept mostly to the veterans’ circuit and exhibition games. However, he played such an impressive doubles game with George Yap in the 1960 Malayan Open that he was selected to be part of the Thomas Cup team held the following year.11

Rivalry and legacy in badminton
During his career, Ong’s great rival was Wong Peng Soon, another prominent player of that era. Wong was supreme in the singles game, but some considered Ong the more versatile player because of his achievements in both singles and doubles games. In 1952, Ong was ranked the fifth top singles player worldwide in an unofficial list compiled by H. A. E. Scheele, honorary secretary of the International Badminton Federation. Most badminton critics and officials disputed this list, as they rated him second only to Wong, who topped the list.12

Ong pioneered the formidable “crocodile serve”, a backhand-flick serve that he performed with an unconscious wiggle of the posterior. The name of the serve was coined by a British journalist in reference to Ong’s birthplace, Sarawak, which was known for its crocodile-infested rivers. The serve is now widely used in the modern game. Ong’s playing style was also considered to have set the pace for the modern game. In contrast to Wong’s more unhurried style and crafted strokes, Ong’s attacking game was characterised by speed and power, with accurate use of the half smash and fast flick.13

Post-retirement years
After retiring from playing, Ong took on coaching stints all over the world, including in Malaysia, Iran and the Philippines.14 Ong trained Lee Kin Tat, who reached the semi-finals of the All-England championship in 1964 and 1966.15

In the 1970s, Ong worked at Fraser & Neave. Ong was interested in antiques and philately, with an extensive collection of rare stamps, in particular from Sarawak.16

Ong was inducted into the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) Sports Museum Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1997, he received a Meritorious Service Award from the International Badminton Federation for his significant contributions to the sport. He was inducted into the World Badminton Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame in 2004.17

Later years
Humble and charming, Ong was popular with fans from around the world but was always focused on badminton, and remained a bachelor.18 He lived alone at Sennett Close, his next-of-kin having emigrated in the late 1990s. As Ong grew frail in his later years, SSC officials provided him with groceries, checked on his health and took him to SSC functions.19

On 16 April 2003, SSC officials visited Ong at his home and discovered that he had suffered a bad fall and had been unattended for several days. He was taken to Changi General Hospital, where he passed away on 17 April, the day he was to attend the SSC Hall of Fame dinner.20 He was then 80 years old. His funeral was attended by 23 people, including officials from the SSC and the Singapore Badminton Association.21 Ong was buried at Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery.22

Joanna HS Tan

1. Leo Suryadinata, ed., Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary, vol. 1 (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2012), 841. (Call no. RSING 959.004951 SOU)
2. Chen Chongzhi, Upholding the Legacy: Singapore Badminton (Singapore: Asiapac, 2002), 67. (Call no. RSING 796.345095957TAN)
3. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 841.
4. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 841.
5. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 843.
6. Ong Kah Kuan, We Were Great: Thomas Cup Badminton (Petaling Jaya, Selangor: Federal Publications, 1984), 127. (Call no. RSING 796.345 ONG)
7. Ong, Thomas Cup Badminton, 65; Suryadinata, Southeast Asian personalities of Chinese Descent, 842 (Call no. RSING 959.004951 SOU); “Malaya's Cup - And How They Cheered,” Straits Times, 2 June 1952, 1; "Ong, Marjan Stretched,” Straits Times, 2 June 1952, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
8. “Poh Lim and Chong Teik Are Out,” Straits Times, 2 June 1958, 14 (From NewspaperSG); Ong, Thomas Cup Badminton, 87.
9. "Teoh Stages Grand Comeback,” Singapore Free Press, 26 February 1952, 6. (From NewspaperSG)
10. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 842–43; Ong, Thomas Cup Badminton, 65; "Teoh Stages Grand Comeback,” Singapore Free Press, 26 February 1952, 6; "Peng Soon's Play Best Ever Says Danish Official,” Straits Times, 18 April 1951, 12; "Poh Lim, Marjan Win Doubles,” Singapore Free Press, 9 April 1951, 7; Untitled, Singapore Standard, 15 March 1951, 10; Joe Dorai, "Badminton Great Ismail Dies,” Straits Times, 26 January 1991, 35. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 843; Chan Kwan Hoi, “Poh Lim Is Back On Cup List,” Straits Times, 2 August 1960, 15; Conrad Ng, “Worst Ever But There Is Hope Still,” Straits Times, 21 June 1961, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
12. “Poh Lim Is Under-rated Says Mr Lim,” Straits Times, 26 November 1952, 11.; Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 841–42; Yap K. H., “When a Legacy Is More Than Just a Fading Memory,” Straits Times, 20 April 2003, 37. (From NewspaperSG)
13. Tay Cheng Koon, “Badminton Legend Dies,” Straits Times, 18 April 2003, 10; Yap, “When a Legacy Is More Than Just a Fading Memory.” (From NewspaperSG)
14. “Malaysia Seeks the Help of Poh Lim, Peng Soon,” Straits Times, 15 May 1976, 21; Bernard Pereira, “Poh Lim Gets Coaching Offer,” Straits Times, 9 February 1978, 21; “Poh Lim Is Off to PI,” Straits Times, 19 December 1962, 22. (From NewspaperSG)
15. Jeffrey Low, “Goodbye to a Legend of the Court,” Straits Times, 25 April 2003, 10; Bernard Lee, “Sidek Brothers End 11-year Drought,” Straits Times, 30 March 1982, 34. (From NewspaperSG)
16. “World-class Sportsmen Win Top Spot in Hall of Fame,” Straits Times, 3 August 1986, 11; “Ong Poh Lim’s Loves,” Straits Times, 16 November 1981, 2; Hoo Yew Gee, “For the Love...,” Straits Times, 16 November 1981, 1; Ismail Kassim, Godfrey Robert, “The Solitary Life of a Badminton Legend,” Business Times, 19 April 2003, 14. (From NewspaperSG)
17. Suryadinata, Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent, 843.
18. “IBF Award for Ex-maestro Ong,” Straits Times, 7 October 1997, 44 (From NewspaperSG); Yap, “When a Legacy Is More Than Just a Fading Memory.
19. Tay, “Badminton Legend Dies; Yap, “When a Legacy Is More Than Just a Fading Memory; Tay Cheng Khoo, "Death of a Legend,” Straits Times, 18 April 2003, 10. (From NewspaperSG)
20. Tay, “Badminton Legend Dies.”
21. Low, “Goodbye to a Legend of the Court.”
22. Low, “Goodbye to a Legend of the Court.”

The information in this article is valid as of August 2023 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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