A pioneer in outdoor education, Mr Robert Tan is behind some of the first public sporting activities in Singapore and has contributed to shaping the Physical Education (PE) syllabus in schools. Now 77, he has lost none of his passion and vigour for sport, and continues to inspire through physical feats of endurance. He shares the story of how he got into PE, the work he has done over the years to promote outdoor activities, and his belief in the power of sport to enrich lives.
Having grown up in the countryside, Robert Tan remembers his childhood as “nothing but play”. In fact, the former Director of Sports Excellence at the Singapore Sports Council (now known as Sport Singapore) did poorly throughout school and barely passed his final exams to graduate.
He shares: “I failed throughout until my father passed away right before I took my final exams. Maybe that woke me up, and I managed to pass my exams in the few subjects I took –
Religious Knowledge, Art and Health Science.”
Given his educational background, Robert’s foray into Physical Education as a career seems almost a happy accident. After working as a mining labourer in Malaysia, he landed a job as a trainee teacher at the Teacher’s Training College (TTC). He recalls, “At TTC, you had to take a principal subject. I could not do English, Math or even Science, but I saw one – PE – that suited me because I was a kampong boy. I was so happy.”
Little did he know, back then, that this would be the beginning of a prominent career in sports and physical fitness. Robert did so well in the course at TTC that he won a scholarship to further his studies in Physical Education at the University of Leeds. Before furthering his studies, he taught PE for 8 years at a primary school and 2 years at a secondary school.
He explains that his stint at the primary school was pivotal in awakening his passion for PE.
“Teaching at the Jalan Eunos School transformed me,” he says. “I blossomed under the guidance of the principal who was someone I really admired. Although I was nobody of significance then, she made me feel that my ideas for PE were valued.”
Laying the Foundation for Physical Fitness
After completing his studies, Robert brought his expertise, enthusiasm and desire to contribute to the Ministry of Education’s new Extra-Curricular Activities Centre (ECAC), where he was instrumental in introducing outdoor activities in schools and setting up the Junior Sailing Club in 1973. Later, he joined the newly created Singapore Sports Council (SSC). It was here that he laid the foundations for the pursuit of a physically active and healthy lifestyle for all Singaporeans.
“I started out as a Senior Sports Officer (Planning) at SSC and was responsible for promoting outdoor physical activities,” he says. “I was inspired after reading that in Scandinavia, there were fitness stations along jogging tracks where people could do strengthening exercises while they jog, so I built the first fitness corner at MacRitchie Reservoir Park. It was constructed with logs as I wanted it to be rustic.”
In the mid-70s when jogging and aerobics were the craze, he seized the opportunity to motivate more Singaporeans to pick up jogging as a sport by introducing the National Aerobic Fitness Award (NAFA) as a way for people to evaluate their aerobic fitness. Adapted from the standards set out in the well-known Cooper test, NAFA became extremely popular as participants could win badges if they did well in the 2.4-kilometre jog.
“I contacted Kenneth Cooper, who is widely known as the father of aerobics, to ask for permission to adapt his test for use in Singapore, and he agreed,” says Robert. Working together with the then Head of the Sports Science Centre at SSC, Dr Giam Choo Keong, who initiated the project, he continued to improve the test, eventually creating the National Physical Fitness Award (NAPFA), a test for all-round fitness, in 1982.
“Outdoor education provides valuable opportunities for learning through self-discovery. … It is not a matter of teaching students to rock-climb or canoe well. Rather, the idea is to train them not to give up so easily in the face of difficulty.”
– Robert, on how outdoor activities can build character
Helping Students Learn to Love the Outdoors
That NAPFA is still being used in schools today is testament to the value of Robert’s contribution. Yet despite setting the benchmark for physical fitness in schools, he believes there is more to fitness than just doing well in NAPFA. To him, an outdoor component in PE is essential to help students develop the skills and attitudes needed to live meaningful lives.
“Outdoor education provides valuable opportunities for learning through self-discovery,” he says. “It is not a matter of teaching students to rock-climb or canoe well. Rather, the idea is to train them not to give up so easily in the face of difficulty. The motto of Outward Bound School (OBS), ‘to serve, to strive and not to yield’, reflects this focus.”
While the pursuit of sporting excellence has its place, for the majority of students, Robert feels it is more important to help them enjoy sporting activities so that they continue participating in them even after leaving school. As such, he is happy to see the teachers he trained in TTC establishing outdoor activities in schools and junior colleges, and more concerted efforts to let students experience outdoor education through OBS camps.
“Instead of always just striving to win, I want to see students enjoying the great outdoors and, through that, forging friendships and gaining memorable experiences,” he says. “In this way, we can foster a love of the outdoors from young.”
It’s Not Just a Destination, It’s a Way of Life
Now a retiree, Robert continues to exemplify this belief that outdoor pursuits can and should continue outside of formal education. Through years of engaging in outdoor activities and challenging his limits, he has shown that age is no barrier to feats of physical prowess.
In 2016, at the age of 76, he walked 800 kilometres to complete a trek called the Camino de Santiago, a network of walking routes across Spain. This involved walking 20 to 30 kilometres a day for 38 days in unfamiliar terrain and climate. Two years earlier, he cycled from Bangkok to Singapore via the Gulf of Thailand and the East Coast of Malaysia with two friends, covering 2,000 kilometres in 21 days.
Just as his physical accomplishments are awe-inspiring and stereotype-breaking, so too are Robert’s pioneering efforts in physical education and outdoor learning lessons in taking a leap and challenging ourselves. As Abraham Maslow once said, “At any given moment, we have two options: To step forward into growth or to step back into safety.” In choosing the former like Robert, who exhibits courage and initiative in all his undertakings, we may discover we are capable of more than we thought.