Learning > Inspiration

The lives they live: Discipline the keyword for former Cedar sports coach

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. We continue with another story about such people in the series, The Lives They Live.

Toh Wen Li on 13 Jul 2017

The Straits Times


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There is one tradition that has united generations of students at Cedar Girls' Secondary School - compulsory jogging periods.


Some girls look forward to the sessions, which involve the entire cohort jogging around the school compound two times a week. Others, huffing and puffing their way through the dreaded exercise, join in reluctantly.


Whom do they have to thank for this? Former Cedar Girls' sports coach N. Subramaniam.


In the early 1970s, Mr Subramaniam introduced mandatory jogging sessions for all girls, getting them to run around the school's 400m bitumen track to improve their aerobic fitness.


In those days, it was a daily affair.


"When you have discipline, it will empower you in everything you do. It becomes part of your lifestyle," said the 79-year-old, who still works out on a cross-trainer machine in his living room, hits the gym every day, and has been practising yoga and meditation for 20 years.


Mr Subramaniam - or Mr Maniam, as he is known to former students - began his career at Cedar Girls', helping the school lay the foundations for the track and field powerhouse it is today.


A champion of qualities such as discipline and a positive attitude, he put girls on the school teams through rigorous training.


But there was no denying that he cared about their welfare too. Realising that some girls were undernourished, he had the school supplement their diet with milk, eggs and multi-vitamins.


Under his watch, the hockey team became Serangoon District Champions in 1963. And after he was placed in charge of the track and field team in 1972, the school grew from strength to strength, bagging medals at national meets and becoming a big source of school pride.


Mr Subramaniam was at Cedar from 1961 to 1976 - among his colleagues then were Mr Chiam See Tong, who later joined politics, and Mrs Mary Tan, wife of now President Tony Tan Keng Yam - and several incidents left a deep impression on him.


In 1961, when he joined the school as a biology and physical education teacher fresh out of teacher training, principal P. C. Tan gave him his "first lesson in discipline".


He recalled that he was tasked to arrange the chairs in the hall for speech day. When he and his students were done, Mrs Tan sat down on one of the chairs, swiped its underside, and turned to him.


"'Maniam, dust... what is this?'"


He was impressed. "I liked her because she was thorough. And what does thoroughness mean? It will lead you to excellence."


While Mr Subramaniam retired 20 years ago, the radiant, even-tempered man is still very much a teacher at heart.


When The Straits Times met him and his wife, retired primary school teacher Pagavathyar Subramaniam, 82, at their house in Jalan Sindor in Seletar Hills, he produced a sheaf of typewritten notes chronicling key events and anecdotes from his career. He proceeded to go over them one by one, pausing to drum in the importance of good character.


"The seeds of human values must be planted in schools," he said.


He still remembers one keenly contested hockey match between Cedar Girls' Secondary and the now-defunct Willow Secondary School back in the 1960s. One of his students, centre forward Lee Fong Chan, was seconds from scoring a goal when the opposing defender dropped her hockey stick.


"In a flash, Fong Chan picked up the defender's hockey stick, handed it to her... and immediately hit the ball into the goal.


"She displayed exemplary conduct even at the height of intense competition. This was sportsmanship of the highest order."


Mr Subramaniam is well-liked by his former students from Cedar - many of whom are now mothers and grandmothers - who keep in touch with him on WhatsApp and meet up to celebrate his birthday.


During these get-togethers, they feed him vitamins and eggs as a tongue-in-cheek gesture.


Among his students were national sprinters Dhana Devi Balaretnam and Jenny Lim.


Ms Lim, 59, now senior general manager of the Singapore Sports School's track and field academy, said of her former teacher: "He was like a mentor, a father, many things rolled into one. He cared for us as an athlete, a student, a person. He never failed to advise us on how to be a good person."


After 15 years at Cedar, Mr Subramaniam left under a Ministry of Education (MOE) scholarship for the Moscow Institute of Physical Culture and Sports. He was struck by how Russian elementary schools placed a strong emphasis on gymnastics during PE.


"Gymnastics lays the foundation in building flexibility, balance and strength," he said.




He was like a mentor, a father, many things rolled into one. He cared for us as an athlete, a student, a person. He never failed to advise us on how to be a good person.


MS JENNY LIM, former national sprinter and now senior general manager of the Singapore Sports School's track and field academy, one of Mr Subramaniam's former students.


Returning two years later, he co-wrote a booklet, which, together with a video, trained teachers in instructing students on exercises such as handstands and forward rolls - an important protective skill.


Practically all primary schools at the time used the booklet, he said.


After four years as a track- and-field adviser to schools for the Extra-Curricular Activities Centre, he joined MOE's curriculum planning division as a specialist inspector for physical education.


Mr Subramaniam and his wife have two children - a daughter who teaches A-level science at Raffles Institution, and a son, a doctor.


Both his daughter and granddaughter enrolled in Cedar.


The grandfather of three enjoys playing the role of mentor to friends and family members.


"My main goal in life now is to encourage as many people as possible... The most important thing is character. You can't change the world, but you can change yourself. Be good and do good always."


The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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