Learning > Inspiration

Merdeka Generation: 67, and turning lives around in the boxing ring

While the pioneer leaders were the architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story of our Merdeka Generation, those born in the 1950s who lived and persevered through a tumultuous period.

Vanessa Liu on 21 Aug 2019

The Straits Times


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At the top of a hill nestled in Bukit Batok Nature Park sits an open-air muay thai gym that has been there for more than 30 years.


Mr Yeo Lye Huat, who set up the Hilltop Muaythai gym, still packs a significant amount of force in his kicks, for a 67-year-old.


"In my younger days, I kicked the sandbags at least 300 times a day. Some days, 500 times," said Mr Yeo, who still spars with his students once in a while.


"Now, when I spar, it's just for fun. The students are afraid of my kicks," added Mr Yeo with a laugh.


On weekday afternoons, Mr Yeo is a full-time grandfather to his four grandchildren. He lives with his wife in Taman Jurong, about 20 minutes away from the gym by car.


But on weeknights, he is at the gym from 8pm to 10.30pm, teaching an average of 15 students a night.


Sundays are spent in the boxing ring for his own training, where he keeps to a regime of jumping rope, hitting pads and kicking sandbags.


He trains for four to five hours each time.


But the member of the Merdeka Generation who does dozens of pull-ups every day to keep himself in tip-top condition insists he is just another "old man".


"I exercise so I don't get sick so easily. I also feel more energetic," said Mr Yeo in Mandarin.


Mr Yeo, who has taught hundreds of students over the years, chose the space atop the hill as a training ground for its undulating slopes - which are "good for running and training stamina".


Affectionately known as Master Johnnie or shifu ("master" in Mandarin), the staunch Buddhist has also used the sport over the past three decades to guide at-risk youth.


Mr Yeo said he has had students who wanted to learn the martial art for the wrong reasons, such as picking fights with others.


"Some of my students are from vulnerable family backgrounds or complex environments. They are not bad people.


"I had similar experiences when I was younger but there was no one to guide me, so I wanted to be there for them," he said.


He said he had a fiery temper in his teens and got into fights with students from other schools over trivial matters because he was small.


Mr Yeo, who is 1.6m tall, said: "I was very small-sized, and this particularly large boy in school bullied me a lot. I never fought back because I was afraid of retaliation.


"But one day, I couldn't take it any more. I don't know what came over me, but I ended up pushing his head into a bowl of noodles while he was eating in the canteen.


"After that, the boy did not dare to bully me. And I was under the wrong impression that if you knew how to fight, no one would dare to trifle with you," said Mr Yeo, adding that they were both hauled up by the principal for misbehaviour.


He eventually dropped out of school after Secondary 2, and worked as a private bodyguard at one point.


In his late 20s, he was introduced to muay thai by his Thai friend, at a time when the sport was almost unheard of in Singapore.


"I was small and lean, which is a good frame for being a fighter," said Mr Yeo. His friend took him to a muay thai gym set in the rural countryside of Chiang Mai in Thailand, where he trained alongside other fighters.


"The training was very tough. We would wake up at 5.30am and run 10km to warm up.


"Then it was jumping rope, shadow boxing, pad work and hours of clinching practice (grappling with opponents) before training ended at 7pm."


Over the course of three years, Mr Yeo shuttled between Singapore and Thailand to train. He also took part in boxing matches about once every two months in Thailand.


"The first time I won a match, I was definitely elated," he recalled. "But winning or losing was not as important as the experience I gained with every fight."


Noting that the sport taught him grit and humility, he said: "To be a fighter, you need to train a lot. You can't be afraid of hardship.


"Some people look at muay thai and think that it is about violence. But it's a sport. I hope that my students understand that once you step out of the ring, it's important to be kind, respectful and humble - values that muay thai embodies."


Mr Yeo added that most of his students have gone on to lead successful lives in various fields - something that gives him satisfaction as a teacher.


"Not everyone will do muay thai for life, but what's important is you carry those values you learnt from it for life: Be humble, work hard and be a good person.


"As a teacher, if my students are doing well and are not doing anything to harm others, I'd consider myself successful and be very proud of them."


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



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