Keeping Singapore fit

A roving good time… Robert’s Land Rover is his trusty travel companion.

EVERY Singaporean will remember sit-and-reach, shuttle run, standing broad jump and running 2.4km around the school field. The National Physical Fitness Award (NAPFA) test was either a boon or a bane to any of us who attended a local school. Whether you aced it or failed it miserably, the NAPFA test had a purpose — to help Singaporeans assess their physical fitness.

Mr Robert Tan developed the fitness test with his colleague, Dr Giam Choo Kiong, in 1982 when he was a senior sports officer at the then-Singapore Sports Council (now known as Sport Singapore). The NAPFA test was first developed for the public and was eventually adopted by the Singapore Armed Forces and schools.   

Sports is not only his life’s work but also his life’s blood. The 79-year-old grandfather of two loves most physical activity, from rock climbing to skiing. 

“You name it, I’ve done it,” Robert said with a laugh. 

After finishing his teacher training in 1961, the PE teacher taught at primary and secondary schools for 10 years before joining the Ministry of Education as a specialist instructor. He was in charge of supervising PE teachers in about 50 schools. During his stint, he also developed and promoted outdoor activities and water sports such as camping, sailing, canoeing and trekking in schools.

When he joined the Singapore Sports Council in 1975, the idea for the National Aerobics Fitness Award (NAFA) test was born.

“Cardio workouts were the craze in the mid-70s. So, I introduced the National Aerobics Fitness scheme, where you were awarded a gold, silver or bronze badge based on your 2.4km run timing. It was very popular and thousands of people participated,” said Robert.

“I then worked with the former Singapore Sports Council head, Dr Giam Choo Kiong, to refine the test and we eventually created the NAPFA test to include more components to test individuals’ overall fitness.”

Robert also had a hand in designing the early versions of public fitness corners in Singapore and introduced rock climbing as a sport in the 1970s.

His passion has propelled him to scale the career ladder in the local sporting world. He was the Director of Sports Excellence in 1995, where his job was to help Singaporean athletes achieve medals at the Olympic Games. He also took charge of all the national sports associations.  

Robert retired in 2008 but has not given up on sport. Nowadays, he swims thrice a week, goes to the gym twice a week and attends ballroom dancing classes with his wife. He now has more time to catch up with his kakis (friends) among whom is local sporting icon, C. Kunalan, who was a fellow trainee teacher. 

While Robert has to deal with health issues like stress haematuria, a benign condition where blood is present in the urine after exercise, he continues to attempt several athletic feats. This time instead of medals, it’s for charity.
A walk to remember… Robert trekking the 800km Camino de Santiago walking trail in Spain in 2016. (Photo credit: Robert)

In April 2016, he raised $23,000 for the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Singapore by completing the 800km walking trail in Spain called Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It is popular with Christian pilgrims and adventure seekers. 

“I walked about 20km a day for 38 days, which is approximately the distance from Singapore to Penang,” he said. 

He also cycled with two friends from Bangkok to Singapore in 2014 to raise funds for Filipino families affected by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. They raised $12,000 in partnership with HOME (Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics).

Robert on the road
On the road… Robert (right) biked 2,000 km from Bangkok, Thailand to Singapore in 2014. (Photo credit: Robert)  

Apart from his sporting pursuits, Robert also enjoys writing for the Changi Beach Club newsletter, where he is the honorary secretary. He describes himself as a doting grandfather who ferries his two grandchildren, aged 14 and 11, to school and back in his beloved Land Rover.

His advice on feeling young at heart? “Socialise as much as possible because loneliness will cause your mind to deteriorate. Invest in your family and health. Be active; any exercise is better than no exercise! Also, find a passion – something you enjoy – and pursue it.” 

Article published: 25/04/19