The picturesque island city-state of Singapore has a rich Pickleball history. It is the oldest Pickleball-playing nation in Asia where the sport started in the early 1990s. Singapore is the only Asian country which had hosted one of the most important persons in Pickleball- co-inventor of the sport and Congressman Lt-Gov Joel Pritchard in 1996.
How it all started
It was around 1995 when Lim Chee Aun, a local businessman who was nearing 60, frequently heard a ‘tik-tok’ sound emerging from an adjacent Badminton court, when he was learning Tai-Ji in a community centre. He was curious enough to take a peek and what he saw were some senior men playing a sport with a strange wooden racket and plastic ball full of holes. The people there were very friendly and invited him to play. That was when he first played Pickleball and got hooked.
Eventually, Chee Aun stopped doing Tai-Ji entirely and played Pickleball exclusively. What worked for him was Pickleball being a quick sport to pick up; it was easy to be relatively good at it despite him being less athletic. But most importantly he made a lot of new friends and it was fun enough for him to keep going back there week after week.
Lim Ee Kiong, son of Chee Aun recollects, “It didn’t take long for my father to tell my mother about this new discovery, and it also didn’t take long for my mother to get hooked too. In fact, my mother, Mdm Anne Ng Eng is way more a competitive player than my father. She took part in all tournaments she organised from 1996 to 2019; which would’ve been more than 60 tournaments! Compared to my father, she won a lot more medals. In fact, I think my father won just one consolation medal.”
Formation of Singapore Pickle-Ball Association (SPA)
In the 1990s, sport was developing in Singapore and it was probably the right time to promote a new sport. The Singapore Sports Council (SSC) felt it was an extremely suitable sport for the senior community and therefore wanted a group of enthusiasts to form an association so that the sport could be introduced and promoted throughout the country. Chee Aun and some other fellow enthusiasts first formed a Protem Committee to draft the constitution of the association and in due course, Singapore Pickle-Ball Association was registered on12th May 1995. Chee Aun assumed the post of President of SPA and Anne Ng later became the Honorary Secretary of SPA.
Ee Kiong remembers, “Once SPA was formed, my parents really lived and breathed Pickleball. I have a vivid memory that my parents were involved in a Pickleball tournament almost every weekend somewhere in Singapore. My brothers and I were all roped in to help, either to drive trucks to transport stuff, or I had to do some photography cover duties. To save on expenses, my mother even tasked me to cook lunch for the players. I fried Bee Hoon (rice vermicelli) at our home to reach at the venue by lunchtime. I strongly believe that the current Singapore Pickleball scene, not only reflects the allure of the sport, but also the passion of my parents, and the contributions of all pioneer Pickleball enthusiasts in Singapore.”
SPA – A Bridge between West and East
Chee Aun and Anne Ng were introduced to Douglas Smith, nephew of Barney McCallum and the then President of Pickle-ball Inc, the company started by the McCallum family in 1972. SPA worked extremely closely with Pickle-Ball Inc. With Douglas in Seattle and Chee Aun in Singapore, there were constant telephone and fax exchanges to promote and develop the sport in Singapore. Also, using Singapore as the natural stepping stone, together they wrote a lot of introductory letters to many neighbouring countries, such as India, Korea, Japan, East and Peninsular Malaysia, Indonesia in order to promote Pickleball.
Ee Kiong interestingly refers, “Those with a sharp eye will notice the ‘Pickleball’ in Singapore Pickle-Ball Association is spelt with a hyphen. As much as it seemed out of place now, but it was because that was just how the inventors spelt it.”
Lt. Gov. Joel Pritchard in Singapore
Joel Pritchard visited Singapore in December 1996 after he heard from Douglas about a faraway Asian small city-state on the other side of the world that was playing a lot of Pickleball. It was quite unbelievable to him and therefore he wanted to witness the fact by visiting Singapore himself. When he was here, he conducted a Pickleball Umpire Course. Ee Kiong remembers a participant asking Joel, “Singapore plays on Badminton Courts, how should we rule if the ball hits the protruding part of the badminton net post?” Joel’s reply was simply, “There is no hard and fast rule, but if I were to decide, I’ll leave it to chance and see where the ball lands, isn’t that more fun and how life is?”
One can infer from Joel Pritchard’s reply over two decades ago, the immense growth and change in Pickleball from inception till today, from a more laid back fun and family setting to now a well-structured sport catering to both recreational players to highly competitive elites.
SPA- A piece in Pickleball history
Even before SPA was formed, the SPA Protem Committee started working on a local Rules & Regulation Handbook based on the rules made available to them by Pickle-ball Inc. While going through that older version of rulebook, then only 4 pages, Ee Kiong noted, “In that version, the player was allowed to keep one foot behind the baseline when serving. This is in fact a legacy from the McCallum family because their home Pickleball court at Bainbridge had a tree growing near the baseline and if a player was fully behind the baseline, his arm would hit the tree during the swing serve.”
Contribution towards Asia Federation of Pickleball (AFP)
Pickleball has changed dramatically in Singapore in the last 6-7 years. The sport that was once mainly for recreation and keeping seniors active, is now much more competitive, with the community thirsting for competition and challenges. Pickleball in Singapore is truly becoming global.
SPA is one of the founder members of AFP and Lim Ee Kiong, the treasurer of Asia Federation of Pickleball (AFP) is hopeful that Singapore can contribute to bridge the language and cultural gaps to promote this wonderful game to more places and people. “As the sport domestically gets more matured and established, it is a natural progression that more will be done on a bigger scale. The formation of AFP cannot be more perfectly timed; growing and developing Pickleball with an Asian flavour. Every Asian country has some form of pickled vegetable or fruit in our food culture. So is it not just amazingly apt that this sport is called Pickleball? Let’s play Pickleball with Relish,” he signs off.