Ong Poh Lim was born on November 18, 1923 to Mrs. Ong Kheng Hong and Mr. Ong of Kuching, Sarawak. Ong also had an older sister. He attended St. Thomas and received an English education. At his school, he was the frequent winner of the 100 meters runs. Ong started playing badminton at 8 years old with a makeshift racket crafted by a carpenter. He played with his auntie who was reprimanded for playing badminton because she was a woman. Ong received his first real racket from his Uncle Lim Baa Too. Ong would not take badminton seriously until 1937 when the two Singapore Champions, Leow Kim Fat and Yap Chin Tee, visited Kuching. A year later, Ong became the Sarawak Singles and Doubles Champion at the age of 16 years old. He held both titles from 1938 to 1941. Ong attributed his quick improvement to gambling with relatives. There was a lack of good opponents in Sarawak so Ong used betting as way to add pressure to the game by giving handicaps to his opponents and putting money on the line.
While living in Sarawak, Ong worked many jobs. He was a shorthand typist, police commissioner, and even male nurse at a certain point in his life. During his stint as a male nurse, he learned how to deliver babies. After World War II was declared in 1939, Kuching was occupied by the Japanese army. Lim acted as an intelligence officer for both the British and the Japanese armies. During the Japanese occupation, Ong trained and played with the Japanese officers and their female typists. In 1940, he went to Singapore for a brief period of time and played in the Leong Sin Nam Plaque tournament.
After World War II, Ong moved to Singapore in 1947. He played for various teams such as the Fraser & Neave, Marigold Badminton Party and Bournemouth Badminton Party. The Marigold Badminton Party was a well-established rival to the Mayflower Badminton Party, which produced Wong Peng Soon and a number of other prominent badminton players of that era. At that time, Wong Peng Soon was a more well-known Malayan player than Ong so the latter was frequently cast in the former’s shadow. However, Ong beat Wong in a competition called Marrieds vs Singles in February 1948. In the same year, Ong was selected to represent the All-Malayan Chinese Badminton team at the Chinese Olympics in Shanghai. According to Ong, the Chinese Olympics: Games for Overseas Chinese People, would be his first official tournament. There were approximately 8000 participants at this event.
In 1949, Ong was sent to Belfast instead of playing in the first rounds of the inaugural Thomas Cup held in Glasgow, Scotland. Belfast was where he won his first international titles in Men’s Singles and Men’s Doubles with Lim Kee Fong. After playing in Belfast, he hopped over to Preston, England, to rejoin the Malayan team. In the final, Malaya beat Denmark easily with the tie score of 8-1. Ong contributed to the victory by defeating Poul Holm in singles. At the end of 1949, Ong began a successful partnership with Ismail bin Marjan, a Singaporean of Malay origin. Ong’s partnership with Marjan was described by rival, Wong Peng Soon, as “the best doubles combination.” As soon as 1951, Ong and Marjan swept all of the major tournament titles during an eight-month tour of Europe, including the Danish and French titles. The expenses of their 1951 European tour were covered by public donations. The pair had fundraised by putting an advertisement in the Tiger Standard newspaper.
In 1951, Ong began his first campaign for a title at the prestigious All England tournament. Ong had smooth sailing until the finals when he played against fellow countryman, Wong Peng Soon. Ong won the first game 18-15 and was leading 12-9 in the second game. Wong chased back to win the second game 18-14 and the third game 15-7 to take the All England title. Ong’s misfortune continued when he and Marjan lost the Men’s Doubles final to Eddy and David Choong 15-9, 7- 15, 10-15. Herbert Scheele later commented, “when attacking in normal fashion, Ong Poh Lim, as we know, has a smash as hard as anybody else in the game, and his close net shots are quite supreme in their accuracy. Rarely does he lose a rally from really close to the net,” but during the Men’s Doubles final, Ong reportedly could not break through Eddy Choong’s defense. A rally during the Men’s Doubles final became immortalized in history when Eddy retrieved five smashes in a row from Ong while sitting on the floor.
After the All England, Ong and Marjan took titles in the Men’s Doubles at the Danish Open and French Open. At the same tournament, Ong defeated Wong 15-9, 15-8 to add a second title in Men’s Singles to his crown. Upon his return, there was a dispute whether Ong could still be considered an amateur player. Back in the day, only amateur players were eligible to compete in tournaments. This dispute escalated into Ong’s suspension by the Singapore Badminton Association. Two days later, Ong was reinstated after the governor of Malaya, Malcolm Macdonald, intervened on his behalf.
At the 1952 Malaysia Open, Ong won his first international title in Mixed Doubles with Cecilia Samuel. Ong represented Malaya a second time at the Thomas Cup in Singapore and played the USA in the finals. Ong won both his doubles with Marjan and his singles match. His 15-1, 15-6 triumph over Bob Williams was the final point which secured the Thomas Cup for Malaya. The eventual tie score was 7-2 for Malaya. Ong and Marjan finished off 1952 with a second consecutive title at the Danish Open. With his results, it was to no one’s surprise when Ong was voted the Singapore Free Press Sportsman of the Year. He had received more than half of the votes submitted by the readers.
Ong and Marjan won only one title in 1953, namely the Malaysia Open. The next year, Ong would play with Ooi Teik Hock. The newly formed pair defeated the Choong brothers in the Men’s Doubles finals to secure their first All England title. Afterwards, Ong and Ooi would grab another two titles at the US Open and World Invitation Tournament. Despite Ong playing with another partner, it was apparent that there were no hard feelings between Marjan and Ong. Marjan gave Ong a walkover in the Men’s Singles semi-final at the 1954 French Open so that the latter would be better rested in his final match against Wong Peng Soon. Unfortunately, despite Marjan’s good intentions, Ong did not beat Wong in the final but he managed to take the Men’s Singles title at the 1954 Malaysia Open.
Ong represented Malaya a third time at the 1955 Thomas Cup in Singapore at the newly built Singapore Badminton Hall. Matches were played in front of thousands of spectators in the scorching heat. Just like before, Ong won all three of his matches in the 8-1 win against Denmark in the final. Once again, he scored the winning point for his team after defeating Ole Jensen 15-10 15-8 in 24 minutes. His teammates raised him on their shoulders in celebration and that match would be described almost stroke by stroke in the Straits Times the following day. Ong was the only Malayan player to win all of his matches at the three Thomas Cups in 1949, 1952 and 1955. As for individual results that year, Ong only won one international title with Ooi at the Malaysia Open. Ong sustained an ankle injury and was forced to slow down. He won another two titles in Men’s Singles and Men’s Doubles with Marjan at the 1956 Malaysian Open before retiring from top level badminton in 1958. After 1958, Ong spent most of his time playing on the veteran’s circuit and in exhibition games but he still managed to win 4 more titles at the Singapore Open. Two of these titles were won in Mixed Doubles with Jessie Ong in 1960 and 1961; one in Men’s Doubles with Wee Choon Seng in 1962 and the last title in Mixed Doubles with Lim Choo Eng at the 1963 Singapore Open.
When asked to comment on Ong’s game play, Pat Davis once said, “Pan-handled, he had a powerful if flat smash, completely unorthodox strokes, rock-like crouch defence which often seized the attack, lightning reflexes and, his speciality, a quickly dipping low serve, christened ‘crocodile.’ In a 1999 Straits Times interview, Ong talked about his backhand-flick serve, which fooled many opponents. 'It's a very peculiar serve,' he said proudly, 'where I wiggle my behind, a little like Marilyn Monroe. I did not do it consciously. It just came naturally. The name was coined by a British journalist because I was originally from Sarawak where the rivers were infested with crocodiles.’
After his retirement, Ong was offered a lucrative coaching position in the Philippines in 1962. Three years later, Ong went back to the newly-independent Singapore to help foster new talent after being asked by the Minister of Education. Ong is credited with having trained Lee Kin Tat, who reached the semi-finals of the All-England championship in 1964 and 1966, and the two-time All-England champion, Tan Yee Khan. Ong took on coaching stints around the world in countries such as Malaysia (1976), Iran (1978) and the Philippines (1980). He even made a brief stop in Edmonton, Canada in 1988. Ong also worked at Fraser & Neave in the 1970s. He often conducted tours of the company’s badminton hall for visitors. Aside from badminton, Ong also had an interest in antiques. He was a keen philatelist and amassed an extensive collection of rare and unusual stamps especially from Sarawak.
Ong received many awards to commemorate his playing and coaching career. In 1986, he was inducted into the Singapore Sports Council Sports Museum Hall of Fame. Ten years later, he was awarded the IBF Meritorious Service Award. Ong was further inducted into the IBF Hall of Fame in 1998 and the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame in 2004.
Ong had never married. As Archie Ang wrote in the 2003 Singapore Open programme, badminton remained Ong’s first love. Ong could always be found sitting in one corner of the Stadium every year during the week-long Singapore Open. As he grew frail in his later years, the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) officials provided him with groceries, checked on his health, and took him to SSC functions. The former president of Singapore, Wee Kim Wee, was an old friend and keen badminton player who visited him occasionally. On 16 April 2003, SSC officials discovered Ong unconscious on the floor of his home and immediately took him to the Changi General Hospital. Ong had suffered a bad fall and been left unattended for several days. The SSC had previously tried to contact Ong to make arrangements for his Hall of Fame induction ceremony on April 18 but failed to reach him. Ong passed away on April 17, the day he was to attend a SSC Hall of Fame dinner to commemorate his induction. He was 80 years old. His funeral was attended by 23 people, including officials from the SSC and the Singapore Badminton Association. Ong Poh Lim was buried at Choa Chu Kang Christian Cemetery.
1952 – Sportsman of the Year (Singapore Free Press)
1986 – Singapore Sports Council Sports Museum Hall of Fame
1996 – IBF Meritorious Service Award
1998 – IBF Hall of Fame
2004 – Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame
BIBLIOGRAPHY & REFERENCES
Badminton 1952-1964 (Ho Ah Chon)
Encyclopaedia of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Guinness Book of Badminton (Pat Davis)
Histoire du badminton (Jean-Yves Guillain)
Notes from Herbert Scheele (Herbert Scheele)
Olympic Council of Malaysia
Singapore Open 2013 Official Programme
Singapore Sports Museum
Southeast Asian Personalities of Chinese Descent: A Biographical Dictionary (Nick Aplin)
The Straits Times
-- By Yves Lacroix