Bowling: After almost 20 years, Jessie Phua steps down as SBF president, Sport News & Top Stories

SINGAPORE – With her busy schedule, Singapore bowling chief Jessie Phua rarely bowls, and reckons she would get teased by the national keglers with her claims that she “would be over the moon with 160 or 170” pinfalls.

But few would disagree that the 66-year-old deserves top marks for turning the sport around to become global powerhouses in almost two decades at the helm.

At the Singapore Bowling Federation (SBF) annual general meeting on Monday (June 28), Phua stepped down as its president and passed the baton to former national bowler Valerie Teo – no election was held as there was no contest.

Phua told The Straits Times: “Sport needs new energy, it needs new creativity. I’m getting old, I’m getting tired. We need fresh blood to give sport a different life and energy. All sports need this to keep reinventing itself for future challenges.”

As she looked back on her successful tenure as the SBF’s longest-serving chief, Phua thanked her team, and the Singapore National Olympic Council vice-president added: “I’m happy, proud, and relieved that I managed to deliver all that I promised, and more than what I expected.

“I do not claim any of this credit. This was possible only because I was able to bring on board a team of passionate, able and willing volunteers and staff, who believed in the journey and worked alongside me.”

Phua’s made her first foray into bowling in 1990 “by default” when her husband Jimmy took over Marina Superbowl and renamed it Victor’s Superbowl – after good friend Victor Tham’s death – and asked her to manage the centre.

In 1994, she was appointed youth development programme chairman of the Singapore Tenpin Bowling Congress – SBF’s predecessor – and was its vice-president from 1995 to 1997.

She recalled how frustrated she had been on her travels when she saw regional countries which were strides ahead of Singapore with well-oiled youth development systems in place, before she struck jackpot after a conversation with then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was guest of honour at an event.

Phua said: “I presented to him the case where bowling is one sport where Singaporeans have equal opportunity to medal at world level.

“That being the case, it is very heartbreaking to see that our youth development programme is not allowed into the schools because that is our biggest pool of talent that we can tap on.

“We are thankful to PM Lee for believing in this story and helping us to make it happen.”

Not long after, bowling became an extra-curricular activity in schools, which led to a wider talent pool.

After a five-year hiatus, Phua returned to the fray in 2002 to challenge for the presidency and edged former Member of Parliament Chng Hee Kok by 7-6 votes.

One of her first victories was sweeping clean as the new broom, getting the books in order after money had allegedly gone missing within the association. She also put her foot down to weed out smoking and gambling at bowling centres and successfully overhauled the sport’s seedy image.

Singapore Bowling Federation president Jessie Phua (left) stepped down and passed the baton to former national bowler Valerie Teo. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

At the lanes, Phua counts Singapore’s three-gold showing at the 2002 Asian Games as a special highlight as they were bowling’s first Asiad gold medals. More success followed as SBF went on to develop world champions and medallists in the men’s, women’s and youth categories.

Outside the alley, she also made sure her team contributed to the society, with the BOWLinks (Bowl Over With Love, Inspiration, Nurturing, Kindness and Sincerity) programme running for 10 years to give assistance to local associations with special needs.

“Now, our bowlers have initiated their own athlete-driven community service programmes, which is so heartwarming,” said Phua, who led the International Bowling Federation, the sport’s world governing body, from 2007 to 2011.

Shayna Ng, who has been in SBF as a national youth and senior bowler for 17 years and was the all-event world champion in 2015, hailed Phua as a “committed, dedicated and fearless” leader who helped the bowlers develop through tough love and high standards.

She recalled a story about how they were made to stay outside of the room until the first break if they were even one minute late for orientation sessions.

Ng, 31, added: “More importantly, apart from grooming us into world class athletes, she also taught us the importance of showing compassion and empathy. She emphasised the need to give back to the community, and through leading by example, gave us countless opportunities to do the same.”

Mervyn Foo, who rose through the SBF ranks as former national player, coach, technical and executive director, also paid tribute to Phua’s willingness to develop local talents.

The 46-year-old said: “I will always be grateful she trusted William Woo, Henry Tan and I to head the national programme in 2006. She would sit with us to go over videos of over 70 players because she wanted to see and know who are in the national programme.

“She was also not afraid of rocking things up by bringing in different members who knew more than her from different fields. This helped Singapore bowling grow from strength to strength.”

While the final frame has come for Phua, she is looking forward to more family time and that long-awaited bowling game, though she admitted she may go cold turkey after stepping down.

Phua, who has a son, three daughters and will welcome a seventh grandchild in September, said: “This pandemic reminds us of the importance of family. My husband, who has been my pillar of strength and support, is already 75, so it is important I spend some time with him, my children and grandchildren.

“But bowling has taken up one-third of my life, it is so much a part of me, and I cannot imagine waking up on Tuesday morning and having nothing to do with bowling anymore. Bowling is in my blood, and it is my baby that I will be watching from afar. If they need help at any time, I’m just a call away.”

Singapore bowling’s achievements under Phua (2002-2021):

20 medals at World Championships with six world champions (Remy Ong, Cherie Tan, Shayna Ng, Jasmine Yeong-Nathan, Joey Yeo and Jennifer Tan)

41 Asian Championships medals

19 Asian Games medals

40 SEA Games medals

6 Professional Womens’ Bowling Association titles

18 World Youth Championship medals

New SBF general council

President: Valerie Teo
Vice-president: Tan Zhi Qiang
Honorary secretary: Dorothy Tay
Assistant honorary secretary: Thomas Lee
Honorary treasurer: William Wong
Assistant honorary treasurer: Ong She-Na
Council members: Gan Su-lin, Gerald Tan, Lionel Lim, Mike Lam, Tan Poh Heng, William Chua.