PETALING JAYA: More than a decade ago, two little buddies used to compete side by side and win honours for Penang at the national-level championships.
They were also the top players of their age-group in the state and were entangled in a fierce rivalry admired by their peers.
Fast forward to the present, and Loh Kean Yew and Cheam June Wei, both 24, are experiencing contrasting fortunes in their lives.
While Kean Yew, now a Singapore citizen, stamped his mark by winning the first world title for his adopted country, June Wei is still struggling to find his footing on the international stage.
And world No. 73 June Wei faces a rocky path ahead after quitting the national team recently in a bid to resurrect his career as a professional.
Asked if he envies what Kean Yew has achieved recently, June Wei said: “Not at all. As an old friend, I couldn’t be more proud of him.
“Rather than being envious, I will be inspired by Kean Yew’s success. Hopefully, I can make it to the top and follow in his footsteps one day.
“I have faith in myself. Now that I have left the national team, I have the liberty to chart my own future.”
In 2009, a year before Kean Yew relocated to Singapore, the duo battled for the last time in the Penang Schools Sports Council (MSSPP) Badminton Championships, with June Wei emerging victorious as the Under-12 boys singles champion.
They then formed a deadly partnership to contend at the national level.
In 2009, they won the Under-12 boys’ doubles titles in the National Circuit Grand Prix legs in Ipoh and Alor Setar, before managing a third-place finish at the Grand Finals.
Kean Yew went on to pip Kedah’s Lee Zii Jia, who’s a year younger, to the boys’ singles Under-12 title that year.
It was those impressive results which caught the eye of Singapore Sports School’s representatives, and subsequently landed Kean Yew a scholarship to continue his study and play badminton in the republic.
June Wei, too, was offered an opportunity but he turned it down.
“I was approached too, but we (including his parents) never considered the offer at all. I never had the intention of leaving the country,” said June Wei.
“Kean Yew was definitely among the top players in the country (for that age-group) at that time. We had strong rivalry in Penang too, we always faced each other in most of the finals in the state competitions.”
June Wei believes the decision to move to Singapore had served Kean Yew well.
“Would he have become a world champion if he had stayed put in Malaysia? I don’t know. But what’s certain is that it would be difficult for him to flourish because of the competitive environment at BAM,” explained June Wei.
“As a junior, we need to be able to beat our seniors in order to get sent to tournaments. At that time, we had Datuk Lee (Chong Wei), Iskandar (Zulkarnain Zainuddin), (Chong) Wei Feng and (Liew) Daren ahead of us.
“Being an outstanding player there, Kean Yew has received good attention from the association.
By 16 or 17, he was already sent to play in Open and major tournaments.
“So the exposure he’s getting was way more than us.”
June Wei said he’s still keeping a close friendship with Kean Yew until today.
“Having played together for many years during our childhood, we’re quite close obviously,” he said.
“We had our meals together during the World Championships.
“Seeing how he went all the way to become the world champion really motivates me a lot. I’m so happy for him.”
June Wei’s world meet debut ended with a tame 17-21, 8-21 defeat in the first round to Japan’s Kenta Nishimoto.