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Singapore was a regional and international powerhouse in sports and most notably badminton in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The Thomas Cup and All-England winners were China-born and even Singapore’s only gold medal in the Commonwealth Games and only silver medal in the Olympics were won by China-born sportsmen Chua Phung Kim and Tan Howe Liang respectively. Singapore’s class of 60’s sportsmen who enjoyed a great deal of sporting success was initially born in countries which included India, Malaysia, Britain and others.
But since those heydays, Singapore has evolved to establish its own identity. These days, even with the influx of foreign-born who take up Singapore citizenship, only those born and bred in Singapore are perceived to be true-blue Singaporean.
Recently, there has been a lot of hype about Singapore doing well in the sports arena. Li Jiawei, Jing Junhong, Li Li and Ronald Susilo who are all foreign talents recruited to play under the crescent and stars flag, are some who have upped the ante for Singapore sports. These successes have also sparked off a national debate on recruiting foreign talent and Singapore’s reliance on foreign talents for sporting success. And true enough, justifications to inculcate foreigners into Team Singapore have been floated by the various strata in Singapore’s sporting fraternity but Singaporeans remain divided on this issue.
The most heard of justification is that sports talents around the world are wooed, transferred and nurtured across national boundaries and the introduction of foreign talents in sports is a global phenomenon which many countries practice. These countries are in fact very supportive to the idea of foreign players representing their countries for sports and even rejoice their victories very passionately and intimately. It is even construed that such movements are inevitable in the sports arena. Thus many feel that it is justifiable for Singapore to also support and agree to such ideas. To support this claim, it is usually cited that half of the French soccer team of 1998 are made up of immigrants and ex-Chinese champions donning state colours for the European countries in table tennis.
The statement that the majority of the players who won France the World Cup in 1998 were not French by birth should be taken with a pinch of salt. The unexposed fact is that in that majority of non-French born players, majority of them had lived in France or French colonies their entire lives. These players were in fact groomed and nurtured by the country for many years before they could represent the nation and not just bought or brought over to represent the country.
Another argument that surfaces is that Singapore has always been tapping on foreign talent in other areas to strengthen its economic competitiveness and therefore sport is just a logical extension of what is already taking place in other areas. Even Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Tony Tan was quoted as saying that Team Singapore has to exercise flexibility and innovation to become a sporting powerhouse in Asia and likened the situation to Singapore Inc, which did it for the economy through foreign talent.
But should Singapore jump into the bandwagon of recruiting foreign talents to win honours in international sporting events? Generally, sports and economy are miles apart in the minds and hearts of Singaporean. In Singapore, sport is equated with national pride and national identity. It would therefore take a massive paradigm shift to view a goal scored by Egmar Goncalves; a Brazilian turned Singaporean to a French banker concluding a deal for DBS. The image of Fandi Ahmad or Ang Peng Siong delivering the goods is felt with more pride and intense. Therefore, the analogy of likening sports to economy and induction of foreign talent as an extension of prevailing foreign talent induction policies does not necessarily justify foreigners playing for Team Singapore.
Another major retort ion by the major sports agencies is directly tied to the size of the population of Singapore. It is often argued that Singapore’s small population and limited talent pool does not have the depth and diversity to throw up world beaters like China, USA and even Malaysia. Hence to overcome this problem, Singapore has to tap on foreign talents to expand its pool of sporting talent. The words of Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew that foreign talent is the ‘key to Singapore’s future’ as Singapore’s small population could not produce enough talent is used extensively as an obvious shield.
A team playing to its strength is a major factor in any successful sports team. Should this not be translated to a nation’s success in sports? Denmark and Sweden are relatively small countries with small population but have done remarkably well in badminton and table tennis respectively. Singapore should thus take a narrower approach and focus on the relative strength of its population and concentrate on sports like swimming, athletics, bowling and soccer than dabble into acquiring success in many disciplines of sport by acquiring foreign talent. How many would have forgotten the exploits of Denmark; a country with small population, in Euro 1992?
It has always been highlighted that foreign talent bring with them skills and experience which our local players lack and can learn from thus bringing about a more competitive and dynamic sports environment in Singapore. Even the recruitment of coaches and technical directors in the respective sport is justified to add invaluable quality to the sports scene.
It is agreed that these foreign talent contribute to raise the quality of local sports but our argument is that these foreign talents should be brought in as sparring partners to play or train with the locals rather than represent the nation. This will help local and youth development. A fine example is Singapore’s Tan Paey Fern, the only Singapore-born table-tennis player who managed to achieve two bronze medals because of “her regular practices and sparring sessions with her China-born team mates”.
Another cause for concern with these benefits of foreign talent is the phenomenon that seems to correlate with the influx of foreign import which is the premature death of the sporting careers of local sportsmen; with the usual excuse of other commitments, studies and dwindling interest cited for these retirements. Tay Paey Fern, Fatimah Kumin-Lim, and Patrick Lau are just a few names that crop up to mind on this issue.
The sad truth behind these ‘cover up excuses’ is that the local sportsmen and sportswomen are losing their trust in the system and are being squeezed out of the sporting system. These local sporting heroes have struggled all their lives to reach the pinnacle of local sporting excellence in their respective fields and are then nudged out effortlessly by foreign challengers. In this fittest survives world, it makes logical sense to play someone good and expensively recruited more often but there is definitely no golden rule on not to protect locally born and bred sportsmen who have served this nation with pride and unselfishness over the years.
Furthermore, like our table tennis team, if half or three quarter of the national team is going to be ‘sardine packed’ with imports, it would realistically dash the dreams of many budding local talents in representing their birth place. This vicious cycle could facilitate in motivating parents even more to discourage their children from taking up sports and will eventually lead to a massive death of local sports talents.
Even the notion of recruiting foreign talent for coaching and technical roles does not necessarily spell success. Although Douglas Moore and Ron Hoppe did great jobs as coaches for the soccer and bowling team, whatever Jan Poulsen and Ken Worden did for the soccer team was contrary to the term ‘sporting success’. On hindsight, technical expertise hired on a consultative basis with systems put into place for local coaches and technical directors to leverage on this expertise would serve the nation’s interest better.
Some section of the society feels that Singapore has no passion or special abilities in sports unlike those medium-size countries such as Australia and Malaysia. Since Singapore is a meritocracy based country, studies and career are considered more important to Singaporeans. Hence, Singaporeans channel most of their time and energy primarily to getting a good degree and earning a living, with little time for sports except maybe to watch it. Often, parents are skeptical of their children involvement in sports as they see no future in them.
The current behaviour of giving sport the back seat in Singapore is changing albeit slowly. Singapore has evolved from a third world to a first world country and with this affluence, comes the need for self actualisation and potential fulfillment. Recent trends suggest that young Singaporeans are willing to shelve their studies to plunge headfirst into the sea of sports in order to realise how far they can go. This paradigm shift nullifies the claim that Singaporean are turning away from sports. The newly formed Singapore Sports School is an exemplary model to demonstrate the changing values, attitudes and priorities in Singaporeans’ lives.
Singapore’s strong financial strength is another plus factor that has been cited to recruit foreign talent. The rich government coffers which grants the sports agencies seed money therefore enhances their ability to lure foreign talent to represent Singapore. As most of these foreign talents are paid relatively lowly in their country of origin, the sports officials argue that this is an attractive alternative to nurture champions.
It is conceivable that these foreign talents are paid relatively lower but the bigger picture reveals that these foreign talents do not come cheap either. It is not really equitable and justifiable to splurge tax-payers money on a $25,000 a month salary for Jan Poulsen, the former national soccer coach from the government’s coffers. It seems to make more sense investing our very own dollars on our very own people rather than on mercenaries who pledge their service to whoever offers the highest price.
The respective sports agencies also claim that what they are doing is to shorten the learning curve needed to win major honours internationally by bringing in this foreign talent. They also argue that this would be a wise alternative to move Singapore up the ladder of success in sports in a shorter span of time in order to achieve world class status.
This answer through foreign talent to shorten learning curve could very well be a short-term fix and myopic in nature if Singapore were to keep on enticing players past their primes and use-by-date to compete under the Singapore banner. This would inevitably lead us back to square one when these players retire. Player like Jing Junhong, a former world beater has done the trick for table tennis but the ‘sporting glory’ garnered by imports like Zhao Jianhua, Egmar Goncalves and Mirko Grabovac were more south-bound than north-bound. And there are many more non-mention-worthy names that have come and gone without causing any ripples in the sporting scenes.
Sports officials in Singapore usually counter argue and cite Singapore’s current young prodigies like Li Jiawei and Ronald Susilo who were mere nobodies when adopted but turned into world beaters after careful nurturing in Singapore. Their answers to queries on short-termism and myopic practices usually hinge on the fact that these players have done the nation proud in the past few competitions and will continue to do so for a long term.
Our argument to this counter argument is that if the sports agencies’ nurturing formulae were fool-proof, then these successful formulas should be translated to our very own Indra Shahdan, Kendrick Lee and Jaime Wong who will be the flag bearers for Singapore sports in the near future and that lead us to ponder why the need to bring in foreign players? Furthermore, shot-putter Dong Enxin and shuttler Rong Muxi who were bright and young talents who have been expensively nurtured, have let down Singapore on a few occasions and there are many more nurtured talents whose failures have been swept under the carpets.
In conclusion, as far as sport is concerned, we should not follow the global phenomenon of getting foreigners to represent Singapore since national pride and national identity are highly valued in Singapore sport. Thus, Singaporeans will only feel the ultimate glory with pure Singaporeans representing the country. Moreover, with Singapore’s affluence and the need for self actualization and potential fulfillment, we have the probable ability to produce our very own outstanding and passionate sportsmen to represent our country. As relying on foreign talent is a short-term solution, myopic in nature and expensive, Singapore should therefore focus and fine-tune local sportsmen to become future world champions. Hence, the verdict that Singapore sport should not depend on foreign imports.
It would definitely go down better in history if a local sports personality can emulate Dr. Benedict Tan’s sailing win in the Asian Games; where Singapore savoured every moment. Popular reception of the first Olympic gold medal won by a foreigner in national colours will be less than euphoric and hence the vote too to veto foreigners from Team Singapore.
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