In a year without many blessings to count, Singapore has found one in the traditionally joyless international sports arena.
But it has come after a sizeable investment of time, money and controversy centred on the contribution of several foreign-born athletes that gave Singapore sports its best year ever.
Singaporeans are among some of the world’s most competitive people but sport has never been an area in which they have excelled.
Most of the collective energy had been channelled to economic growth.
Instead of making out at the sports field, Singaporean youths spend their weekends across the tuition table, fighting for a place in a prestigious school and a good job.
As a result, gold medals were hard to come by. Last year was an exception.
It gave this city’s four million people some rare achievements to savour as the republic had one of its best showings in the Commonwealth Games and Asian Games.
It emerged from the Commonwealth Games in Manchester last August with a surprising haul of four gold, two silver and seven bronze medals. This is more than all the medals Singapore has won in the past 44 years.
Two months later in the 14th Asian Games in Pusan, Singapore finished in 13th place, one spot behind Malaysia, with five golds, two silvers and 10 bronzes, an improvement of its 2-3-9 medals won in Bangkok in 1998.
To some Singaporeans, the role of foreign imports – several Chinese table-tennis and badminton girls and an Indonesian badminton man – has diminished some of the lustre.
Most of them came several years ago and became citizens under the state’s programme of importing talent.
For the nation’s planners, sport is not only part of nation-building but also economic development.
Some 18 months ago, even as the economy was turning downwards, the government launched a S$500mil programme to make Singapore one of the top 10 sporting nations in Asia. It also set up a Sports Ministry.
The money goes not only to developing facilities, importing foreign coaches, and sending promising Singaporeans for training abroad.
Central to it is a scheme to identify young foreign athletes and grant them citizenship so they can help to win championships. It involves mapping out a study-and-career programme.
Those selected include Chinese provincial school champions in table-tennis, badminton, basketball and field athletics and promising badminton and tennis stars from Indonesia.
Although theirs is traditionally a migration society, some Singaporeans do not want to see Singapore win sports medals in this manner.
“I’d rather see our resources spent developing our own home-grown talent,” said one sports fan.
There’s no pride in spotting and buying foreign talent, he said.
“What message are we sending out to our promising young sportsmen?” Yeo Eng Chin wrote in a local newspaper. “Work hard, play hard but take a back seat when it comes to international contest. Let the foreign imports do the job.”
Others, however, disagree, saying this has become a world norm. Perfunctorily, many of China’s table-tennis, badminton and gymnastic stars are representing European countries.
Besides, Singapore has long been courting skilled foreigners in science, research, medicine and business fields, so why not in sports, proponents argue.
Recently, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew weighed in the debate to say that even the United States, with 280 million people, needed to top up with foreign talent.
If Singapore did not want to be relegated to the second or third division in world-class contests, it would have to welcome foreign talent and make them feel part of the Singapore team, said Lee.
His remarks came in the wake of heated debate over Singapore’s achievements at the Commonwealth Games. Detractors had questioned whether they were genuinely Singaporean.
“In this age of mass travel and migration, Singapore will lose a part of its own talent, but we must retain a hard core of dedicated Singaporeans as the main pillar of our society,” Lee said.
Last week, the government announced it would soon launch a worldwide advertisement campaign to woo the “best brains in the world” to Singapore by featuring some of its key figures in various fields.
The issue appears to have become entangled with the public debate against foreign workers in times of historical unemployment. Those who favour job protection are generally opposed to imported sportsmen.
At a time when more than 100,000 Singaporeans are out of jobs, keeping the doors open is not a popular argument these days.
Out of the four players in the Commonwealth gold medal tabletennis team, one is Singapore-born, while another, Jing Junhong, is married to a Singaporean. The others are China-born.
In a random newspaper survey of 52 people, slightly more than half say it does not matter where the players were born.
“They have given up their nationality and have become Singaporeans. They are Singaporeans. No more, no less, just like you and me,” said Environment Minister Lim Swee Say.
What is not debated is the scheme’s success as proven in the Commonwealth and Asian Games. More achievements appear to be on the way.
The next game that will benefit from the scheme is women’s basketball. Six China-born girls, aged between 14 and 15, are making an impact since their arrival two years ago.
Last month they were given permanent residency status. Their assignment this year: Win the South-East Asia Games in Vietnam in December.
These are full-time players, training twice a day, six days a week. They do not attend school but learn English on their own.
One of Singapore’s successful acquisitions from Indonesia is junior college student Ronald Susilo, who beat world No. 7, South Korean Shon Sheung Mo, in Singapore.
But not everything is hunky-dory in the past year.
Last month, its highly-valued football team was humiliated 0-4 by a young Malaysian team in a Tiger Cup match, resulting in the sacking of national coach Jan Poulsen.
It also created a black hole in the state’s ambitious plan to win a place in the World Cup soccer finals by 2010.
More important, it proves that money by itself without the talent is not enough.
o Seah Chiang Nee is a veteran journalist and editor of the information website littlespeck.com (e-mail: cnseah2000@ littlespeck.com )
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