From Ping Pong Diplomacy to Ping Pong Capitalism Part 2: Raising Singaporean Hackles

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Singapore’s Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu pose with their silver medals on the podium after the table tennis women’s team finals of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Singapore has been aggressive in recruiting foreign athletic talent. Trying to punch above its weight, this nation of 5.6 million has a government program called the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) in which the government recruits foreign athletes with promises of income and training support. In exchange, the incoming athlete takes up Singaporean nationality and represents Singapore in international sporting events.

In 2008, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained that the FST is one tactic in a strategy to bring the world’s best talent to Singapore, and thus continue to raise the capability bar.

In the Olympics contingent, there are 25 members, half of whom are new Singaporeans. Why do we need them? Make a single calculation. The Chinese have 1.3 billion people. Singapore has a population of four million … If we want to win glory for Singapore and do well not only in sports but in many other areas, we cannot merely depend on the local-born. We need to attract talent from all over … Look at the Beijing Olympics. Tao Li, the swimmer, she’s done very well. The women’s table-tennis team … they have won an Olympic medal. We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team, and we can reduce our constraints. So let us welcome and let us encourage them.

When Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu won the team bronze medal for Singapore at the 2012 Olympics in London, it was a moment of mixed feelings for Singaporeans. Yes, Singaporeans won an Olympic medal. But were they Singaporean, or mercenaries? According to this 2012 blog post, this did not resonate as a Singaporean victory.

According to a poll by Yahoo! Sports, 77 per cent of the 17,227 respondents polled over three days said they would not be proud if a foreign import won an Olympic medal for Singapore.  It is not clear if the respondents had in mind Singapore’s table tennis teams, which were almost entirely made up of China-born athletes, but they were the only athletes representing Singapore with any real chance of winning any medals.

However, when swimmer Joseph Schooling triumphed over legend Michael Phelps of the US, Chad Le Clos of South Africa, and László Cseh of Hungary in the 100-meter butterfly finals in Rio this past August, Singaporeans went mad over the hometown boy who beat the very best in the world. Schooling is a third-generation Singaporean, and that makes all the difference in the world, according to this blog post from The Online Citizen.

Whenever someone from this little Red Dot goes overseas to represent the country, be it sports, music or arts, people want to feel a part of themselves being represented. Someone whom they can relate to, someone who can speak Singlish, someone who knows his la, lor and leh, someone who loves fried carrot cake, like Joseph Schooling, someone who went through the rigorous Singapore education system. Basically, the Singaporean Identity.

When we bring in foreign players to represent the country, I have no doubt they are going to go to the Olympics to play their hearts out (so those who comment that they will not give their 100%, I think that’s uncalled for), but there is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. The Singaporean Identity. These players do not speak like us, they spent their childhoods somewhere else, they do not have to serve National Service, which is a very integral part of being Singaporean. They may be carrying the pink IC and the national flag, but deep within, where is the Singaporean Identity?

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Joseph Schooling Celebrated in Singapore

What’s interesting to me is that Schooling did not develop his world-class skills in Singapore. He did so at the University of Texas in the United States, where he competed among the very best, including Phelps. According to this article in Today Online, some of the comments in support of the Foreign Sports Talent scheme were Singaporean athletes, who “called on the universities to improve on and emulate the United States’ National Collegiate Athletic Association’s competitive environment by attracting top athletic talents to local institutions to compete and train among local athletes.”

Here’s how Singapore Sailing Federation president Benedict Tan and Minister for Social and Family Development argued the point.

By attracting world-class talents here and being in the system, it raises standards, and when you have real competition, they really level up. (Local) universities have been very forthcoming. But whether we create an (sporting) atmosphere or culture … it’s whether we have a critical mass of athletes.

This debate between head and heart is like a ping pong rally, back and forth…hopefully unending….