Regardless whether you bring back the gold or silver medal, you are already a hero to many Singaporeans! Well done!
This is just one of the messages of support that Derek Wong received after news broke that the Singaporean shuttler had made it to the final of the Commonwealth Games men’s badminton singles. Son of former top Singaporean badminton player Wong Shoon Keat, Derek took silver on Sunday after losing out to India’s Kashyap Parupalli. The younger Wong was until relatively recently an also-ran in the sport, before his rapid improvement since turning professional.
Another Singaporean who won a silver medal was Joseph Schooling, a Eurasian Singaporean swimming prodigy who came in after Chad le Clos in the men’s butterfly final. His victory was met with great fervour. “Against the massive Australian wave… this is a huge achievement. Well done and thank you for raising the Singapore flag at the swimming arena,” commented one fan on Facebook.
However, not all Singaporean medallists were so popular with the fans, even those who won gold medals. The Singapore table tennis team won six of the seven gold medals on offer at the games, but were roundly criticized. On Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Facebook page, where he praised all the Singaprean medalists, there were a significant number of negative comments. Jahangir Ibrahim wrote, “What proud it can make when 90% are from China. Why [do] we need quick success instead of homegrowing our telent (sic) and enjoy whatever they bring back home. Success should be natured not purchased.”
Muhammad Shameer summed up the general sentiment with his statement, “I would like to see more Singapore-born athletes given a chance.”
TheSingapore badminton and table tennis team, particularly, were targeted. The former had many naturalised professionals who were born in Indonesia, while the table tennis team was made up of naturalised professionals from China. Australian table tennis veteran Willian Henzel recently criticised the Singapore’s table tennis setup: “[The Singapore Table Tennis Association] decided it was much easier and quicker to buy a team rather than produce a team.”
In 2010, the Singapore women’s table tennis team upset the Chinese team by winning gold in the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Moscow. At the time, the Singapore team was criticised by the Chinese media for being a China ‘B Team’. Even Singaporeans heaped scorn on the team, with many claiming that they did not feel proud of the victory. Earlier in the last decade, when the table tennis team first won a gold for Singapore, they were criticized for being unable to sing the national anthem.
The common thread uniting the criticism from Henzel, Singaporean online commenters and the Chinese media was the idea of ‘growing one’s own timber’. Many Singaporeans in praising Schooling, Ser, Wong and Teo made mention that these were “true blue” Singaporeans.
When the Singapore LionsXII won the Malaysian Super League in 2013 they were received with great fanfare on their return to Singapore. The team also received a special mention from the Prime Minister at the national day rally.
The use of professional sportsman from other nations to represent Singapore has stemmed from the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. While sports such as badminton, table tennis, athletics and (for a while) football embraced the scheme, others, such as swimming, sailing, shooting and bowling, rejected it.
The football team has since stopped pursuing foreign talent and has put in place a system to focus on youth. Some top youngsters have been given youth contracts in France (Adam Swandi), Brazil (Mahatir Azeman and Vishaal Thaniyath) and Chile (Irfan and Ikshan Fandi). Irfan and Ikshan Fandi, sons of local footballing legend Fandi Ahmad, had been training in Chile backed by their father’s money without support until the CIMB Bank from Malaysia announced a full sponsorship of the youngsters. Azeman was almost unable to train in Brazil until the chairman of a football club personally forked out money for the young man to go. His compatriot Vishaal got in after former national footballer R Sasikumar and a Brazilian coach flew to Brazil to ask the club for a chance for the young boy. Swandi was the only player helped by the Football Association of Singapore.
Sport is one of the greatest unifiers in society, especially when sporting achievements can inspire society and bring people together. Singaporeans from the older generatiosn proudly recall the city-state’s halcyon sporting past and sportspersons such as Patricia Chan, C Kunalan, Fandi Ahmad, Ang Peng Siong, Fred de Souza, S Rajagopal and Samad Allapitchay. These were people average Singaporeans could identify with.
Too often the Singapore Athletic Association has funded naturalised athletes, while neglecting homegrown talent. At the 2013 South East Asian games the association spent a lot of money to convince naturalised female throwers Zhang Guirong and Du Xianhui – aged 35 and 32 respectively and widely considered prima donnas – to return to represent the team. They won gold and silver. In the previous games a local thrower, Wan Lay Chi, (aged 21 in 2011) had won silver. She retired from the sport in 2013, saying, “Sometimes I ask myself, what am I doing all these things for… I’m not against the association and it’s not their fault (for asking Du to return), but it’s very disappointing… I thought to myself, ‘What else do I need to do to get support?’ It’s heartbreaking for me.”
Another young thrower, Scott Wong (then viewed as the next king of the shot putt in Singapore) has since become a weightlifter and won his first gold medal three months after switching sports after the association refused to help fund his training.
One could argue that a silver or bronze from Scott or Wan would be more inspiring than athletes who are brought in specifially to win gold.
It is not about where a person is born though. Many foreign-born athletes do have the backing of the average Singaporean, such as Ronald Susilo, Jing Junhong and Chayut Triyachart. The difference is that they have been here for years and are considered Singaporeans. They were not brought in purely to win medals. Identification with the Singapore experience could be what “true blue” really means.
The quality of a medal is not just the metal it is made of, but the meaning it has for wider society. No medal may sometimes be even better than gold.