WINNING an Olympic gold threw a bright light on Joseph Schooling and the possibility of future homegrown talent turning in a winning performance.
Schooling’s success has just cast other sport in his shadow.
The murky fringes of sporting excellence is a breeding ground for dissatisfaction, with political manoeuvrings taking more prominence than excellence on the field, court or in the pool.
Table tennis, football and athletics are among the sports that have been dogged by power struggles and bickering off the field that have been more interesting than what’s taking place in the arena.
The S League has been anaemic at best, with occasional attempts to resuscitate it by bringing in the likes of Jermaine Pennant, who has since exited as the funds at Tampines Rovers dried up. Government intervention to assume key administrative positions at the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) have also thwarted the possibility of developing a stronger business model that could help raise salaries and interest levels. The aim should be to nurture, not hamper.
The choice of irrelevant mascots like rhinos, stags and dragons don’t help in building affiliation.
For a nation that is endowed with top-tier hardware, the software falls woefully short of expectation.
Showpieces may help bring in international tournaments like F1 and WTA, but they will not help boost the performance level of local athletes.
That requires more than dedication. It needs an infrastructure that is more about creating careers and champions, rather than token displays in the name of healthy lifestyles and community building.
So, is Singapore a sporting nation?
Edmond Pereira, Executive Director, Edmond Pereira Law Corporation
We got the best facilities in Asia, if not the world, but we are still lagging behind. Our facilities are the envy of the region but our performances are laughable!
We are a nation with a lot of sporting facilities but I don’t think that makes us a sporting nation.
We are really geared towards hosting many sporting events like the F1, rugby, swimming and even tennis now. It is great for the spectator but it seems to have done little for our own local sports.
Our sporting systems are broken; we need to rethink how we approach sports at all levels if we hope to see improvement in the coming years.
The key issue is at the lower levels of sport — the grassroots and school levels are not getting enough support and guidance. Schools understandably put too much emphasis on academics. I believe there is a sizeable budget for sports, but schools are not utilising them to their fullest potential. This is where our future champions will come from, and this area requires the most attention.
One way may be to look at the sporting systems overseas. The high school and collegiate sports system in the US, for example, is extremely competitive at all levels and it’s a breeding ground for new talent.
Sheik Alau’ddin Yacoob Marican, President, Mixed Martial Arts Federation of Singapore
We are trying now to make Singapore a sporting nation but the government can play a larger role to help create a better environment for sports in Singapore.
A separate ministry for sports might be necessary to have a clear direction and to create the right focus we need to achieve our sporting goals.
We may have one Olympic champion but a lot more development is required if we hope to see another.
The best place to start would be the schools — having strong youth-level sports can be the base to build successful national sports in the future. Support at lower levels is also lacking. Our national athletes are well taken care of, but some of that support needs to spread to the other levels to encourage more people to pick up sports. Right now, there are too many obstacles for our local sportsmen.
Fortunately, Mixed Martial Arts is growing rapidly thanks to the strong commercial forces behind it. There is great hunger here but we are lacking the recognition. Soon we hope to get MMA recognised as a sport at SEA Games and the Asian Games and ultimately into the Olympics too.
Cyrus Medora, CEO, Netball Singapore
While local sports in general have poor support, thankfully netball has been doing quite well. Singapore games drew crowds of 3,000 at the Asian Netball Championships in 2015 and there was a good turnout at the SEA Games too.
Support and participation are absolutely necessary to build a sporting nation. Our teams then have to be successful on the court to attract more people to the sport. Once we get people interested, more will play the sport and that gives us a sustainable access to future sporting talent.
Netball has done quite well in this regard; we have achieved 80% penetration in schools and our last interschool competition had 308 teams.
This has been the result of many years of initiatives to increase proliferation and a similar effort will be required for other sports, too.
The mindsets of schools have to change to encourage more children to participate in sports. Many schools are not promoting sports, they only support the “elite teams” that are capable of winning the medals. Kids who aren’t good enough or don’t make the first team don’t even get the chance to play the sports as a CCA. That needs to change if we hope to find new talent.
Alfred Dodwell, Lawyer, Dodwell & Co
We are not a football nation.
We used to be! We had the crazy following, the support, and most importantly, the stars too.
Football used to be a part of our lives, people enjoyed the game, and kids had a more “outdoors life”. There was no great initiative from various agencies, but the top players of yesteryear just came up the ranks. Kids now have no time for sports; they have all their time invested in academics.
There is no sports culture in Singapore today. Most other countries have it at all levels — they have football, cricket and rugby in the UK, ice hockey and basketball in Canada, American football and basketball in the US.
Where is our sport culture? All we ever want to think about is economic gain.
And the kids are losing out too. They have four to six examination periods a year but only one sports day in the school curriculum. How can we be a sporting nation if no one is participating in sports? That’s where we should be building sports — at the youth levels, where we can nurture and develop the future stars.
For football I hope to build from the ground up, from the grassroots levels to give more opportunities to the talent that is already there. We have to take responsibility to develop them, out current systems are not enough. More funding is needed to create a football ecosystem with multiple levels for talent to flow through. Take for example the systems in Europe, where they have processional and semi-professional leagues and also youth leagues where players are given opportunity to shine.
Our schools will also play an important role; we have to reintroduce football into schools as core co-curricular activities (CCA). We can then show parents that sports can be pivotal to the mental and character development of children.
We have made good progress over the last decade or so with various initiatives, but we are still light years away from sporting excellence. There needs to be a cultural change, a shift in mindsets before we can start to compete on the world stage.
He is contesting in the next FAS elections.
Benjamin Seow, Managing Director EK Paintball Group
Singapore is not a sporting nation. So much of our efforts are government initiated. Not many are willing to come forward and give it a go. There are exceptions, like Joseph Schooling, but they are few and far between. Our society doesn’t really support the ‘sportsman’. How can we call ourselves a sporting nation?
We have to build more industries and opportunities to make sports sustainable and give sportsmen an avenue to create a spark in local sports. Work is required across different levels — increasing participation is just a quick solution but follow through is required to have any lasting effect. In the short term, there has been improvement in trying to build a more active lifestyle. However, it will take much longer for mindsets to change and for people to take sports more seriously.
Paintball still falls outside conventional sport, so there is too much red tape and bureaucracy in trying to grow the scene in Singapore. Sports like floorball and tchoukball are doing very well in schools today, and I hope to have similar levels of involvement in paintball at the school level.
Enthusiasts, like myself, have been doing everything we can to play and increase the level of competition but I fear Singapore isn’t the best place for any sports to prosper.
Kenny So, CEO, Rflags (S) PTE LTD
The soft tip darts scene has grown rapidly over the last few years in Singapore. Now it has become very competitive with many pushing to join large-scale tournaments. Computerisation of systems has really helped proliferation of the sport, with many using it for leisure.
There is still stigma surrounding the sport because of its association with alcohol (bars and pubs are common venues for dart machine), this does pose a challenge when trying to promote the sport.
We need to educate people that it is more than just a drinking game — that it can be a serious competitive sport. We plan to bring darts into schools, teach student how to play, and introduce youth competitions to encourage teenagers to play darts. As a small and new sport, acquiring the funding to achieve these goals also pose a challenge.
Lee Lung Nien, President, Singapore Motor Sports Association
We are a definitely a sporting nation — we have the F1 and all the support races that come with it.
On the international scene, we haven’t cracked the F1 teams, but we still have drivers that are going overseas to take part at other levels. Singapore definitely has a presence in the regional karting circuit too. Local events, like the Rok Cup or the X30 Challenge, are also seeing increased international participation. Karting has been growing steadily in the last decade or so. Plans are underway for three new races next year, so interest and demand are growing.
Karting is a great starting point to promote racing and with three circuits locally, we are seeing more young people getting involved as well. Many hobby drivers also make trips up to Johor Circuit or Sepang International Circuit for races with their car clubs.
At the SMSA, I am shifting the focus to encourage more grassroots participation by reducing entry fees and other restrictions. I am aiming to strike a balance between improved competitiveness and also fun community events. By creating the environment, I believe we can encourage more people to participate and also promote excellence.