Hate the policy, love the paddler

Choo Zheng Xi / Editor-in-Chief

TOC Op-ed

It’s hard trying to explain the heady excitement I felt watching yesterday evening’s table tennis match. My friends and I were having our dinner at Jumbo Seafood and watching the live telecast of the match. Pieces of chili crab were flying as we cheered the Singapore team on, pumping our fists at every point scored, and thumping them at every one lost.I must admit I’m not a big sports fan, and I’m more knowledgeable about cabinet ministers’ idiosyncrasies than the rules of table tennis, but my friends and I were inspired enough to briefly contemplate picking it up recreationally.

Later in the evening over supper, patriotic fervor fading like a half-remembered dream, my friend turned to me and asked: “What do you think about this foreign talent thing ah? Quite cheapskate right?” The jingoistic pride we’d felt over chili crab had given way to a hardnosed discussion on our sports’ foreign talent policy.

If we rationalize our objections to importing foreign talent to win Olympic medals, the criticisms would be legion. The logical extreme of our Government’s foreign talent spotting policy is this: that with Singapore’s wealth, we could poach top talent from any country in any sport. This could seriously erode the value of a future Olympic medal.

What pride would Singaporeans feel if we won the next Olympic table tennis finals by buying over the entire victorious Chinese team? We could become overnight marathon champions by buying an African marathon team, bring in a gold-standard Chinese gymnastics team to keep our paddlers company, and if we’re willing to dip into our reserves, might even be able to afford Michael Phelps.

Experiential patriotism

A purely mercenary sports foreign talent policy running unchecked is frightening. It runs the risk of devaluing what I’ve identified as that most important pillar of patriotism, experiential patriotism.

Part of the reason we feel a sense of belonging to the country is pure coincidence: it’s where we were born, and grew up. We identify with it because its landmarks, food, people, language, are all blended seamlessly into what we associate in our consciousness with our country. Our experiences form a strong basis of attachment to our country, and this what we call patriotism.

By extension, we feel a sense of kinship with those who share these common mental markers.

This explains why we instinctively feel a surge of pride in Singapore’s first Olympian medalist, Tan Howe Liang. In the 1950s, Tan had no cash-awash Singapore Sports Association to finance his weightlifting hobby. He paid for his own training and expenses by working as a clerk at Cathay Organisation. After his Olympic win, there was no bounty for him to take. Tan tried unsuccessfully to start a restaurant business, before becoming a taxi driver for a period of time. He now lives in a three-room Housing Development Board (HDB) flat.

If there was ever a sporting legend whose tale mirrored the gritty reality of the Singaporean Everyman, Tan Howe Liang is it. His fairy tale is of the Brother’s Grimm, not the Walt Disney variety.

Contrast that with our new Singaporean Olympians, Feng Tian Wei, Li Jia Wei, and Wang Yue Gu. All three were brought into Singapore in their teens for a very specific purpose: to help Singapore win an Olympic medal. Feng Tian Wei was only brought into Singapore in 2007, and all three became naturalised citizens to assuage Singapore’s hunger for Olympic success.

The discomfort many Singaporeans feel over our female Olympic table tennis team’s success essentially boils down to this: the paddlers haven’t shared the pleasure and pain ordinary Singaporeans have growing up in Singapore. At the Olympic final, they had far more in common experientially with their opponents than they did with Singaporean fans.

Regardless of race, language or religion

Personally, I don’t really care that they were born mainland Chinese. What matters most to me is that they now wear our national colours. And while our paddlers did not share the formative experiences of many Singaporeans, I see much of the Singapore story in them.

If our nation looked itself in the mirror, we might realize that their experiences mirror the sense of nostalgia and social displacement our forefathers felt first arriving on our shores. Even the quintessentially-Singaporean Mr Tan was born in a village in Shantou, China.

Moving ahead, the debate over their roots reflects an increasingly-evolving Singapore Experience. New migrants are coming into Singapore at an increasingly fast rate, not just to play sport but to enter universities as friends, our workplaces as colleagues, and everywhere, yes, as competitors.

The rate of this influx is definitely something we need to regulate carefully. My personal sense is that we are importing talent at too fast a pace. However, I think the principle of the foreign talent policy is sound: if we can’t beat them, get them to join us, and when they become citizens, welcome them without qualification as one of our own.

While the word “Singapore” might conjure up different memories and connotations for Jia Wei and her team, at the end of the day they are taking the field wearing our national colours. While they may not have shared our experiences, the table tennis team shares a common hope and dream all Singaporeans do: to bring an Olympics medal back for our country.

While I feel some discomfort at the policy that brought them here, I can’t help but cheer our Team Singapore on with pride, regardless of their race, language or religion.


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