I am not celebrating

The following article is contributed by Anthony Yeo, Consultant Therapist. TOC thanks Anthony for taking the time to pen his thoughts for us.

Anthony Yeo

In the final analysis, the more I ponder over this matter, the more inclined I am to hang my head in shame as I am not celebrating our Olympics success.

Now that Singapore has finally won a medal at the Olympics after a 48-year wait, there is much euphoria and accolades for what the table-tennis team has achieved.

The Straits Times editorial of 18 August was all praise for the table-tennis players and their achievement, their being imports from China notwithstanding.

Likewise, columnist Chua Mui Hoong also categorically stated that,“No matter their country of origin, what matters is that Li, Wang and Feng, and many, many more of those watching the finals at home, and their forefathers – made a conscious choice to be Singaporean and to be part of Team Singapore”. (ST Aug 18, 2008)

As the nation celebrates, I am perturbed.

A need to make a distinction

It has to do with the perpetual issue about foreign talent. Put bluntly, we have adopted the view that for all intents and purposes, Singapore needs foreign talent. As the editorial affirmed, “The case will be made ad infinitum of why Singapore must continue to make itself welcoming of research scientists, artistes and creative people, entrepreneurs, academics and wealth creators. There is no substitute for skill.” (ST Aug 18, 2008)

Although we can acknowledge the value of foreign talent in the areas indicated in the editorial, we need to further clarify who these people are and their place in our society.

There is no need to debate the value of contribution that foreign talent can add to Singapore. It is axiomatic that an open society should be hospitable to such talent to augment the wealth of a nation, materially or otherwise. Nations have been enriched culturally and spiritually by the interaction of talents from all sources.

Unfortunately, we seem to misunderstand the infusion of foreign talent in the field of sports, mainly the table-tennis imports from China. There is a distinction we must make between importing talented foreign sportsmen and women and those others we attract to enrich other aspects of life in Singapore.

For one, other foreign talents may not necessarily make Singapore their home. That is a choice that is not denied to them. They come to offer their contributions and may or may not become citizens. This is true of scientists, academics, artistes, religious teachers and a host of talented people whom we welcome for enriching our nation.

We do not insist that they become citizens in order to make their presence and contribution felt, although some have been persuaded to take up citizenship. If they do, we embrace them as representatives of Singapore. If they do not, we will still acknowledge their contribution without claiming ownership.

Furthermore, when foreign talents come, Singaporeans can learn from them and in the process, may have the potential to replace them if necessary so that Singaporeans can benefit from their contribution. This will make us less dependent on foreign talent for an extended period. If need be, there can be a collaborative endeavour in harnessing talents for the enhancement of knowledge and skills in various disciplines.

There is a difference in the field of sports, namely the importation of foreign sports people for winning awards for Singapore.

Questions we need to ask ourselves

In the case of the table-tennis players, they were intentionally scouted and enticed to come to Singapore for the expressed purpose of helping us win in competitions — and in this instance to end Singapore’s Olympics medal drought.

In a sense these players from China have no choice but to be made citizens if they wish to represent Singapore. They also come to us with the sole intention of advancing their goal of being recognised sportswomen. Inasmuch as we want them to win for us, they also want to win on account of us. It is a reciprocal, symbiotic relationship that can be devoid of any values as it is deemed a fair exchange.

Yet there is a value issue for Singapore. It behooves us to search ourselves and be bold enough to ask certain questions.

The questions we may need to ask include:

– To what extent is this the way to go in building up our talent pool in the field of sports?

– What is our goal for participation in sports, just to win, or primarily to participate?

– What values are we communicating to our young in terms of how they should value themselves since we are implicitly placing greater value on those who can achieve by having such imports?

– How might such talented players contribute to nurturing local talent when they are mainly playing to win?

– In what way is sports “coming of age”, as declared by one government official, when we can have instant sportswomen groomed by others but capitalised by us for winning ways?

– To what extent might this stifle local talent, as it would take a longer time to nurture local sportsmen and women when we can easily import skilled players from elsewhere?

– What is the long-term commitment to Singapore from such imports and their ongoing contribution to development of sports in Singapore?

We must confront such questions and more, so as to think about what it means to aim for shortcuts to success in the field of sports. This may apply to other aspects of life for us, as we need to clarify as to what extent we wish to evolve a culture of short routes to success.


We need to consider how we could be instilling in the minds of our young that they are not valued as much as foreign talent, as it may take too long to nurture them to high-level performance. Could we unwittingly be communicating that we would prefer to import people than to invest money and energy to nurture local potential sportsmen and women? It could also be possible that we would be telling our young that it is not worth their efforts trying to aspire to be winners since we can always go hunting for ready-made winners.

Of course we may refer to other countries which do the same and proclaim that this is a normal practice elsewhere.

This obviously does not justify what we do as we often profess to be unique and that we need not always emulate other countries. We consider Singapore as not like any other and we pride ourselves in our ability to survive and flourish as a nation.

We do not need to do what others do just to aim for prized success.

Differentiating an immigrant from an import

Sometimes we refer to the fact that Singapore is a nation where our forefathers were primarily migrants. Hence there is no reason why we cannot now attract foreign talents to bolster our chances of success in every field and win Olympics medals as well.

This seems to confuse the issue, as we are not differentiating between an immigrant and an import.

For example, mention was made that all our Olympics medallists hail from China, with particular reference to Tan Howe Liang, our original silver medallist.

But there is a difference between Tan Howe Liang and the table-tennis China girls.

Tan Howe Liang migrated to Singapore, not to be a weightlifter or to win Olympics medals but to live and work. He made Singapore his home and became a weightlifter on his own initiative. When he finally made it to the Olympics, he did it with his own resources and when he returned as our hero, there was hardly any fanfare.

All that came much, much later with each Olympics that came along until he was relieved when he learnt that Singapore was on the way to winning an Olympics medal after what he had achieved so very long ago.

No shortcuts

If we truly wish to be a sporting nation, we cannot pay lip service and resort to shortcut measures for competitive sports. We may include foreign talent but our primary pool of sportsmen and women must be people of the soil.

Otherwise, we would be constantly sending a team from another country to play against the team from their country of origin. No wonder it was said that we had a B team from China representing Singapore playing against the A team from China.

If we were to stretch the argument further, what is to stop us from importing a whole football team from Brazil as intimated by a writer of the forum page (ST Aug 21) or any other sporting team from any country just to be winners in international competitions?

In similar vein, what would stop other sports from deciding on emulating the table-tennis association? Where do we draw the line?

In the final analysis, the more I ponder over this matter, the more inclined I am to hang my head in shame as I am not celebrating our Olympics success. In fact I am ashamed and deprived of a sense of dignity for being a Singaporean.


Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments