Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, Vivian Balakrishnan certainly pulled no punches in the week gone by. In an adjective laden tirade, he referred to some Singaporeans as “small-minded, unfair and very very selfish”.
What did Singaporeans do to deserve to be on the end of this tongue lashing?
The anecdotally popular explanation posits that Singaporeans were not euphoric enough about the victory of the Singapore table tennis team’s astounding achievements at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in Moscow at the end of May, where the threesome of Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Bei Bei upset reigning world champions China and were crowned champions for the first time in Singapore’s history.
Born in China, Feng Tianwei began training in Singapore in March 2007 and became a citizen in January 2008. Wang Yuegu, another China-born athelete-turned-Singaporean is a Meritorious Service Medal recipient thanks to her silver medal winning performance at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Along with Sun Bei Bei, all three were head-hunted and given the opportunity of representing Singapore in table tennis. Some, like Feng, were already professional players before being coaxed to don national colours.
When asked by a student about the need to engage foreign talent in sports, particularly from China, the Minister responded with a textbook false dilemma.
“I believe that the survival and prosperity of Singapore depend on our remaining an open society – a society able to attract and absorb and integrate talent of all shapes, sizes, races, languages, religions, countries….In other words, do not judge people simply on where they are born.”
The Minister would have been better served uncovering the root causes of the largely insipid reaction of many Singaporeans with the table tennis team’s victory, rather than suggesting that Singaporeans were being xenophobic and instinctively unwelcoming of foreigners.
Firstly, Vivian must know that not all Singaporeans are desperate for the republic’s sportsmen and women to be world champions or even any sort of champion at whatever cost. And Singaporeans do not appreciate taking the short-cut route to medals or championships where only victory is the benchmark of success.
The minister must have some recollection of Singaporean sportsmen and women of the 1970s and 1980s. The Mah Li Lians, Fandi Ahmads, Ang Peng Siongs, Azman Adnans, Grace Youngs, Patricia Chans and C. Kunalans of this small nation never achieved olympic or international success like the paddlers of today. But they always had the support of Singaporeans in overwhelming numbers. A medal at the regional Southeast Asian games was reason enough for merry-making. Success at the Asian games was equivalent to success at the Olympics! For a small country with a limited sporting talent pool, a sparse trophy cabinet did not minify the self-respect of Singaporeans.
With our much-cherished sporting heritage as a backdrop, Vivian ought to resist the temptation of selective amnesia and admit to the debilitative effects of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)-administered foreign talent-in-sports policy on Singapore and Singaporeans. The striking oddity is that success in sports often unites a nation like no other policy or social phenomenon can. In what must be a world-first, as Minister of Sports, Vivian has overseen a sporting policy that has divided Singaporeans sharply. By any stretch of the imagination, surely Singaporeans cannot be blamed for the poor political judgment of the PAP.
Secondly, Vivian’s diatribe conveniently ignores Singapore society’s discomfort at the PAP’s admission of large numbers of foreigners into Singapore from the middle of the last decade. This policy, ubiquitously referred to as the ‘foreign talent policy’ has in many cases led to job losses for Singaporeans and depressed wages for low-income Singaporeans in particular. The lack of enthusiasm for the victory of our paddlers, foreigners-turned-citizens themselves, has fallen victim to the public’s antipathy against a seemingly unconnected and larger phenomenon.
By feigning ignorance of the knock-on effects of the foreign talent policy, Vivian unsurprisingly, missed the woods for the trees. The PAP has been remiss in communicating the necessity of large numbers of foreigners into Singapore and winning over the public’s support for the foreign talent policy. While Singaporeans recognise and welcome foreigners to top-up the population numbers because of the country’s low total fertility rate (TFR), no PAP minister has come out to explain or justify with any conviction why the Singapore population must expand indefinitely, beyond the population replacement figure. A common metaphor heard among PAP grassroots workers is the Singapore pie will be enlarged and there will be more to eat for Singaporeans as a result of more foreigners. What they do not seem to appreciate is that a larger pie will have to feed a larger number of citizens as well.
Worse, the PAP has made little attempt at revealing to the public what sort of impact the foreign talent policy will have on infrastructure, and what sort of lives Singaporeans can expect to live in country that is already one of the most densely populated in the world. Instead, the PAP has showcased its blueprints for the future, such as the prospect of waterfront living public housing, while shrewdly avoiding any serious enquiry into the affordability of such apartments for the vast majority of Singapore society.
Thirdly, Singaporeans are already confirming their suspicions of the larger PAP grand strategy, as far as the foreign talent policy is concerned. With foreigners already comprising 36% of the country’s population, the party in government that offers citizenship to foreigners is likely to be assured of their vote. The PAP has offered citizenship very gradually from the 1990s, with the number of Singapore citizens rising, in spite of the country’s low TFR rates, from 2.6 million to 3.2 million today. The number of Permanent Residents, a stepping stone to full citizenship status, has also increased from around 110,000 to 530,000 over the same period. While the political impact of a larger number of foreigners-turned-voters cannot be understated, once again, it appears our paddlers have had to take the brunt of public misgiving by virtue of being recent citizens themselves.
By lashing out at Singaporeans for expressing their genuine feelings over the foreign talent in local sports, all Vivian succeeded in doing was to present in distinct relief, the poor political acumen of PAP politicians. A few years ago, a retired civil service stalwart, Ngiam Tong Dow, who was Permanent Secretary of six ministries in a distinguished public service career, prophetically observed, “I think our leaders have to accept that Singapore is larger than the PAP.” Indeed, Vivian would do well to recognise that Singaporeans have genuine concerns that transcend politics, and the PAP would do well not to ride roughshod over them. By transferring the burden of a poorly executed and communicated foreign talent policy back to Singaporeans, Vivian’s tirade was disingenuous.
But where does all this leave our paddlers? Between a rock and hard place it would seem, through no real fault of their own. Rather than castigate Singaporeans, Vivian should ruminate over the shortcomings, mistakes and failures of the PAP foreign talent policy both in general, and in the sporting domain specifically. And if he is willing to engage in candid and sincere introspection, he ought to accept the lion’s share of responsibility, rather than fob it off to Singaporeans whose only mistake it would seem, was revealing the truth to him.
Pritam Singh is the Founder of OpinionAsia and presently a Juris Doctor candidate at the Singapore Management University. He is a Workers’ Party member. The views expressed herein are his own.