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Return the access to success to local sporting talents

By Irene Choo

Not too long ago my daughter and a couple of other skaters went to compete in the 9th Malaysia National Open Figure Championship. Competition was so rife that she almost broke down and started to be “obsessed with losing”. Fortunately, she managed to pick herself up quickly and with the encouragement from other competitors, she returned to the ice rink with more zest and determination to excel. Under the intensive training of her coach, she won a bronze in our Singapore National competition shortly after. That’s the spirit of sportsmanship that no textbook can ever teach!

After the incident, I am even more convinced of the benefits of participation in competition, especially at the international level. Other than building “winning attitude and confidence”, it also helps to develop positive coping skill to handle stressful or anxious moments. The purpose of competing is not just about winning medals, but rather “to prove to themselves and the rest of the world what they can do”.  In fact, “a competitive athlete will learn more from their failures then they do from their successes” as failure to win provides a chance to “evaluate performance”, and “renew commitment to training for the next competition or season” in order to achieve better performance next time. (Preparing Athletes for Competition Anxiety and Stress Management)

In short, participation in international competitions is not only essential, but an integral part of grooming world class athletes. Unfortunately, some of our athletes are not given the opportunities to gain the benefits of international tournaments, thanks to our Government's Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST). Take the sport of badminton and table tennis, for example, what is the proportion of local talents in our National team? How many of our children are given the opportunity to represent Singapore, and compete with their counterparts from the rest of the world? Without the international exposure, how much can they progress and prove their worth?

Worst, could our athletes be “robbed” of the “power of empowerment” because no matter how hard they try, they will never make it to the international podium as priorities are usually given to “foreign talents”?  And when our “parachuted talents” from foreign land abandon our country once they “no longer donning national colours” or threw in their towels right before international tournaments, the pills get even harder to swallow.

Recently, two more foreign-born shuttlers have quit the women's national team. Naturalised citizens Zhang Beiwen and Gu Juan left the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) in April and July respectively.  Both of them came to Singapore in 2003 under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FSTS) and received their citizenship papers in May 2007.  This is not the first time that both had issues with their coaches and quit the national team.

According to news reports, both of them quit the national youth team in 2008 because they felt the women’s singles chief coach Wang Junjie was not giving them enough attention in training.  Gu returned one and half years later, but quit again on last April 30, barely a month before the Uber Cup finals in New Delhi.

Zhang was described in the past as a ‘problematic player’.  In April 2008, she walked out of the national team to play for various clubs in countries like Malaysia and Taiwan.  But Singapore Badminton Association (SBA) persuaded her to return seven months later.   Soon after her South-east Asia Games debut in December 2009, she was suspended for 3 months for “poor attitude at training and tournaments”, “ill-discipline” and “failed to comply with her coach’s instructions on a number of occasions” first on May 24 2010 and then again on Jan 5 2011 before she was eventually dropped by the SBA after reportedly falling out with then-singles head coach Luan Ching.  The official explanation was “Beiwen had been lacking in discipline and determination, as expected of a professional and a national player."

Zhang has been based in Las Vegas for almost two years now, and has been playing for the US since last June.  Yet, SBA tried to persuade her to come back to the team again despite her strings of “fallout with the association and coaches”.  Why does SBA continue to “beg” her to play for Singapore when it is so obvious that her heart and loyalty is not with Singapore?

Does the desperation to recall these “foreign-born talents” have anything to do with our “over-reliance on foreign-born talent to rake in the medals” or “lack of sustainable pool of talents” to “feed our hunger for medals”?

Could the FST scheme help encourage complacency within the governing bodies of sport by providing a “shortcut” for NSA to “ buy medals” from overseas to enhance their profile instead of seeking measures to fulfil their social responsibility of nurturing and grooming local talents to help develop “organic growth” and build “sustainable sporting culture”?   While our “new immigrant athletes” enjoy privileges such as full sponsorship, allowance and bond free scholarship so that they can focus on their training, our children have to depend on themselves and families to help them stay on top of their game.

Obviously, the level of playing field is not to our own people’s advantage.

Even World No. 1 Badminton player Lee Chong Wei felt that “the recruitment of foreign-born players for the national squad” through Singapore Badminton Association compounded the difficulty for Singapore in producing world champions.

“My view is that this causes the locals to feel that they cannot compete,” he observed. “So, that’s probably one reason why Singapore has not been able to produce a local-born player of world-class standards.”  (“Tough for Singapore to produce world champions” Todayonline, June 1 2013)

Hence, our growing concerns over the FST scheme and the continuous influx of 2nd or 3rd tier foreign-born athletes in hordes into our training squads every year is not unfound. It does not seem appropriate to use our taxpayers’ money to help groom other countries’ “less competent” athletes instead of investing in our own kind, given that the sum of money is not small, but tens of millions. Are we investing wisely for our future or are we “squandering off” our peoples’ money?

Since last July we had been trying to highlight to the Sport Singapore (formerly known as SSC) of the dubious practice of imposing an admission fee on figure skaters that amounts to 9 times of the public to access training in our National/Community ice rink, the officers cited “insufficient sports fund”, “expensive utilities bills” and “different utilities subsidies” to explain the extraordinarily high charges that were rare, if not unseen in other parts of the world.   Such an excessive charges imposed on our athletes was a major barrier to adequate and effective training, discouraged wider participation and worsen talent drain.  When we pressed further, senior officers reportedly suggested we consider to “choose a cheaper sport”, or “sell away their house” or “leave Singapore for a cheaper country” to train if affordability is an issue.

Could the FST be eating into the resources meant for our own talents? Does the scheme help “catalyse the development of sport in Singapore”, raise the standard of local athletes or build “sporting pipelines for Singapore”? Or rather, it robs the opportunities to success from our children as they are denied of adequate training and deprived of the opportunities to interact and compete with their international counterparts?

We need to ask ourselves then, what are our priorities? To nurture and groom local talent so that we can have strong and sustainable sporting culture; or nurture foreign talents to compete and win medals for our country? Sadly, our government’s aims could be in stark contrast to the peoples’ goals and objectives.

While waiting for the authorities to reassess the shortcomings of their policy and put in more effort in grooming local talents, I may have to seriously consider the authorities’ proposal to “switch to a cheaper sport”, “sell away my house” or “leave Singapore for a cheaper country” to support my daughter’s passion in the sport of figure skating. She is not the first victim, and definitely not the last as long as the authorities remain “apathetic” to the inadequate support for our young.