In the light of Joseph Schooling’s Olympic triumph and all these discussions about sporting culture and the Foreign Talent Scheme (FTS), I feel a need to pen some of my thoughts.

Let me first congratulate Joseph Schooling on his enormous feat. To qualify for the finals in the Olympics is already a huge accomplishment; to win the gold medal is astronomical. He’ll forever be remembered as that chap from Singapore who toppled the great Michael Phelps, and he has made all of us Singaporeans extremely proud.

The response to Schooling’s win was unanimous. Everywhere I go, every Singaporean has nothing but praises for him and his parents. It is as if everyone is united under the Schooling umbrella. Such is the wonder of what an Olympic win by a homegrown kid can do.

Flashback to the 2008 and 2012 Olympic Games, when our table tennis team brought back the silver and bronze medals. I remember the reactions of Singaporeans on those two occasions were quite different. Sentiments were mixed. There were those who rejoiced, there were also those who denounced it as “those are medals bought, not won”. So why the mixed reactions?

This is how I see it:

Whenever someone from this little Red Dot goes overseas to represent the country, be it sports, music or arts, people want to feel a part of themselves being represented. Someone whom they can relate to, someone who can speak Singlish, someone who knows his la, lor and leh, someone who loves fried carrot cake, like Joseph Schooling, someone who went through the rigorous Singapore education system. Basically, the Singaporean Identity.

When we bring in foreign players to represent the country, I have no doubt they are going to go to the Olympics to play their hearts out (so those who comment that they will not give their 100%, I think that’s uncalled for), but there is always that nagging feeling that something is missing. The Singaporean Identity. These players do not speak like us, they spent their childhoods somewhere else, they do not have to serve National Service, which is a very integral part of being Singaporean. They may be carrying the pink IC and the national flag, but deep within, where is the Singaporean Identity?

I personally think the FTS is a very divisive thing. Some support it, some do not, and I often see quarrels between the two camps online. When a homegrown kid in Joseph Schooling wins a gold medal, the nation is united and everyone celebrates.

Joseph Schooling had a dream to win the Olympics from a young age, and he made the dream happen.

From an educator’s point of view, when our table tennis team is made of entirely foreign imports, we are almost crushing the dreams of many young table tennis players in schools who may have big dreams to represent Singapore. The message we are telling them is: “We are only interested in foreign imports.” On the other hand, every young swimmer now dreams of becoming the next Joseph Schooling.

So what do I think is the best solution? The money that is used for the FTS should be used on our local young sporting talents. Give them the fullest support, be it money or training facilities. They should not have to go around asking for fundings or worry about bread and butter issues. When they are ready, we send them overseas for competitions. If they come back with medals, that will be a bonus; if not, we will still be very proud of them for having put up their best performances against the best in the world.

As Joseph Schooling put it, he hopes his win will bring about changes in the local sporting culture.

Surely we can’t equate our success to the number of medals or trophies.

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