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Happy Birthday Singapore! Your Sports Culture Sucks.

Before I start the article, I will like to note that most of the points I’m going to mention relate more to the sport of soccer, although they are still very much valid for the other sports.

And before you start reading, check out this amazing arrangement of 7 NDP songs in a sad-sounding minor key by Vint Mint. Feel free to play it in the background as you read through this rather lengthy article. Kinda helps with the mood.


At the recent Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow, Scotland, our Singapore team fared admirably against worthy opponents from different parts of the globe. Joseph Schooling broke the national record in the Men’s 100m Butterfly Finals, clocking the 4th fastest time in 2014. Derek Wong became the first Singaporean to reach the finals of the Badminton Men’s Singles event, while Chrisnanta and Triyachart were the first Singaporean duo to reach the finals of the Badminton Men’s Doubles event. Shooters Jasmine Ser and rising star Martina Veloso performed brilliantly in their respective events, and our table tennis contingent brought home six golds, two silvers and two bronzes.

Yet, the Republic’s reactions to our achievements are surprisingly worrying, with many expressing their discontent with a mostly foreign camp representing our nation.

And this has led me to think, what exactly is wrong with the sporting scene in Singapore?

By “sports culture”, some people may think that I’m referring to the policy of importing foreign players to play for our country. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme has always been a major talking point for Singaporeans when the topic of local sports arises, but most fail to realise that the faults of our failing system lie much deeper than that.

Singapore is an incredibly small and dense island. Travelling across the country usually means taking the MRT from the East to the West, a short 64-minute journey filled with silent, stressful looking commuters who are either glued to their phones, or praying that the train doesn’t break down again.

Most of the time though, they’re doing both.

Despite a lack of land and natural resources, Singapore still managed to establish itself as one of the most modernised and technologically advanced countries in the world. As such, she is overly reliant on the one thing we do not lack in. Not sex scandals, but people. As a result of this heavy dependence, Singapore has created a culture where education takes greater emphasis above anything else. Unfortunately, a dull, grim, environment where grades dictate almost everything became a byproduct of that mentality. From jobs, further education and society’s judgement, an individual’s sporting talents have rarely been considered as a valid plus point that’s deserving of merit.

PRAGMATISM IS GETTING IN THE WAY

From young, kids just study. Playtime, or rather, a lack thereof, is sacrificed as competitive parents begin to arm their kids in the pursuit of overall excellence. While they’ll lead to noteworthy social media postings, the bragging rights achieved aren’t worth it in retrospect, more so when they usually end up destroying the morale and confidence of a child. On top of expensive tuition classes and tightly scheduled enrichment activities, the 21st century’s parents’ quest of developing the ideal child has isolated the basic wants of their offspring – a chance to explore and enjoy their interests – in favor of a pre-determined route to ‘success’.

On the other hand, millennial parents are turning out to be such pushovers that they are constantly sucking up to their kids’ demands for smartphone usage in a bid to shut them up. With children nowadays preferring console games and e-sports over their real-life editions, fewer people are going out and investing their time and effort in sports over the long run.

With all these factors considered, the initiative to encourage youngsters to take on sports has been handed over to the government.

But here comes the first problem.

UNSUITABLE EDUCATION SYSTEM

How can a government expect their sports teams to succeed when they fail to implement an education system that ensures sufficient exposure to sports from young? In primary school, PE (physical education) lessons were inexplicitly an afterthought; the form teacher was in charge of all the lessons, and PE was pretty much sacrificed for extra English or Math lessons. Likewise for music classes. And Art as well. When I was in Secondary One and Two, I had three hours of Sports and Wellness (S&W) lessons every two weeks, and it probably withered down to two and a quarter hours as the teachers before the period kept releasing us late. Ironically, we had to be released early from S&W to prevent us from being late for the next lesson. In the polytechnic I’m studying in right now, there is only an one and a half hour lesson per week (it’s supposed to be two, but my teacher releases the class 30 minutes earlier) for 12 weeks.

A semester has 16 weeks.

After the 12 weeks, you probably won’t exercise (much) for the next two and a half years of your life. You either have to find time to do it yourself or join a CCA. Most will do neither, again, because of academics, and we’re back to square one.

Studies are more important, and this is evidently reflected in the long schooling hours and copious amounts of homework. One of my friends had to be in school every weekday from 7.30am to 9.30pm for compulsory lessons during his O-Level year. With pragmatism the preferred lifestyle choice for many Singaporean families, there is clearly a lack of time during the weekdays for most to hone their craft. The abundance of studies detailing how sleep deprived Singaporeans aren’t exactly helping the cause either.

Photo by: Ernest Chua

To really drill in my point, schools are doing nothing to solve the myopic problem in Singapore, other than giving our flyers (I’m not sure if they even do it now) telling us how to protect our eyes, and then proceed to hold three hours of continuous lessons without any breaks. The Lion City has one of the highest myopic rates in the world, yet eye breaks do not seem to be in the memo of schools and curriculum setters alike. In more competitive countries like China, breaks are given every 40 minutes, and once a day, a refreshing little announcement with music will come through the PA system for a ten minute eye exercise.

The government will argue that sacrifices have to be made in order to succeed, and that people will always have a choice in how they approach their sporting careers. While both statements bear some truth to a certain extent – you’ll only attain success with hard work -, this display of ignorance is exactly why Singapore’s making such slow progress. How has this ‘strategy’ of “living it up to the people” working for them so far?

The government need the athletes, not the other way around.

Most of the population don’t have that much of a willpower to hang on to their sporting pursuits in the midst of such unhealthy timetables. Also, not everybody has the freedom to choose – parents are getting in the way of things, preventing their children from pursuing their dreams as sports isn’t a viable way of earning a living in Singapore. You’re under 18 years old, and when your parents forbid you to do something, it’s truly the be-all and end-all for most of us. Without a conducive structure in place, many people will be actively discouraged and eventually give up due to the circumstances. Not everyone can be assumed to possess great time management skill with a solid support system behind them. Unless the government takes responsibility and accepts the education system’s pivotal role in the development of athletes, the talent pool in Singapore will continue to shrink.

No one is discouraging a student from doing sports, but all the little factors have implanted a mindset that education is so much more important than sports. Your eyes too, apparently. Not only will a budding talent simply be put under more pressure and study more, sports will eventually be for them something of a taboo they avoid in a grave attempt to appease.

Photo by: Ernest Chua

In the eyes of most parents, education is something that is extremely important as it affects how others treat and view one as a person, besides job prospects and salary concerns.A few months ago, as part of a school project, I did a quick little survey consisting of 20 respondents about their parents’ attitudes towards sports, and none of them were allowed to apply for the Singapore Sports School (SSS).

When I was in primary school, my parents didn’t allow me to choose soccer as a CCA. So I told myself, it’s fine. I’ll just keep practicing. Every recess, I’ll fight for the goalkeeper spot during our mini-matches. Back then, everyone wanted to be the goalie, which is ironic considering how no one wants that elusive role nowadays. I totally wasted my white shoes, my white uniforms, risked getting scolded by my teachers, stayed back after school and train by myself, yet after all that, my parents didn’t even allowed me to try out for SSS. They told me I would never succeed if I did, I’ll never make a decent living, and that I shouldn’t bother because so many people out there are vying for exactly the same thing that I wanted.

Yes, I didn’t even get to chance to choose. Or try.

When I was a bit older, I signed up for a training camp at an S-League club, and it was really fun. I learnt so much, and I can safely say that should I have not attended the camp, I would just be around twice the standard of Neymar. Next year, my parents did not let me participate because I did badly for my PSLE.

I scored 243.

When I was on a one-month internship back in Secondary 3, I took a day off to attend a trial at my hometown club Woodlands Wellington. I argued so much with my parents because they simply refuse to let me go, saying that it’s a waste of time and that I should focus on my education, that I should do something that is actually legit.

I eventually did not attend the trials.

I can say the following without credible sources backing me up; Many aspiring sporting talents in Singapore are in the midst of similar situations. As of this past hour, I am certain that somewhere in Singapore, a kid is asking his/her parents if he/she can pursue an education at the Sports School and getting rejected.

Not to start a Maria Hertogh or bring racial stereotypes into play, but it is quite evident that Malay families are more open to the idea of sports. While many of us Chinese are stuck in houses studying, I often see young Malay kids roaming about the void deck, playing soccer or ‘catching’ on weekends, after school, and pretty much all the time. When I was little, I remembered being so envious of them. My parents would probably go berserk if I left the house on my own back then. Having trained informally from young, it is little surprise that the majority of our national soccer team are Malays.

So, based on our country’s stats on race and adjusting a few discrepancies, we’re only left with 40% of our talent pool.

We can work with 40%, right?

Hell no.

NATIONAL SERVICE

National Service is a massive stumbling block in an athlete’s career. At least two years of crucial development is gone at the expense of serving the nation. It is widely believed in the football world that between the ages of 18 and 21 years lies the most crucial period for the physical, mental and technical development of a player. Theo Walcott, Gareth Bale, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Adnan Januzaj are a few of many well-illustrated examples of how training consistently translates into a huge growth spurt in technique and overall development.

Just imagine what a player Irfan Fandi, Adam Swandi or even Hariss Harun will/might have turned out to be if they didn’t have to report for NS. No matter how badly people debate about this point, a fact is a fact. You could still end up with a good athlete, but the truth remains that he will undoubtedly be better ability-wise if he didn’t have to serve the country. It’s plain and simple.

While teams in other countries are busy training and putting together strategies, young players on active duty in Singapore are experiencing great trouble trying to participate in their teams’ matches and trainings. Unlike individual sports, a team is only as good as its weakest link, or in this case, its weakest player. Coaches and managers are often stuck with uncertain tactics and training regimes as the unpredictable schedules of NSFs often clashes with a team’s preparations.

Even when National Service is completed, some footballers will choose to leave soccer to embark on another career, some will leave for their girlfriends, and some will simply lose interest in the Beautiful Game. With Malays getting more affluent and placing more emphasis on academics, the talent pool is constantly on the verge of running dry.

Photo by: Lim Wui Liang

LACK OF PLATFORMS

While National Service is an unfortunate obligation that severely hinders an athlete’s development, the damage has already been done during his or her schooling days. While the government do provide several platforms for athletes to exhibit their skills and ultimately apply what they have learnt during their training sessions, they are still rather limited. For soccer, we have a school tournament, but that’s pretty much it for the entire year. While other countries have year-round leagues, undiscovered, underrated players with boundless potential in Singapore are continuously stuck with their development, unless their schools decide to organise friendlies or participate in external tournaments. But how many schools have soccer listed as the top of their agendas? From an education point of view, would you rather purchase ten textbooks for the school population, or ten soccer balls for a soccer team that isn’t living up to expectations?

Although some might argue that you can train by yourself, at some point in time, you’ll have to play the sport itself to advance your game to the next level. It used to be ten league games in secondary school for me (in primary school a season used to be 20 games), but now it decreased to a paltry five for most schools. How can one truly be motivated into greater things when there’s neither something to look forward to nor any platforms to continue to showcase their development? Once the passion and fire in their hearts have been extinguished, a sense of despair and hopelessness will soon follow. The cold, hard truth has finally creeped into their minds, once choked full of energy and hope.

The support just isn’t there. You and I both know it.

THERE’S NO CONTINUITY

One of Mediacorp’s most popular shows that came out in recent years was First XI, a reality programme where participants from all over the island came forth to train under Liverpool legend Steve McMahon, try out for a chance to face a selection side in Singapore and earn an opportunity to train with Real Madrid (yes, that one) when the ‘season’ is over. It was also meant to be a platform for budding footballers to attract the attention of local scouts and earn opportunities to attend trials with various professional clubs.

Two seasons, two visits to Madrid, and two matches against “All-Star” teams involving stars like Robbie Fowler, Dietmar Hamann, Des Walker, and Steve Harkness later, there were hardly any news of them in the local media. What happened to the contestants? Where are they? Did they get trials? Despite promising news initially, nothing concrete has materialised ever since. It was only after some digging that I found out two players got signed, and both are plying their trade in LionsXII at the time of writing.

The lack of continuity isn’t only present on our television screens. For years, the National Football Academy (NFA) has been churning out players for the national team. How many players in our soccer team weren’t originally from the NFA? There are so many sporting academies in Singapore that it’s proving to be much of a farce when only players from one academy are being selected to represent the nation. I was told by a well-placed source that majority of the players in the national squad had been playing together in the same NFA setup since young, and this is proving to be a huge cause of concern. Did the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) settle for a team that had chemistry, but lacking in skills, in favor of casting their nets further to draw in genuine talents and eradicate complacency within the current squad?

Photo by: TODAY

NO DIRECTION

Gombak United has been out for this season’s Great Eastern-Yeo’s S-League due to financial issues. Clubs and professional teams have always been struggling to find sponsorships, either due to a lack of innovation or the poor displays they have been putting up. Individual athletes themselves are floundering to secure funding to participate in overseas tournaments and training camps. Their laughable contracts are not helping the cause either.

Not long ago, the National Football League (Singapore) decided to limit the age of all players in the amateur league to a maximum of 35. While it is understandable that FAS did so to increase the quality of the league – the champions of NFL’s top division Police Sports Association conceded 29 goals and scored a solitary goal in three matches against S-League sides during the recent Starhub League Cup – it doesn’t bode well for Singapore when we can’t even enjoy a game of sports because of our age and supposed lack of quality.

Edit: The regulation has since been overruled after a massive public outcry.

Firstly, interest is one of the primary factors for sponsors to partner up with a brand. Secondly, older athletes, amateurs and professionals alike, are a motivation and moonlight as role models for younger athletes like me. Whenever I play against 50-year-old uncles at futsal courts, I’ll be in full admiration of them as their craftiness, experience, and surprising supply of stamina overwhelms a way younger me that has so much more to learn.

When the interest is there, not only will the talent pool open up, but sponsors will be more willing to jump on. It is a slow and painful process. Transitions are always difficult; just ask David Moyes. As much as talent is at play here, it is ignorant to overlook the fact that the budget alone can make or break a sportsperson and a nation’s establishment for a sporting identity, or at the very least, a sporting identity. Right now, drumming up interest is the priority. When sponsorship dollars starts rolling in, then we’ll start talking about quality.

Photo by: TODAY

Even with a substantial amount of quality though, it seems that Singaporeans are still having trouble getting approval from the higher-ups. Our Singapore U23 team look set to miss out on playing at the Asian Games held later this year because it did not meet a bunch of ridiculous guidelines set by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC). SNOC’s stand was that our team simply can’t mount a serious challenge if they fail to show that they are capable of handling their own against (any of) the top 6 teams in Asia. While FAS (probably) misunderstood that and arranged for a friendly against Bahrain, ranked 14th in Asia, it just didn’t make sense in the first place to issue such an unrealistic challenge to players who have missed more than two years of essential training due to National Service, and have lesser access to world-class facilities and training grounds than their other Asian counterparts.

Soccer is the number one sport in Singapore. Our team rarely gets chances to perform against top opposition, and for SNOC to expect results against the likes of Japan and Korea is just plain ignorant on their part. Our country’s sporting system has already been limited due to the reasons listed above, and yet, some people are expecting an overnight miracle before allowing the team to attend a tournament meant for us to improve and get stronger?

I’m sorry, but this is absurd.

And mind you, we beat Bahrain 3-2.

In their own backyard, no less.

Photo by: Football Association of Singapore

TIME TO GO SOLO?

The issue of foreign talents is one that has been plaguing our nation for at least the past 6.9 years (haha). It’s one that’s touchy and consists of logical opposing arguments from Singaporeans. While some think that foreign players help strengthen our team and give us a stronger chance of competing for a title, others feel that more Singaporeans should be given a shot, and that we should not resort to short-sighted tactics and “import” our talents.

Me?

Let’s just say I’m not a fan of Manchester City.

I hope the government will give more chances to our local athletes. To be frank, I can’t be bothered whether we’re first or last. When the name of one of our own appears beside our humble flag on the television screen, I’m sure we all feel a sense of pride. We’ll feel a li’ll disappointed if they don’t win, and let out a little sigh, but at the end of the day, we’re still proud of their efforts and commitments. Look at Derek Wong, our national shuttler who bravely smashed his way to the final before crashing out in a losing effort to India’s Kashyap Parupalli. He won silver, but our nation erupted as though he won gold.

Look at San Marino, the last ranked team on FIFA’s international standings. The country itself is not much different from Singapore. It is one of the wealthiest countries in the world in terms of GDP (per capita), has a highly stable economy, one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe, no national debt and a budget surplus. With all that and a tiny population of 30,000+, the players in their teams are still pure citizens of La Serenissima, with many holding second jobs.

Singapore has never been a real sports powerhouse, so as a Singaporean, I couldn’t care less about winning or losing. I just want to see more of my fellow countrymen given a chance to represent our nation and strut their stuff on some of the biggest stages in the world.

Edit: However, credit should be given where credit is due. The government is making massive strides in a bid to ‘go solo’, and only 2.5% of the athletes representing Singapore at the 28th SEA Games are doing so under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

Photo by: Wee Teck Hian

In a hectic metropolitan city, there simply isn’t enough time for sports. We’re so obsessed with our careers that sports isn’t part of our DNA anymore. Even our young ones are addicted to technology at a mind-numbing age, eyes fixated on tiny screens while their postures adapt to their dependence on technology.

Let me appeal to the next crop of millennial parents to give your children a chance to flourish in sports. Gone are the days when a career as a sportsperson is truly a questionable choice. There is now a great infrastructure in place for them to strive and excel in, and it’ll surely work wonders if we could rethink our approach to education while we’re at it. Being on top of academic-related lists isn’t something most Singaporeans are proud of, and if we can give sports and even the arts the same attention that our Math lessons are given, we’ll end up with a much more efficient sporting ecosystem.

National Service still remains an pertinent issue though. Unless we are satisfied with winning the Malaysia FA Cup instead of challenging for major continental or even international honors, then I’m afraid someone has to stand up, admit that “NS is something that’s holding us back, and we really need to do something about it”, and follow up their words with actions of similar conviction.

In the meantime, let’s keep our grassroots development growing. Make affordable facilities readily available and continue with the tried and tested methods of developing athletes. It is a great sign to see community teams and interest groups popping up islandwide, but I hope to see the players inside of these teams playing for professional clubs and donning the national colors someday. Promising players have dropped off the grid, primarily due to NS, and our embarrassing attrition rates has to be something of concern to the relevant authorities. Take a chance, keep the continuity going, and as the number of foreign talent slowly decreases, I am confident that our sporting scene will rise to its former glory again. But in the meantime, let’s not kid ourselves by saying we made true progress.

We’re not even remotely close.

So do you still want to know what’s wrong with sports in Singapore?

Because you had already gone through it yourself.

P.S. Happy 49th Birthday Singapore.

Edit: This article was written in 2014, and since then, we had made significant progress that truly peaked and culminated at an extraordinary 28th SEA Games held in Singapore during the month of June, 2015. Unsurprisingly, my opinion of Singapore sports has changed dramatically since then, but I still believe that we are a long way away from cementing our position as a sporting contender, much less a powerhouse. The SEA Games, while a worthy arena, isn’t a reliable platform to gauge the abilities of our athletes. We are, after all, competing against countries which are poor and corrupted. The next Asian Games would be an interesting meet for us though. If we can prove our mettle on that stage, then I can safely say that Singapore has finally started making true and, more importantly, visible, progress.


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7 Comments

  1. Pingback: miki’s whistlestop blog tour – from australia to the us, through s’pore and the uk | jump into the fog

  2. Andy says

    Substitute Arts for Sports, and Artists for Athletes in your article, and I think it will still also make sense (mostly).

  3. Adil says

    Btw sorry but SSC stands for Singapore Sports Council which is now called Sports Singapore.
    The right abbreviation for Sports School is SSP.

  4. Adil says

    NS is the biggest obstacle for many youth players. Adam Swandi was offered contracts by Atletico Madrid, Ajax and FC Metz, and after his contract with FC Metz ended this year, he didn’t choose to extend it as he had to choose between NS, SEA Games, or continue playing in Europe. I wouldn’t want to think of what will happen to Fandi Ahmad’s sons when they reach 18. The oldest two are already playing for a club in Chile after playing for the NFA and SSP.

    • Didn’t know Adam Swandi was offered a contract by Atletico… That’s pretty sweet. To be honest, I think his sons will somehow not have to do NS, or have it deferred for quite some time, because “exceptions”, and then I’ll have to write another article again. We have plenty of talent, but eh.

  5. I used to be not very good at sport because my old school didn’t do much of it. Then in year 2 when I moved, one of our school’s top focus was sport. And I have to say I’ve improved SO much.

    I agree one should start on sports when they’re young and they should put more focus in sports. Exercise is important after all. Though I don’t think I have enough. =P

    Soccer is in my top favourite 3 sports (I like almost all sports). I badly want to join our school’s soccer team but I’m not allowed to because it’s ‘dangerous’.

    • It’s a pity because there’s a lot of people who are potentially talented in sports, but they don’t encourage and develop their abilities. Haha it’s quite impossible to get enough exercise nowadays, so as long as you get some exercise and play a sport that you like you should be fine :) Didn’t know you like soccer though. That’s sweet. And yea I couldn’t join soccer in primary school because of the very same reason. I feel ya.

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