When Joseph Schooling bagged a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics, Singapore’s first ever, the whole country celebrated his win. Schooling also received a $1 million cash prize for bringing such glory to Singapore, and has since been named Sportsman Of The Year four times. However, Schooling’s feat was unparalleled, and sporting achievements, at nearly all levels, are not given adequate recognition in Singapore to a large extent. This issue of sporting achievements not being well-recognized extends from an early age up till professional level sports, which has implications for the extent to which sports can be developed in Singapore.
Singapore is an academic-focused society, which has led to sporting achievements being undermined for our younger generations. Parents would prefer their children to score straight As than to win a sports competition. Playing sports is considered good for health but nothing to be taken seriously, should one be interested or have a talent. After all, test results are key to students for getting promoted to the next grade, applying to scholarships or getting into good schools. While schemes like Direct School Admission have increased the value of sporting achievement, it is still considered a ‘bonus’, rather than as the equivalent of academic excellence. The setting up of the Singapore Sports School was aimed to provide greater support to student athletes, but even there, a premium is given to academic results, as students are expected to do well in both sports and academics.
This lack of priority given to sporting achievements from an early age is because a sporting career is simply not considered a viable option in Singapore in terms of monetary rewards. While Schooling no doubt made his parents immensely proud after his massive win at the Olympics, his parents made the leap of faith that not many other parents would likely do. They supported him not only by giving him the permission to pursue his dream, but sacrificing their own assets in order to provide him with the resources to do so when the government was not nearly as generous with theirs. What Schooling’s parents did may be considered an ‘investment’ to some, but it is more of a sacrifice – becoming a successful sportsman or sportswoman is not a given. After all, monetary riches for athletes are not common. It was revealed in 2017 by Jose Raymond, Vice-Chairman of the Chiam See Tong Sports Foundation, that some athletes receive just $600 a year from the government, with one of them being a SEA Gold Medallist. Some also point out that Schooling’s parents at least had the means to make sacrifices, but other athletes from less comfortable backgrounds may be forced to give up their dreams if they cannot even make a living. Some of them have thus taken crowdfunding in order to do so as they train for sporting achievements, such as Sarah Pang (a tennis player) and Sayidah Aisyah (a rower). U.K. Shyam, the record holder for fastest 100m, also recalled how he once had to quit running because he was not able to pay the bills.
Sporting achievement is also not lucrative because it is not as well recognised by the general public. Joseph Schooling bagged several advertisement deals after his win, becoming the face for famous brands like DBS, Yakut, Milo and HUGO BOSS. Clearly, his high-profile win at the Olympics made him an icon in Singapore society, which gives him marketing value. This is also true for many other famous athletes in the world, whether Michael Jordan with his own Nike line, or Cristiano Ronaldo (with 322 million social media followers) who also has a $1 billion Nike Contract and his own brand, CR7. However, local sporting athletes are not nearly as well known by the public. This is also due to an overall lack of interest in sports in general. During the early days of Singapore football when locals were more fired up by it, local footballers like Fandi Ahmad had many fans. However, attention to local leagues and competitions is no longer comparable to international level competitions whether in football or tennis. Without some level of recognition by society, sporting achievement by local athletes does not translate to fame and fortune, unlike in the case of other countries.
How sporting achievement is defined also determines how it is recognised in Singapore. The overall situation In Singapore when it comes to the recognition of sporting achievement is a polarised one. If one is not exceptionally talented and achieves incredible results such as in the case of Schooling, one is not recognised and duly rewarded, or even supported. This stems from Singapore’s pragmatism in the measurement of sporting achievement. Athletes are ranked into different levels depending on their potential to represent Singapore at regional or national levels, and ultimately rewarded based on the medals they win. While this is not ‘unfair’, it pegs recognition to results rather than to effort, which is often tremendous when it comes to the amount athletes have to put in, especially in view of the fact that they could be pursuing more lucrative careers. Coming back to the monetary grant by the government, the size of the amount shows how sporting achievement is not on the same level as say, an actual occupation, even though athletes spend the same, if not more, amount of time training.
Sporting achievement is also often tied to national interests, and thus some athletes who do well in sports internationally are not recognised. Ben Davis’s deferral which was rejected by the Ministry of Defence was based on the idea that his career is a personal pursuit, rather than for national glory. Again, this pragmatic and calculative approach simplifies what sporting achievement can mean in Singapore. If the word ‘Singapore’ is not tagged to the achievement, it seems that it is not considered worthy. While being able to represent one’s country is also what most athletes probably have in mind, the relationship should also go both ways. In Davis’s case, instead of rejoicing in the fact that a Singaporean is playing in the UK leagues, it was framed that he was simply playing for his personal interest. Ironically, the government has spared no expenses in ‘importing’ foreign talents for the sake of earning more medals based on this idea that sporting achievement is valuable because the Singaporean brand name is on it.
Overall, it is a vicious cycle: athletes are recognised only if they are extremely successful, but there is no support for them because there is little hope that they will be. The safer route is and will probably always be to pursue academics and skills rather than to pursue sports, because sports brings neither monetary rewards nor fame to athletes in the case of Singapore, and therefore sadly, there is much truth in the essay questions that sporting achievement is not adequately rewarded or recognized in my country.