The Medal Furore

By Regina Hong, Yale-NUS College ’17 – See bio

As I am working on this piece, Singapore’s table tennis players are battling their hearts out for a bronze medal in the women’s doubles match. Yet, perhaps one thought rankles in the hearts of some heartlanders as they watch the match: Why are we cheering for players who are not “local”?

One would have thought that the end of Singapore’s 52 year individual Olympic medal drought (since Mr Tan Howe Liang’s silver in weightlifting) by Feng Tianwei would have been reason to cheer and a timely National Day present for the little red dot about to celebrate its 47th birthday on 9th August. Unfortunately, the sentiments of local netizens ran contrary to this.

77% of respondents answered that they would not be proud of a “foreign import” winning an Olympic medal of Singapore1, with disgruntled citizens stating that Singapore was merely “buying medals” (which incidentally, brings up the concept of mercenary armies, but I digress). There are also claims that Singapore is not doing enough to help its own local sporting talent, and that the money invested in the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FSTA) would have been better spent on nurturing local sportsmen.

Denouncers of the FSTA have come up with a pretty convincing and hefty repertoire of reasons why it is heavily flawed, with the most frequent one being: “They are just going to leave Singapore after they have made their cash and return home to their motherlands. Singapore is but a mere springboard for them to greater economic success”. This is unfortunately supported by real-life examples in the likes of sportsmen such as table tennis player Zhang Xueling and badminton player Xiao Luxi who have since returned to their native homeland, causing public ire.

Others feel that the over-emphasis on foreign talents has cast a gloom over the nurturing and training of local sports talent, with local sportsmen being overshadowed by their foreign counterparts and reduced to being mere “sparring partners”. Singapore Table Tennis Association (SSTA) President Dr Lee Bee Wah’s fight to include Isabelle Li as part of the line-up in the SEA Games last year undoubtedly further fortified this view. (Isabelle Li went on to do Singapore proud at the Games, clinching silver in a match against Feng Tianwei.)

On the other side of the debacle, supporters of Feng Tianwei have lashed out in support of her efforts by stating that her nationality is not justification for her efforts to be disregarded. Others have said that foreign talents cannot be blamed if local sportsmen are unable to make the qualifying mark for major sporting events like the Olympics.

Disregarding all other political allegiances that may have influenced citizens’ views on the matter, I feel that there is a need for Singaporeans to put aside all negative thoughts on the reduced value of an Olympic medal won by a foreign sportsperson. Is there really such a need to focus blindly on the nationality of the winner of the medal? At the heart of the matter, how many of us can claim to be “true blue Singaporeans”? Most of us can trace our roots to ancestors who came from other parts of the world as little as two or three generations ago. Why then is there such a blatant animosity against foreigners when we can hardly claim to be “purely” local born and bred given the short lapse of time since Singapore’s establishment as an independent nation?

The view that foreign talents may throw away their Singapore passports after having conveniently made a haul here is an issue that should not be neglected. Yet, this is not a reason for Singaporeans to tar all foreign talents with the same brush and to denounce their endeavors as a consequence. Let us remember that there are residents who traded in their original passports for the red one, and who have every intention of staying and contributing to the Singapore society, instead of hopping on the jet to the next figurative crock of gold.

To shift the discussion to another aspect, ever since primary school, I distinctly remember that foreign students would dominate the ranks of most subjects, particularly for Math and Science. I used to feel upset that they were taking away the top spots from us local students. Then, one day, I realised that I simply wasn’t trying hard enough. Results are the universal benchmarks for hard work and effort wherever you go, regardless of your nationality. If I failed to hold my own against foreign born students, who not only had to struggle with the cultural shock of living in another country, along with coping with homesickness, who was to blame but myself?

The Olympic values include giving the “best of oneself, on the field of play or in life” and understanding each other, through sport “despite any differences”.2 I suppose this extends not only to the players but to the audience, as well as countries with players representing them. And while I’m no great sports fan or critic, I believe that effort and hard work should be lauded and appreciated, instead of jeered at. Feng Tianwei’s medal win should have been a cause for celebration, instead of being tainted by the ugly blemishes of what border on xenophobia.

As I conclude this article, Wang Yuegu and Li Jiawei have just clinched a bronze medal for the Republic, making our total medal haul 2 bronze medals, the first such haul since Singapore first began competing in the Summer Olympics. Will you celebrate what is, undoubtedly, an outstanding achievement, or will you jeer and say that all their efforts mean nothing since they aren’t “local-born”?



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