AS an Olympian swimmer-sportsman Oon Jin Teik was exemplary by Singapore standards at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.
Now 34 years later, as the chief executive officer of SportsHub, a facility that cost $1.33 billion to build, he has a big headache at hand not to make it a “white elephant” and in engaging the Government to make the mammoth public-private partnership model work.
Most important is to get the world-class marquee events for a global facility for sports, entertainment and lifestyle to Kallang and to bring in the crowds like the mid-1970s when the “Kallang Roar” symbolised Singaporeans’ love for the No 1 sport, football.
Now the “Kallang Roar” is no more and with Singapore’s sliding rankings in FIFA position to 173, what more with the Lions not winning a single regional match in more than 12 months, the sports’ anchor-tenants can barely draw a S-League crowd for an international match.
A very sad predicament for the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) when you consider that in most Asian capitals, football clearly ranks as a “key sport” – something imperative in the Sports Hub’s Oon-made strategy.
But Oon is silently optimistic, although he’s biting his teeth discreetly, why football has not fired itself up since new president Lim Kia Tong took to the helm in April last year. The Jalan Besar Stadium headquarters is reportedly fractured with internal fire-fights so much so that competitions like the S-League and National Football League (NFL) barely wrestle a whimper compared to what neighbours in Malaysia are doing.
Oon is an absolute hands-on sporting gentleman. I will vouch for that. He has other sports on his mind, not only football, to fire up the ground especially with his personal grasp of a good mix of sports DNA and business acumen into the public-private partnership (PPP) Sports Hub project, having been involved since its inception as the CEO of national sports agency Sport Singapore (2004-2010) before moving to the other side of the fence.
He has to make the sporting heart tick again.
The Hub opened in June 2014, is a PPP project between the Government and SHPL, a consortium of four equity partners – Infrared Capital Partners, Dragages Singapore (design and building contractor), Cushman & Wakefield Facilities & Engineering (facility management partner) and Global Spectrum Asia (venue operations partner).
Oon’s natural sporting chemistry makes him a wildly ambitious go-getter. The Brigham Young University graduate with a Bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering and an MBA is confident of the viability and sustainability of the PPP model, explaining in a Straits Times interview: “The communication between the Government and our side has been very positive.
“The mutual respect is there. We speak openly. It doesn’t mean that we don’t tell the Government where we think things are maybe not so good. From those discussions, we start to understand what will make things work.”
He knows the overwhelming odds against his team, He says: “We are a start-up city. The complexity is there, the size and scope. The huge aspirational demands, the competition coming up from around the region. These things keep me awake. We have to be very clear about the dynamics and the dynamics are changing. That is the challenge.”
MORE ‘A’-LIST SPORTS
I believe that Singaporeans are looking for more ‘A’-list sports events and the world-class sporting teams must be convinced of state-of-the-arts facilities, be it in musical or entertainment concerts. And I must put on record that the pathetic field conditions at the National Stadium last year made Singapore a global laughing stock!
Football is going to be a goner without a rousing product at hand and hopefully, the HSBC Singapore Rugby 7s and Super Rugby, the Asean Basketball League will offer some face-saving grace.
“Our aspirations are very high, we want to serve more Singaporeans and bring in more content,” says Oon. “I don’t think there is any stadium that comes close to our planned programmes. The filling up of the calendar of events is not a problem.
“It’s self-inflicted pressure on ourselves when we say we want more vibrancy in our programmes. To do so, you need content of different types that is relevant to Singapore.”
In my opinion, for the Hub to rise, Singaporeans need to buck up on its sporting culture, especially football culture, wherein the 23-year-old S-League is frantically rolling to relegation without crowd support.
Without a serious sporting culture, it is close to impossible, over the next five or 10 years, to realise the three cornerstones of the whole SportsHub model. As I understand, the first one was to create an integrated hub of sports and entertainment, the second one was a commercially viable model, and the third was a national and global icon.
What’s a sporting culture, you may ask? Touching my heart, I last felt it in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the “Kallang Roar” created an unprecedented “semangat” (spirited, in Malay) with football, as the No 1 sport, taking the lead with rousing Malaysia Cup successes.
A sporting culture, as what I understand from sports observers, is the expression of a team’s values, attitudes, and beliefs about sports and competition. It determines whether, for example, the team’s focus is on fun, mastery, or winning or whether it promotes individual accomplishment or team success. The culture is grounded in an identified sense of mission and shared goals, for instance, the goal of qualifying for a regional championships or winning a national title.
I silently fear the Hub, minus a basic sporting culture, if it doesn’t wake up to Oon’s visionary ideals, may end up like Beijing’s magnificent Bird’s Nest Stadium, opened to much fanfare at the 2008 Olympics.
Yes, it was hailed for its iconic world-class structure and athletes the inspiring atmosphere it creates. But these days, the rare sports event finds itself sharing the calendar with winter wonderland shows, in a venue where the camera clicks of tourists are heard more often than the cheers of fans!
Without a sporting culture, observers I spoke to gave the thumbs-down because hosting big sporting events determine Singapore’s reputation as a regional sports city, wherein global big-name athletes and musicians queue to come here. But the competition from immediate Asean neighbours have been frighteningly breath-taking, too.
‘WEEKEND SPORTS WARRIORS’
More crucially, the Hub must also make its facilities affordable and attractive to the “weekend sports warriors” as the average man-in-the-street is simply spoilt for choice in the heartlands when it comes to sports facilities.
According to a recent sports survey, we have 2,641 swimming pools, of which about 100 are Olympic-size; 74 athletic tracks and 116 jogging tracks; 1,363 gymnasiums; 2,761 badminton courts; 224 street soccer/futsal courts and 428 football fields; 29 cycling tracks and five bike trails; 1,258 basketball courts; and 1,163 tennis courts.
So the layman will simply ask: Why go to Kallang when you can swim, run, have a kickabout in your own backyard from Bukit Batok to Bedok, Tampines to Toa Payoh or Punggol to Potong Pasir?
Schoolteacher Rahimah Salleh from Woodlands Town, says probably the “smartest way to make the Hub come alive is to make the sports-iconic Kallang not just a hub for sports, but also a hub of activity beyond sports…let’s borrow ideas from other world-class examples”.
She says she visited the Staples Centre in Los Angeles, one of USA’s more successful sports arenas, which vividly enjoys a steady stream of visitors, match-day or not, because it is part of the bigger Los Angeles (L.A.) Live entity. Apart from being the home to four professional teams, L.A. Live has 520,257 sq m of apartments, bars, concert theatres, restaurants, movie theatres and a 54-storey hotel and condominium tower.
This mammoth transformation alone gave the whole area a fiery kick with the rejuvenation, with new offices sprouting up in what was previously a quiet part of downtown Los Angeles.
I believe with a viable sporting culture comes a balance between preserving the identity of a national icon and commercialisation. The Hub must rise to the occasion as a symbol of sporting excellence, an active centre for Singaporeans to play seriously competitive and socially recreational sports, and also a beacon for the coming together of the arts, lifestyle, entertainment and sports community.
But as a smart-thinking Olympian, I salute Oon’s pragmatism. He says: “We are here for a mission and the mission cannot fail, whether it is from the standpoint of delivering project objectives or delivering promises to Singaporeans or delivering financial results to shareholders. This is what we have signed up for.”
Pity, for the moment, the biggest letdown has been football, without any trace of a whimper that it can evoke the hearts of younger generation Singaporeans to bring back the “Kallang Roar”. Football, whichever way you look, deserves a kick on its backside!
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who believes in the long-term vision of Oon Jin Teik to build on positive and high-performing sports team culture to fire up the SportsHub