Featured News Opinion Singapore should learn from its Asian peers how to win medals

Singapore should learn from its Asian peers how to win medals

If Hong Kong and Asian nations like Malaysia can win Olympic medals, so can Singapore, he wrote.

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With the closing of the Tokyo Olympics on Aug 8, Singapore has won no medal.

As a Singaporean living in Hong Kong, I took pride in my adopted city when Sarah Lee won a bronze medal in women’s cycling on the last day of the Olympics, bringing Hong Kong’s medal count to six, the territory’s best-ever haul of Olympic medals.

In comparison, Taiwan won 12 medals, Malaysia won two, Thailand won two including its first gold medal, and the Philippines won four including its first gold. This is a let-down for Singapore since Joseph Schooling won the Lion City’s first gold medal at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in the 100-metre butterfly swim.

In a speech at the opening of the National Sailing Centre on 26 Jun 1999, then Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said, “My challenge to the sailing fraternity is to win an Olympic medal for Singapore at the 2008 Olympic Games. This is an ambitious goal, but one within reach.”

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Singapore has not won any Olympic medal in sailing. Why has Singapore not won any medal at the Tokyo Olympics while other Asian jurisdictions have?

I am not criticizing any Singapore Olympian, including Schooling. I concur with Singapore President Halimah Yacob’s post on her Facebook on Jul 30, which rebuked the “negative, hurtful comments against him” and urged Singaporeans to support their athletes wholeheartedly.

Furthermore, I have no right to deride Schooling, being far less athletic than him. In the past several months, I have become even flabbier because I have not undertaken hard exercise since I hurt my back late last year. In my unsporting lifestyle, I cannot even comprehend the long and hard effort which Singaporean Olympians like Schooling and Yu Mengyu, a table tennis player, put in.

While not pointing the finger at any individual, it is nonetheless valid to ask whether there are systemic reasons for Singapore’s dearth of Olympic medals compared to its Asian counterparts. One clue lies in Goh’s statement in his speech in 1999, “Champions are not born. They are made.”

Take Siobhan Haughey, who won two silver medals in swimming for Hong Kong at the Tokyo Olympics. She has an Irish father and is a grandniece of a former Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, but declined Ireland’s request to represent that country in the Olympics and instead swam for Hong Kong. She is a native Hong Konger, having been born in the city and fluent in Cantonese, which is probably due to her Hong Kong Chinese mother.

While I have nothing against Singapore importing athletes, Siobhan Haughey’s example shows Singapore should nurture its homegrown champions.

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Edgar Cheung Ka-long won Hong Kong’s first gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics. The fencer was already a serious athlete when he was a teenager. Both his parents were national basketball players for China and Hong Kong, and supported his athletic career since he was young, according to Tatler. Cheung shares similarities with Schooling, who also has parents who were athletes and encouraged his sporting career.

The examples of Cheung and Schooling show Singapore’s athletes should be encouraged to take their sporting career seriously when young, and parents should support them in their endeavours.

The ability of Hong Kong athletes to clinch six medals at the Tokyo Olympics is due to the nature of that society, which places less emphasis on academic achievement than Singapore.

Hong Kong has its share of accomplished scholars like Charles Kao, who won a Nobel prize in physics. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam was a top student at school and then worked in the civil service, similar to Singaporeans who were high-flying scholars and became ministers, such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing and former Foreign Minister George Yeo. But Hong Kong also has billionaires like Li Ka-shing who is not a university graduate.

Hong Kong has a well-developed film industry, which has produced many actors who are famous in the Chinese-speaking world and a few stars who are world-famous. In contrast, Singapore has no movie star who is famous on the global stage.

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While Hong Kong is a financial hub, its established movie industry is a sign that this city allows people to flourish according to their passions. Singapore’s lesser number of billionaires and less developed film industry is a symptom of a society that emphasizes good grades as a path to advancement in professional careers like medicine, law, engineering and banking.

Early during the premiership of Lee Hsien Loong, he said he wanted a Singapore where there are different paths to success. So far, that has not proven true enough. This is probably not Prime Minister Lee’s fault, but due to the ingrained mentality among many Singaporeans that good grades are the safe and sure way to success. Just as actors can prosper in Hong Kong, athletes can flourish in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is a highly urbanized city where the cost of owning and renting property is higher than Singapore, so why has Hong Kong produced more Olympic medallists than Singapore?

Part of the reason is the large amount of reserved parkland in Hong Kong, which allows much space for exercise. Another reason is the fighting spirit of Hong Kongers. For example, Sarah Lee grew up in a 200 square foot government flat in Hong Kong and was born with anaemia, which resulted in dizziness and fatigue, reported the South China Morning Post. Yet that did not prevent her from winning two Olympic medals in cycling, a bronze medal in the London Olympics in 2012 and a bronze medal in Tokyo this year. Sarah Lee embodies the tough determination that characterizes the spirit of Hong Kong.

Since Hong Kong and several Asian countries have won Olympic medals, the sporting organizations of Singapore would do well to learn how the sports organizations of these other places nurtured successful champions. I confess I do not have detailed knowledge of the workings of sports organizations, so I cannot offer more insight into this area.

But if Hong Kong and Asian nations like Malaysia can win Olympic medals, so can Singapore.

Toh Han Shih is chief analyst of Headland Intelligence, a Hong Kong risk consultancy. The opinions expressed in this article are his own.

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