No glitter in 'imported' medals

SINGAPORE - A tussle of will appears to have broken out between the government and many of its people over the issue of attracting foreign talent to win sports medals.

Actually, sports are only a part of an overall policy that is becoming increasingly controversial of using its wealth to short-circuit national achievements.

In the London 2012 Olympics, China-born Feng Tianwei, who became a citizen in 2007, won Singapore's first individual bronze medal since 1960.

Instead of nationwide celebrations, her victory sparked off strong criticism of the government's programme of importing sports talents from abroad to win glory for Singapore.

Subsequently, the three women's paddlers, all imports from China, won the team bronze.

The results unleashed a level of emotions that surprised me.

Actually, the feelings were already evident five years ago when Feng, given citizenship, began to make a name for herself and Singapore.

But the intensity at the time had been nothing as widespread as currently.

In an online poll, some 77 per cent of Singaporeans said they did not feel proud of her achievement comparable to another that showed 78 per cent of people were opposed to foreigners.

So far, the government seems unimpressed with this statistics.

As the public opposition grew, the pro-government media argued strongly for the players, and acting Cabinet Minister (for Social and Family Development) Chan Chun Sing congratulated the table tennis team for "uniting the nation".

Some observers believe the public feelings reflected the country's mood against foreign workers in general, blaming them for taking away jobs and opportunities.

To me, it's too big a number for the People's Action Party (PAP) government to ignore given its weakening popularity.

I am pretty sure that in the post Lee Kuan Yew era, the Singapore government will abandon any more plans to mass import foreign sportsmen and women.

In fact, it is possible that the authorities had stopped any major intake of paddlers from China in the last few years despite the fact that the current crop of players is growing older.

For years, the programme had started in the schools. The government had been scouring parts of China to source for provincial youth champions or the second of third best.

They were enlisted into our schools, given scholarships and liberal allowances that allowed them to train.

Table tennis was not the only sport. At the peak, badminton, athletics, football, basketball, swimming, etc were all targets.

In fact, the talent-scouting programme has extended way beyond sports. Over the years, the republic has been bringing in thousands of skilled foreigners.

They ranged from musicians for the Singapore Philharmonic Orches-tra to biotech research scientists and from university professors to entrepreneurs.

The public's main complaint is that they also included hundreds of thousands of people who were less than talented for reasons of cheaper costs.

Singapore is not alone in "buying" sports medals. Top women table tennis and badminton players from China and Indonesia have been representing their adopted countries in Europe.

Most other countries take a longer route to develop their own talent, but Singapore which celebrated its 47th birthday has joined those who seem to be in a hurry to win glory.

It wants to bring them in, trained and proven. Singapore itself has a migrant history which has long depended on outsiders to keep its talent flowing.

I remember when I was actively reporting, a very senior figure told several editors that there was benefit in bringing in trained doctors, research scientists and university professors, people with PhDS.

"After others had trained them, we attract them to come and work here," he clarified. The savings of six to eight years high education must be very high.

Imagine bringing in 20 to 30 sports champions in various sports capable of winning world medals!

But the policy of buying talent is increasingly encountering opposition at home.

Critics have pointed out that such a policy would earn Singapore world contempt and derision and discourage locals from developing to become champions.

Some Singaporeans said they felt closer to and prouder of Malaysia's Lee Chong Wei although he narrowly lost the badminton gold to a Chinese player than they were of Singapore's China imports.

Alvin Soh said: "Malaysians have every reason to be proud. Lee Chong Wei is a great local hero.

"The majority of Singaporeans are not happy with the idea of buying China citizens to play for us," Soh said.

To T.W. Tan, importing foreign sportsmen would only discourage their own athletes as they would be denied the chance to take part in any real competitions.

For winning the bronze, Feng will be paid $250,000 by the state of which she will have to contribute 20 per cent or $50,000 to the table tennis association.

There is criticism, but there are also strong messages of congratulations and praises for Singapore's bronze winners.

"It is not fair to attack them. It is not their fault. They have worked hard for their achievements," said one surfer.

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