Commentary: Why sports still has a place in Singapore

Commentary: Why sports still has a place in Singapore

Despite limited success in competitions, Singapore’s sporting heroes have inspired greater participation in sports across the nation, says Shamir Osman.

Singapore crowd
Singapore fans supporting the national football team at the National Stadium. 

SINGAPORE: I learnt a new word at the recently concluded Southeast Asian (SEA) Games: “chonky”.

“Chonky” in Doggolingo (another new word I learnt, and it means “dog internet jargon”), is an affectionate word to describe a slightly overweight animal.

And it was used to describe Joseph Schooling cutting a less than flattering image of a swimmer at the New Clark City Aquatic Centre. 

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Having grown up in the 1980s, I am perhaps a generation removed from those who can now live entire virtual lives in the ether, and completely missed the reference.


Growing up in a pre-internet era where local sports really mattered, when runners, bowlers, footballers, hockey players, swimmers – not just Olympic champions – were backed, celebrated and recognised on the streets, I wonder if modern day Singapore should just give up entirely on sports.

After all, football, which is the one sport that’s most highly watched, has yet to deliver any gold medal in the SEA games’ 60 years history.

Singapore did come away from the SEA Games with the two best performing athletes – Quah Ting Wen and her brother Zheng Wen – a first Singapore-born men’s singles table-tennis champion in Koen Pang and a 53-gold medal loot that is a very decent record.

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But there are other accolades that make us proud to stand behind our flag, accolades that come with very literal boosts that we do tend to enjoy.

According to the World Economic Forum, we are the world’s most competitive economy this year.

People walking along the pier overlooking the skyline of Singapore's financial district
Singapore has overtaken the US to take first spot in the 2019 Global Competitiveness Report compiled by the renowned World Economic Forum (File photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman)

We appreciate the efforts that went into making the Singapore passport – along with Japan’s – the most powerful travel document on the planet.

We are the second safest city – just a shade behind Tokyo – and also home to an airport that has been named the world’s best for seven years running.

Pragmatic Singapore embraces these, enjoying their fruits.


Sport, in comparison, is a seemingly inconsequential chase that never ends – even when you win, that proverbial boulder rolls back to the bottom of the hill, and the whole process necessitates doing it all over again.

In any rational analysis, sport – every sport – is absurd. Take the case of football: 22 people running around a specifically defined patch of grass, believing that the number of times they kick a ball into a net is of profound importance.

Every world mark that was considered insurmountable will eventually become commonplace.

But world records – like Neil Armstrong setting foot on the moon – take humanity on a journey to a place it has never set eyes on.

READ: Commentary: Jo Schooling, a hunted man on a quest for gold and so much more

We are well aware of that feeling, we came out in droves to catch a glimpse of Joe and Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal in 2016, didn’t we?


Stepping back to get a broader view of the sporting picture in Singapore, it does seem that the odds in Singapore are stacked – and wildly so – against the hopeful dreamer.

And at every recent failed attempt, the issue of National Service and academic commitments inevitably come to the fore again.

But there is some truth to that, and you do feel for the athletes who run in their military boots from the camp to the stadium, only to change into cleated boots and run again; and also for those who train till their muscles burn, then head home to burn the midnight oil with their head buried in books.

While the results of their efforts are celebrated, very few witness athletes pushing their chosen boulders up that hill, a daily – often solitary – grind.

There is no need for curfews for this ilk who march to their own almost monastic beat. There is no headspace for internal bickering either.

Muhamad Ridhwan Ahmad is the first Singaporean boxer to become a professional world champion.
Muhamad Ridhwan Ahmad is the first Singaporean boxer to become a professional world champion.

Boxer Muhamad Ridhwan has, in the past, risen before dawn to train before the start of fasting in the month of Ramadan, then got his head down to train again at night, after a day of school and work.

The likes of our floorball women, SEA Games champions for the last two editions, took it on the chin when they had to partly pay for their trip to the Women’s World Floorball Championship campaign that came merely days after their SEA Games exertions.

The women finished 12th – the Republic’s best ever showing since the tournament switched to a one division format in 2011.

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The floorball women are not alone in this tribe of doers. There are sailors, boxers, rowers, even those gunning for the pinnacle of sport, the Olympics, who scour for funds to fuel their dreams.

Olympic rowing hopeful Joan Poh, has even gone from Greece to Canada in search of a suitable sporting ecosystem to ensure she can get up to speed. And that approach of working around obstacles is similar to what sons of Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad took to National Service, enlisting early so they could ply their trade overseas before they were considered too “old.”


Funding also remains an issue for several sporting hopefuls. While some in the sporting fraternity assert that too much funding is channelled to undeserving sports – they usually finger football – others, even sailors and rowers who chase Olympic qualification, believe they don’t receive enough. 

The general sentiment in the sporting fraternity is that the clarion call for Singapore-based corporates to jump in and back our own as they chase their dreams goes largely ignored.

Schooling’s endorsements are an anomaly and understandably so. He is after all our only Olympic champion, and as an individual, has been a shining example of a brand ambassador.

But the lack of corporate interest should come as little surprise. 

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In a Sport Singapore Sports Index that studied participation trends in 2015 – the latest study available on its site – 48 per cent of Singaporeans said they did not participate in sports because they are “not interested in sports”.

That same study revealed that 76 per cent are proud of athletes’ international sporting achievements.


But there are those who still believe in sport.

Swimming clubs noted a glut of new young members taking to the pool after Schooling’s Olympic win, watched over by eager parents who embraced this new drive they were witnessing in their young dreamers.

Teong Tzen Wei is one such born-again dreamer of the Schooling effect, and at the Philippines SEA Games, the 22-year-old went out and beat the man who inspired him in the 50m fly.

Teong Tzen Wei
Teong Tzen Wei at the 2017 SEA Games. 

And even among everyday Singaporeans, the stock of sport has risen. We may not be known as a great sporting nation but the limited success we have had and the efforts our sportsmen and women take to compete in national colours has had a trickle-down effect. It has inspired a deeper ethos of participation in sports across the nation. 

There are ultramarathoners, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu exponents, Spartan racers, and even crazy ones who dive deep into open waters with only a single breath of air for company.

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They now crowd cross-fit gyms and speak up on social media when sports get judged merely by medals at major games, not by effort or the amount of funds backing it, lending their weight to athletes battling seemingly unfair practices.

Being part of the tribe in the past meant thronging to stadiums and hissing at the opposition, but the crowd couldn’t directly speak to our sporting heroes then, we just hoped to bear witness. Being part of the sports tribe in Singapore now is no longer about being a mere spectator. It is about embodying that grit and determination and seeing it manifest in each one of us – professional sports person or amateur.  

They cheer the man next to them perhaps even more than the footballer in the stadium, but they still stroll into stadiums when Hariss Harun and company start to play like Lions, and they still care if Schooling will once again send the Singapore flag atop poles at an Olympic arena. Here in lies the value of sports to Singapore.

Makes you wonder if sport actually doesn’t matter to Singaporeans anymore, or if it’s merely viewed differently, backed by actions and words strange and unfamiliar to now-chonky folks like me.

Shamir Osman was a former sports journalist for 12 years before crossing the aisle to work in public relations.

Source: CNA/ml