SINGAPORE: When Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu recently said that there is “no specific” target for Team Singapore athletes who will be competing at the 2018 Asian Games, netizens responded with a mixture of confusion and derision.
Does the absence of a target signify a lack of aspirations, expectations and vision?
Some speculated that the authorities were too afraid to set targets for fear of falling short.
Whatever the actual reasons, a case can be made for not announcing targets considering the way the public has responded over the years.
A case in point is former national swimmer, Joscelin Yeo’s experience.
Ms Yeo won 40 gold medals at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games in her 17-year competitive swimming career. She is the only athlete on record to have won that many SEA Games gold medals. She also represented Singapore in the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and four Olympic Games.
While she progressively gained much deserved public adulation for her medal wins, she acknowledged that the public reaction to her international debut was hard to handle.
THE DETRIMENTAL EFFECT OF NOT MEETING EXPECTATIONS
In an On the Record interview last year, she described what happened at the SEA Games in 1991 in Manila where she won two silver and three bronze medals.
Instead of being celebrated for these wins, Ms Yeo found herself being condemned.
"I was 12 and I was swimming at my first SEA Games. But because I was representing the national team, the expectation was that you come home with gold medals. I got a bad report in the media. I knew I was not living up to public expectations,” she said.
It was clear that even though more than 20 years had passed since the Games, the memory of falling short still affected her on a visceral level.
She actually quit swimming for a few months after the negative coverage.
Athletes I have spoken with over the years tell me that they all have personal goals and targets, but expressing them to the public sometimes has a detrimental effect.
It increases pressure, raises expectations and if publicly-expressed goals are not met, widespread criticism of not only the athletes but government agencies involved in sports administration only serves to further harm morale.
This could indeed be one of the reasons for not announcing targets.
SETTING MEANINGFUL AND REALISTIC GOALS
Setting unrealistic goals is clearly detrimental too.
An example that many Singaporeans remember is one articulated in 1998 by then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong of aiming to qualify for the World Cup by 2010.
He had spoken about achieving this partly by naturalising foreign talent to help boost the local football scene.
Even then, many questioned if Goal 2010 was achievable.
Today, it’s clear that it wasn’t.
However, having a meaningful vision that inspires athletes and Singaporeans as a whole remains key.
And when realistic targets are set, they can have the effect of inspiring initiatives that propel us towards excellence.
But even if these targets are not immediately met, we need to be able to soldier on and support the journey.
Are we capable of that?
THE MEANING OF SPORTS AND THE ROLE OF THE “VILLAGE”
Several issues plague sports in Singapore today.
Debate over whether the state is doing enough to fund our athletes and whether corporates are sufficiently stepping up, rears its head every now and then.
Recently, the Ben Davis saga surfaced the issue of National Service obligations possibly getting in the way of sporting excellence.
The fact that such issues still generate public debate shows that Singaporeans see some meaning in sports.
But do we see enough meaning in it to have and pursue our sporting dreams and to encourage those around us to do so?
Do we see enough meaning in it to support our athletes proudly and unconditionally?
Are most of us merely fair-weather fans?
The public adulation that national swimmer, Joseph Schooling garnered as a result of his Olympic gold medal win in 2016 was expected.
But would the public have commended him had he merely won a bronze medal or none at all in spite of doing his best?
Any athlete would tell you that consistent fan support can inspire excellence too.
CEO of Sport Singapore (SportSG), Lim Teck Yin said in another On the Record interview that the role of the “village” which includes corporations and individuals, is vital. He said:
The meaningfulness of the achievement of our national athletes will be enhanced only when the village gets behind them in substantive ways. When there’s an over-reliance on one party (the Government) to do everything, the value of bringing people together is lost. We need to build something great together.
A STRONG VISION
Whether we are able to get behind a sporting vision for Singapore is dependent on several factors.
The Government and other sports bodies clearly have a role to play in defining a vision, especially in a country where sporting excellence has often played a secondary role to academic excellence.
To be fair, cultivating a sporting nation has been on the national agenda for several decades and efforts have been made in this regard.
For instance, SportSG’s Vision 2030 is meant to inspire mass participation and support for those representing Singapore on the international stage.
On SportSG’s web site, it is described as “the story of our people and how Sports can be used as a strategy to achieve our national priorities such as developing healthy and resilient people, forging strong united communities, retention of core values, shared memories, strengthened friendships as well as building a dynamic society and economy.”
This is supported by initiatives such as the Sports Facilities Master Plan “to provide greater access to quality, affordable sports facilities and enable wider participation in sports”.
SportSG says initiatives to encourage sports participation through ActiveSG have had a positive impact.
Hopefully, all this will inspire more to work towards excelling at the elite level as well.
Whether sports can be a viable career in Singapore is another issue that has to be progressively addressed.
However, these issues perhaps can only be addressed if, as a start, more of us took action on the ground to doggedly pursue our sporting dreams or to encourage others to do so.
The authorities can formulate a vision and do more to put in place mechanisms to support it, but ultimately it comes down to the people.
Do we dare encourage and rally round those who represent our nation at the highest levels regardless of their results in order to inspire them to greater heights and create a vibrant sporting culture?
It’s time to ask ourselves if our brand of Singaporean pragmatism of setting KPIs and responding positively only when these are achieved can be elevated to unconditional support that inspires excellence without fear of condemnation.
Bharati Jagdish is the host of Channel NewsAsia Digital News' hard-hitting On The Record, a weekly interview with thought leaders across Singapore, and The Pulse, Channel NewsAsia’s weekly podcast that discusses the hottest issues of the week.