SINGAPORE: The recently concluded Southeast Asian (SEA) Games got me thinking about the issue of Singapore’s national sport.
Do we have one? If so, what is it?
I guess it depends on what a national sport is in the first place and what purpose it serves. Let’s explore some plausible definitions.
WHAT IS A NATIONAL SPORT?
Online definitions talk about how a national sport “is considered to be an intrinsic part of the culture of a nation". That's a decent starting point - but can it be developed?
On further thought, I drew up a few more possibilities.
What if the “national” aspect of the national sport meant that it had to identify closely with the characteristics of a nation?
Or should it be one which the country is particularly good at, with athletes competing and winning at all levels so often that it elicits national pride?
CULTURE OF A NATION
Based on that first definition of a national sport, I fail to identify a sport inherent to Singapore’s local culture, whatever that may be.
Maybe if I were still in primary school I would hazard chapteh as a possibility considering it is synonymous with Singapore’s blended culture. The first trace of a sport involving the kicking of a feathered object comes from ancient China, whereas the name of chapteh itself is said to have Malay and Hokkien roots.
But who plays chapteh outside of school anymore? Is it even part of the culture outside of school let alone of the entire nation? For that matter, I don’t even think primary school students in this decade consider chapteh a recess-time preoccupation that we from the 1980s and 1990s did.
Moreover, chapteh has become more of an exhibition of our heritage than a sport where there is competitive participation.
MAKING A SPLASH
What about the third criteria above of international success?
Singapore’s sporting history has in the past shown success in fields like athletics, bowling, table-tennis, squash and even wushu. But recent results in these sports have been met with mixed success at best.
Similarly, Singapore has been particularly good in some key water sports – swimming, water-polo and sailing – having won international honours in them for years and dominating the region.
More recent history shows swimming has something of an edge over the other two sports.
The national men’s water-polo team, which had been the region’s best for 54 consecutive years, settled for bronze medal at these SEA Games.
In sailing too, Singapore’s haul of six medals was half that of its previous SEA Games outing in 2017. This year, it won only one gold, compared to four previously, placing it third overall among five countries that participated in the sport at these Games.
Swimming, on the other hand, was Singapore's best performing sport at these Games with its 23-gold medal haul matching its previous best at the 2015 edition of the Games.
Add to that swimming has produced our only Olympic gold medal courtesy of Joseph Schooling’s 100-metre butterfly stroke in 2016 and arguably Singapore’s swimmers have been our most successful athletes as far as winning goes.
Clearly, if success were the sole determinant of national pride, swimming would be our national sport.
Interestingly, swimming could also meet our second criteria of being associated with the characteristics of a nation. One could argue a water-sport such as swimming ties in nicely with our identity as a coastal island-state.
A SINGAPORE BLEND
The thing is if the question of our national sport had been posed to me in the past – certainly before this year’s edition of the SEA Games – I would have answered, in a heartbeat, football.
Now, particularly after the national football team’s dismal performance during the Games, I am not so sure.
But, what if instead of neatly fitting into one of these requirements, the criteria to be Singapore’s national sport is, like many things Singaporean, a strange but fitting concoction of these elements?
What if Singapore’s national sport is one that should permeate widely in society and not by how many gold medals we won? After all, a national sport should be easily accessible, enjoyed by most of society, if not all, and has the widest following.
A COMMON MAN’S GAME
The interest that football enjoys in Singapore still dwarfs most sports, both in terms of mass participation and mass spectatorship.
More Singaporeans have shifted their focus to international football than the local league or national teams. But ask around and many would be able to reasonably articulate the rules of the game and a large number would also be able to rattle off prominent figures and developments in the world of football.
From a spectatorship perspective, even till now, decent crowds watch the national football team play. In a match against Uzbekistan in October, 12,547 turned up to watch Singapore play.
On the contrary, many Singaporeans would struggle to name swimmers beyond the few household names or list key events and developments in the sport. We like swimming but we only tune in periodically when our national swimmers are participating in large sporting events.
In terms of participation, football is also popular among a large section of Singaporeans. Competitively, there are professional, corporate, semi-professional and amateur leagues along with school teams.
Swimming, on the other hand, is contested by a very small pool of clubs and swimmers. Only a handful of schools are seriously competitive in swimming and have their own swimming facilities.
We might have a sports school and inter-school competitions at the primary and secondary school levels, but we do not have a competitive varsity league in swimming that can spur our best swimmers forward at their most crucial development stage, a reason why Schooling had moved to the US to study and train.
On the other hand, football is also accessible and is widely known as the common man’s game around the world.
Football games are often the rallying sport for most interschool competition, even at the junior college level.
Recreationally, there are more than 50 free football pitches to be used in Singapore and countless other stadiums and schools where one can have a kick-about. Though there are 26 affordable public swimming pools in Singapore, most other pools are in private clubs or condominiums, limiting access.
Many of us will remember kicking around empty water bottles into makeshift goal posts at our HDB void decks when younger. But it is not as if we can jump into our neighbourhood canals for a swim.
But even with a smaller talent pool, less competition and participation rates, fewer facilities and access to the sport, the fact that swimming returns Singapore so much success is remarkable and cannot be ignored.
But it is still not what football is to Singapore.
It is still not enough of a uniting force that brings people together regardless of ethnic, economic or social backgrounds. It is still not enough of a draw to get tens of thousands of Singaporeans to make their way to the National Stadium to get behind their country. It is still not a natural topic of conversation at coffee-shops, over lunch or as fodder for friendly banter among friends.
Perhaps, there may come a time when success does matter. If Singapore continues its dismal run on the football pitch, its popularity may suffer.
For now, despite its shortcomings on the field, football remains Singapore’s national sport for its ubiquity and ability to bring people together.
Perhaps someday eSports may become both that culturally uniting factor among future generations of Singaporeans and one that wins the country many accolades.
Until then, football is here to roost.
Malminderjit Singh is editor at CNA Digital News, Commentary section.