SINGAPORE: Lim Teck Yin is suitably built to be an ambassador of Singapore sports. As CEO of Sport Singapore (SportSG), a statutory board set up to transform Singapore through sport, he embodies its spirit with his athletic physique.
He is tall and broad-shouldered and for this interview was wearing a fitted t-shirt that accentuated his robust chest and chiseled arms. A light tan, evidence of his love of outdoor sports, illuminated his skin.
At 55, he exercises regularly and has introduced a “dress-down every day” programme at SportSG. All employees can come to work in casual or sportswear and are encouraged to physically move every few hours.
Lim’s relationship with sport started long before he became CEO of SportSG.
“My father was very athletic. He played tennis and badminton and I used to follow him as a young kid,” he said with a tinge of nostalgia.
In primary school, whether it was football, table tennis, badminton, tennis or field hockey, he played it.
He confessed he was never really good at any of them, but when an opportunity to play water polo came along, he signed up. “I loved swimming at quite a young age. Ang Peng Siong was in my cohort and he was my classmate, so I wasn’t about to win anything in swimming,” he said, with a hint of a smile in his voice.
“Water polo looked like a lot more fun than swimming laps anyway.”
He went on to represent Singapore in water polo, winning six consecutive South-East Asian (SEA) Games Gold Medals from 1985 to 1995, and an Asian Games Bronze Medal in 1986.
Beyond sports, his 30-year career in the Singapore Armed Forces shaped his ability to be both a team player and a leader.
As Brigadier-General he was involved in strategic planning, leading and managing units, operations and projects, and developing people - skills that he took with him to SportSG in 2011.
Today, he’s interested in making sports a way of life in Singapore. Winning medals was never a priority for him and “it shouldn’t be” he said. For him, it’s about having fun, and parents and schools must be able see this.
We started off by talking about a project he’s particularly proud of - the ActiveSG Football Academy. “It has made football very affordable and accessible to children. We now have 10 centres,” he said.
The sessions are conducted three times a week over a period of 10 weeks and cost S$130. Kids are coached by prominent names such as Alexander Duric.
FUNDING FOR FOOTBALL – MORE EFFICIENCIES NEEDED
This was the perfect opportunity to discuss the state of Singapore football. The Football Association of Singapore (FAS) recently announced plans to widen the pool of youth players at the school level and implement mandatory Under-23 quotas for six local S-League clubs.
“I know it’s a cliché, but Singapore football clearly needs to go back to basics - a strong focus on youth development. But there’s lag time between getting that right and delivering a strong national team. The FAS unfortunately is going to have to suffer the pain of this transitionary period.”
More recently, the impending funding cut for the 2018 S.League season is threatening to worsen football’s woes. It was announced earlier this year that SportSG will be the gatekeeper of annual subsidies and the budget for next year could be halved.
Lim didn’t want to go into detail about the amount, but I asked him to explain why a funding cut is necessary. Won’t this further cripple an already floundering S.League?
“We are not cutting funding because they weren’t performing. I think we did a deep-dive into how money was spent and we are convinced that we can do this at a lower level of funding.
“If I gave you a million dollars and you were not sharp enough with that million dollars, that could be less effective than someone who has half of that but is very clear what that money is going to be put into.”
He is convinced that more efficiencies can be made.
“We can streamline administration across the S.League headquarters and the club’s administration. There’s a lot of scope for synergies whether it’s in player development, coach development or opportunities to advance the standard of football.
“One of the ideas we have is to convince the S.League that we should share stadiums. There is a difference between maintaining 11 pitches versus upgrading and maintaining five.”
How that will go down with the clubs is a different matter. After all, shouldn’t teams play at a stadium located within their clubs’ community?
Also, since the S.League couldn’t do well with the existing level of funding, wouldn’t cutting it, even while introducing efficiencies, either keep the league performing at the current level, if not worse?
"That remains to be seen. I think more efficiencies will help," he insisted.
Another concern over the years has been players’ contracts and salaries. Surely those things have to be improved in order to attract younger players to the field? Wouldn’t a cut in funding make contracts and salaries even worse?
But he pointed out that the ones who perform well earn good money.
“If you’re earning S$10,000, that’s not bad, right?”
But media reports say such cases are rare. A Channel NewsAsia report earlier this year found that average squad members earn less than S$3,000 a month, while players who regularly feature in the national team can pull in S$5,000 to S$8,000.
Lim feels this is fair. He became circumspect as he said this.
“I don’t want to run the risk of, in one statement, whitewashing everybody, but should a footballer who is not in the national team be publicly funded more than many of our national athletes in other sports? There needs to be a balance in terms of investment and accountability and to have a better perspective on the total amount of public funding that will be given to this.”
He also feels some players in the clubs lack a “professional high-performance mindset”.
“This is about how you live your life. How much you sleep and rest. How much you train. Both in the training that is organised and that you do on your own. How much do you study your sport and how much do you practise? Any athlete who wants to do well makes big sacrifices.”
Granted, the athlete has to prove his seriousness about the sport but if his income is far from satisfactory and he has to hold down another full-time job to support his family, how can he possibly make that commitment?
Lim admitted this is a problem. “It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. But if the clubs want to be able to offer bigger contracts, want to provide more assurance, more security, they will first have to ask themselves 'Can I market this?'
“If you recognise that funding will flow to a certain level and beyond that level, you have to pay attention to your market proposition, you’re going to spend more time to get out to the community. You’re going to build relationships with businesses and help them understand why they should support you.”
He pointed out that the FAS council has recently been urging S.League teams to reach out to their communities.
SOME ATHLETES DON’T ACKNOWLEDGE GOVERNMENT SUPPORT
This took us on to the issue of sports funding in general.
Just this year, the Government announced enhancements in the form of an injection of $50 million over five years into the High Performance Sports system and a new One Team Singapore matching grant.
But some athletes have taken to crowdfunding to support their needs, giving rise to questions from members of the public about the extent of Government funding.
He pointed out that Sports Excellence Scholarship (spexScholarship) holders generally don’t resort to alternatives like crowdfunding.
But does one have to reach those heights in order to be adequately funded? What about those who haven’t reached that level but have potential?
He explained the system continues to evolve to better identify athletic potential at a younger age, but he urged the need to contextualise statements about a lack of funding.
“A vocal few fail to acknowledge what is already being given. Very often, I wonder if I should come out on social media and declare the amount of money they are actually getting from Government.”
So why doesn't he, for the sake of transparency, and let the public decide?
"I’d rather not," he said.
"Because I think we position these athletes as role models and they are. I do understand what they perceive their struggles to be. I understand they perceive that a lot more can be done and to their credit, they are standing up to take action."
Even though he did not go into specifics, just by saying he believes some athletes are understating Government support, some might say he has already cast aspersions on the fraternity.
I had my doubts about his statement and remarked that he was making a serious allegation.
He was quick to say he believes "none of our athletes are conniving or malicious".
"But in standing up to take action, they obviously know that they have to present a strategy that works, which is 'I’m under-supported'."
Putting aside the possibility that the athletes could be underplaying the amount of government support they are receiving, the fact remains that they feel under-supported.
Considering Singapore is an affluent nation with aspirations to be a sports hub and sporting city, shouldn’t more be given to athletes to show how serious the Government actually is?
He explained his position: “During conversations with athletes, sometimes we disagree on whether what more they would like funding for will make much of a difference. Sometimes, it’s because of a lack of planning on their part. Maybe something has just popped up and they want to do it, but it was not provisioned for when we planned funding.
“But sometimes I think it’s just rhetoric on their part.”
There has also been much controversy over the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme even though foreign talent make up a very small percentage of sportspeople here. Various officials have pointed out that many of these individuals have inspired young Singaporeans to take up the sport and the scheme has no adverse impact on the funding of local sportspeople. However, care needs to be taken to ensure that foreign talent indeed have a positive impact on local athletes.
Lim feels the issue of funding has been misunderstood and pointed out that beyond funding in the form of cash, there are many other ways in which Singapore athletes are supported.
“There’s medical support and support in terms of sports science. Sports science has physiology, nutrition, psychology, strengthening and conditioning and even facility support. And all this is free for the athletes.”
However, he admitted there is room for improvement.
“One of the systemic challenges today is that the funding provided through the National Sports Associations (NSAs) might be presented on a reimbursement basis. That presents cash flow problems. We should urge the NSAs to just give them the money up front.”
COULD JOSEPH SCHOOLING HAVE BEEN SUPPORTED BETTER?
We naturally progress to discussing Singapore’s pride and joy, Joseph Schooling. A recurring question after Schooling’s Olympic medal win last year was why the Government hadn’t done more to contribute to his journey.
“He came onto the spexScholarship in 2013. There wasn’t a spexScholarship in 2012,” said Lim.
But couldn’t an athlete of Schooling’s calibre have been spotted earlier and more money be put into grooming him?
Lim considered the question for a moment.
“Let’s go back to the earlier system which could have caught Joseph Schooling. He wasn’t on the radar when it came to benchmark-able measurements against other athletes. The current system is much improved and we’re able to identify athletes much younger, even before they’ve won a SEA Games gold medal.”
But even the current system has its limitations.
“At what stage should we intervene with more money? I think we should always try to improve our competitive analytics and enhance the level of flexibility in any system. How much flexibility would we have to make bets and how much latitude do we want to give ourselves for failed bets as opposed to having much stronger success rates? This is a continuing conversation to have.”
I put it to him that as an affluent nation, surely more latitude can be exercised even if it means intervening later with more money.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE MONEY
This is when we finally got to what he considers the core of the issue.
“It’s a current weakness in our high performance mindset that this funding needs to be provided solely by the Government. 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 to do everything, the value of bringing people together is lost. We need to build something great together.
“When we put Team Singapore out there at the SEA Games recently, at least one million eyeballs saw them compete online. If thinking about excellence, perseverance and the will to succeed as a small country resonates with your brand, let’s market this together.”
When I asked how successful this strategy has been in getting commercial entities to come forward, he said SportSG is “sharpening its sword” in this area.
But he enthusiastically spoke about the One Team Singapore Fund. At its launch earlier this year, it received S$500,000 from three donors.
THE POLITICS OF SPORTS
Earlier this year when public accusations and counter-accusations between members of the Singapore Athletics (SA) management committee made headlines and affected athletes’ performance, Lim stepped in to express his disappointment publicly, urging the association to put the needs of athletes first.
Today, he reiterated this and goes a step further. “Things continue to be at an impasse and I think they need a total and absolute leadership change,” he said categorically.
“If you don’t have a clear perspective of working in service of the sport, then you’re never going to succeed.”
The association’s squabbles led to marathoner Soh Rui Yong saying that he did not want to contribute 20 per cent of his $10,000 gold medal prize money to it. Under the Singapore National Olympic Council’s terms and conditions, it is mandatory to do so.
I wanted to know what Lim thinks of Soh’s stance on the issue. Why should an athlete have to make the contribution if he feels the association has not contributed to his success?
Lim said Soh’s feelings are “understandable”.
But while he recognises the deficits in the current SA management, in principle, he feels athletes should see the contribution as a “value statement”.
“Even if you feel the leadership of the day hasn’t supported you enough, you must remember the institution has walked a long journey with you over the years. You couldn’t have even qualified if there were no association. Today, they may not be doing a great job, but that doesn’t mean the institution is totally defunct. The institution of course always needs to make sure it uses the money to benefit the athletes.”
He also feels the national awards should not be seen as an entitlement.
“If you were contracted as a professional athlete in the sport industry, it’s a different contractual proposition. We shouldn’t mix up national high performance sport with the high performance sports business.”
NATIONAL SERVICE AND SPORTS
A big part of Lim’s life was spent in the army and his ties to sports make our next discussion deeply personal for him - the question of National Service getting in the way of athletes’ careers.
“The very foundation of National Service has been equity. Nobody gets excused and this is something that I think needs to be held because there are people who actually say, 'Why should this talented person be excused? Why should I put myself on the line for this person? Shouldn’t we all be doing this together?'"
Some consider representing Singapore on the international stage as an elite athlete as a form of National Service, but Lim disagreed.
“At the National Day Parade when we see what the SAF has become, what it’s able to achieve through the hard work of our national servicemen, I think there is a genuine sense of pride and whenever we’ve had a national project that required the army, air force or navy to step in, they’ve demonstrated what they can do and we feel very proud. It’s not the same as sports representation.
“If we better understand why NS is an imperative and accept it as a fact of being Singaporean, then let’s work around it. I played sports for 12 years while in the army. It’s inconvenient, but a balance can be found to do both.”
HIS DARKEST MOMENT
He spoke passionately about his career in the army, but when we start talking about the darkest moment of his military career, his passion turns into grief.
In July 1990, as an SAF company commander, he lost three soldiers during a training exercise.
“It is one thing to know that we put our lives on the line every day but a totally different thing to have to manage that loss.”
Even though investigations showed there was no negligence on his part, up until now, he feels a sense of guilt over what transpired that day.
“One of the soldiers we lost was actually not scheduled on that exercise. One of the other soldiers fell ill that day and I asked this soldier to join in. He could have avoided the whole thing if I hadn’t done that. But what can I do? We have to move on.”
He may not have fully recovered from this episode, but he is an optimist when it comes to most other aspects of his career and life.
“I WANT TO BE ABLE TO FADE AWAY”
As the conversation circled back to sports, I asked him how well he really thinks Singapore can do as a sporting nation.
“We’ve got a world champion swimmer, world champion junior sailors, world champion silat exponents, bowlers. We’ve got a young girl who just stunned everybody at fencing.
“I’m very clear in my mind that everything we do must have meaning to Singaporeans. If an Olympic gold medal does not make sense to the majority of Singaporeans, we will not pursue it. But in 2015, I was very encouraged to see two-thirds of TV viewers tuning in to the SEA games, so sports has meaning and our challenge is to continue to make it meaningful.”
Doing meaningful work is clearly important to him, but when asked about the legacy he wants to leave behind, he said, “I want to be able to fade away because it’s not about me. I’d like to be able to leave the scene but see more and more people carry on doing it. I don’t have to be there. This has never been about me.”