SINGAPORE: While significant funding goes to supporting elite athletes, the Government’s support is not just "a matter of dollars and cents", and extends to many other aspects of their lives, said Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong in Parliament on Wednesday (Jan 12).
He was responding to two parliamentary questions from Mr Xie Yao Quan (PAP-Jurong) and Ms Poh Li San (PAP-Sembawang) on how Singapore supports its sporting talent.
Mr Xie asked how promising athletes are identified and groomed, what support and assistance are available to such athletes and how many have benefitted from such schemes in recent years.
In his reply, Mr Tong outlined the various schemes and systems that the Government has put in place to support athletes and a sporting culture in Singapore.
A "significant portion of funding" goes to supporting athletes directly, he said. An example is the spexScholarship, which is offered to the most promising athletes to compete at major games.
The scholarship provides a monthly stipend for athletes' daily expenses, funding to offset their coaching costs, and to participate in local and overseas training and competitions, to purchase equipment and obtain additional sport medicine and sport science support.
There is a range in the amount, with top athletes getting several thousand dollars per month, said Mr Tong.
The spexScholarship has been awarded to 168 able-bodied and para-athletes since it started in 2013. There are currently 76 scholarship holders from different sports.
"Several of them have won medals at the Major Games and at the world championship level. A handful, like Pin Xiu and Kean Yew, are household names among Singaporeans," said Mr Tong, referring to badminton world champion Loh Kean Yew and five-time Paralympic gold medallist Yip Pin Xiu.
"The Government’s support for our elite athletes is not just a matter of dollars and cents, not just financial support, it's not just about coaching ... It also extends to many other aspects of our athletes' lives," said Mr Tong.
The Sport Excellence (spex) framework enables elite athletes to "compete in sports while excelling as students, professionals and also as exemplary members of society", he said, listing out several schemes under it that help athletes at different stages of their lives and sporting careers.
The spexEducation scheme, which has benefitted more than 500 athletes, helps student-athletes with school admissions, scholarships and scheduling their classes around their training sessions and competitions.
For athletes stepping into the workforce, the spexBusiness network helps them secure jobs and pursue meaningful careers while balancing their sporting commitments, said Mr Tong. Since 2013, 330 athletes have been helped through this scheme.
Athletes can also get grants to offset loss of wages when they miss work to prepare for and compete at major games, and to defray their training costs.
"In the last five years, some 4,000 athletes have used these grants to pursue their sporting ambitions," said Mr Tong.
HIGH-PERFORMANCE SPORT SYSTEM
Over the years, the Government has also developed the High-Performance Sport (HPS) system, providing athletes with "end-to-end support and development", he added.
They are given support and guidance in areas such as sport science and sport medicine, coaching, and counselling as part of the HPS system.
"The HPS system is designed ... to bring the best out of each individual athlete," he said.
"In Pin Xiu’s case, sport biomechanists at the SSI (Singapore Sport Institute) record and analyse her swim timings and performances. They also work closely with her coach and performance director to adjust, and to make fine adjustments, and optimise her strokes."
Responding to a question from Ms Poh on how Singapore attracts and retains good coaches, Mr Tong said that the provision of excellent coaching is integral to HPS.
"We endeavour to identify and hire the best coaches for our athletes – foreign or local coaches, and sometimes a blend, so that our coaching environment can also benefit from foreign expertise," he said.
The Government also makes sports accessible to all Singaporeans, devoting "significant resources" on programmes for Singaporeans to pursue sports and hone their skills, said Mr Tong.
"HOLISTIC AND COMPREHENSIVE"
The Ministry of Culture Community and Youth and Sport Singapore work with schools, the People's Association and sports bodies to provide exposure to and develop young Singaporean sporting talent.
The Government has also invested an average of nearly S$90 million a year over the last three years to develop and operate stadiums, running tracks, sports halls and other sports venues.
"This strategy not only allows us to foster a strong and broad-based sporting culture in Singapore, but provides opportunities to spot young sporting talents who can be offered pathways to develop their skills, and potentially represent our country as national athletes," he said.
Mr Tong called the Government's support for Singapore's national athletes "holistic and comprehensive".
"We invest in both the system and we also invest in our individual athletes," he said.
Mr Xie raised a supplementary question on prize money for athletes, making reference to Loh's win at the BWF World Championships, a tournament that does not offer prize money.
Said Mr Tong: "Our HPS framework, which I have taken some pains to lay out in some detail, allows us to insulate our athletes from the vicissitudes of just prize money - some high, some low, some competitions don't provide prize money."
He added that it is up to the organisers of each competition whether they provide prize money, but for athletes who do get prize money, the Government "retains no part" of it.
"It is between the athlete and the relevant NSA (National Sports Association), they deal with the prize money, they decide how that's best applied," he said.
Ms Poh then asked if there are "safety nets" for athletes who take personal sacrifices to pursue their sport.
Mr Tong said that Sport SG does help top athletes to transition to coaching or other adjunct careers to "leverage" their expertise.
"But we agree that more can be done and we will certainly press on with ensuring that athletes retain single-minded focus on training and ensuring that they devote as much of their time and energy possible to achieving the best outcome and not have to worry about ancillary matters."