Nominated MP Dr Ben Tan, a former sportsman and gold medallist in sailing, recently opined about a widening gap in the attitudes of Singaporeans and Westerners about sports. In Singapore, we seem to take things to extremes. Parents ask doctors like him to exempt their children from physical activity. Alternatively, we focus only on a handful of outstanding young athletes who have the potential to win medals for Singapore.The vast majority of Singaporean children (the new “sandwiched class?”) are thus deprived of opportunities to simply enjoy sports. In contrast, children from international schools want to recover from their injuries quickly so they can participate in sports again.
This made me reflect on my own childhood experiences with sport. I wasn’t a very sporty person myself. However, I did participate when required. My parents sent me for swimming lessons after I nearly drowned in my grandparents’ pool when I was 9 years old. They also sent me for tennis lessons, which I enjoyed and was decent at, though I never thought of trying for the school team later on.
In secondary school, I took up badminton as my sport, since there were courts available in our old, tiny campus at Emerald Hill Road. Again, I didn’t bother trying for the school team as standards were pretty high. I could barely make it to the reserves in my class team!
In junior college, I tried signing up for badminton again but was told flatly that only those of school team standard would be accepted. I was surprised and more than a little disappointed. I had the growing impression that you could only be the very best at the sport, in order to have the right to play it regularly in school. Needless to say, I stopped playing badminton regularly after that. We had to study hard for the A-Levels, you know…
There were still other opportunities, however. Being a junior college famous for its swim team, it was decided that all students should learn how to swim. I recall being placed in the intermediate class as I already knew how to swim, and I would participate regularly. However, on the day of the lesson, the majority of girls in my cohort would say they had their periods and could not swim. This happened regularly each week, which either meant there was a serious gynaecological among our female population, or everyone just didn’t want to swim!
Another opportunity was given to me when we had internal class contests in track and field. Someone noted that I was a good sprinter, and before I knew it, I was asked to try out for the school team! I was even given a cloth badge with a number, and assigned a time slot to race with other candidates.
By that stage, however, after having gone through years of accepting that I had never been good enough to make it to any school team – and having seen how much faster the other female sprinters were – I withdrew from the heats. It would have been embarrassing to come in last, or nearly last – and I was quite certain that would happen. I was never told I was good in sports, so why make myself out to be something I probably wasn’t meant to be?
In Singapore’s competitive culture, there is a strong focus on ‘excellence’, but this means that only a few at the top of the pyramid will have the opportunity to put in their sweat, and hopefully reap some glory. Having been out of the local school system for nearly two decades, I cannot speak for the current system, although I would certainly like to think that the system has become more flexible and accepting of average performers, despite the pressure to produce stars.
In fact, there doesn’t have to be a tradeoff. Having a more sporting culture can work hand in hand with producing more top notch athletes. It can also create more community bonding, and of course, improving the health of the nation (which is something professionally dear to my heart). Otherwise, how could other countries with small population sizes, like Jamaica and Denmark, manage to produce football teams that have at least made it to the World Cup?
On a similar note, I recently returned from a trip to Canada where ice hockey is revered as much as football is in England. Why is there so much talent in Canada, such that the current cohort has been called the ‘Golden Generation’? Because everyone loves the sport and many children have the opportunity to play it – whether or not they all become stars – and develop their skills further. I suspect such cultures are also less adverse to failure and embarrassment – and have become all the better for it.
Changing mindsets will take time. That is, if we really want to change. And when we do, there is a very Singaporean tendency to engineer change and speed up the process to show that we are reaching our short-term KPIs. Yes, building up infrastructure and providing funds is a good start. But the real challenge is redefining our performance-driven culture and letting our children know it’s OK to simply have fun.