Mr Speaker sir, I rise to support the motion proposed by my Hon friends, Sengkang MP Prof Jamus Lim and Aljunied MP Mr Mohd Faisal Manap, on Singapore sports.
We owe a profound debt of gratitude to our athletes who proudly fly the Singapore flag in tournaments like the SEA Games and Para Games. They have sacrificed through their long hours of training and through rising to the challenge of intensely competitive sports, where they might face the agony of defeat as easily as the thrill of victory.
For our athletes, we must not be only be passive spectators. We must, on occasions like this Parliamentary sitting, honour them with the respect they deserve for their efforts.
But as we honour and respect our athletes for what they have done in the past, we must be bold to set ambitious goals for the nation’s sporting future, and this speaks to the second part of the motion by Prof Lim and Mr Faisal Manap. We must strive to enhance our sports eco-system such that our athletes will find sports a rewarding and sustainable career and that there can be a thriving, commercially attractive eco-system for other stake-holders, including commercial sponsors and advertisers.
In my speech I will touch on a few themes:
- Firstly, setting national goals for what we want to achieve in the sporting arena.
- Secondly, uplifting sports that are less well-known and celebrated than say football.
- Thirdly, investing enough and early enough in talent.
- And lastly, creating a commercially viable sports eco-system.
Setting National Goals for Sports
What kinds of goals do we want to set for sports nationally? For every country, there would always be a tension across various goals – for example cultivating peaks of excellence versus encouraging mass participation. Or shining the spotlight on our local athletes while also seeking economic benefits from global leagues and foreign athletes and teams.
I will argue that such goals are not mutually exclusive and sufficient weight can be given to disparate goals.
I would argue that we should embrace four goals for Singapore sports at the national level:-
- Firstly, to achieve and celebrate excellence in sports in general; this means providing a baseline of support, encouragement and publicity for all sportspersons (including Para sportspersons), spanning both those that are successful and those that are less so;
- Secondly, to focus state resources most on those sports where we can feasibly achieve regional and global excellence, as well as in football which has a unique, exceptional significance from the standpoint of heritage, national pride and bonding; and to do justice to those resources, such efforts have to involve regular, hard-nosed reviews of the successes and failures of past policy;
- Thirdly, to apply our communications machinery to highlight our athletes’ successes and inspire mass participation in sports, which has health and other benefits; and
- And fourthly, to convert that mass interest and participation deriving from sporting excellence into a vibrant business eco-system whereby the sports industry and its athletes can derive a larger share of revenues from the private sector. This last goal is particularly important if we want to make the sports industry sustainable and attractive to athletes, other sports industry professionals and commercial participants, versus being an excessively government-dependent industry.
This last goal is probably where we need the most work. We have to attract strong audiences and spending, which in turn will attract commercial sponsorship, participation and advertising, which in turn can generate the money needed to spark more excellence, in a virtuous cycle. It does not make sense to speak of a commercial strategy when there is no audience interest. The horse has to come before the cart.
Lesser known sports where Singapore shines
In the second part of my speech, I will talk about uplifting our national efforts in less well-known sports.
Sports like football, badminton, tennis and golf, for example, have a mass audience world-wide and command strong interest in Singapore too.
However, there are less well-known sports where Singaporean athletes have achieved great results regionally and even globally.
One important thrust in our sporting efforts should be to focus on those sports where Singapore has done well, so as to focus support on our athletes there, so that they sustain and surpass their achievements; analyse and act on the reasons for that success; have our NSAs engage these top performers aggressively to be coaches, advisors and role models to inspire others to take up the sport; and stimulate media coverage and draw more attention and audience numbers to these sports. Where we have strong national champions in a sport, there lies the basis for stimulating audience interest – and thus, to bring in commercial participation on the back of that.
I am not claiming that nothing has been done by the government for these less well-known sports. But I am arguing for a more aggressive approach of using our resources to study our regional and world-class athletes, try to spark more people entering these sports, focus more of our funding dollars on such sports and draw more attention and interest to these sports, not only the more famous ones.
Let me now touch on some examples of sports that are less well known but where Singaporean athletes have done well regionally or globally.
Firstly, let me talk about darts. We have a national champion in this sport – Paul Lim is recognised as one of the best dartsmen in the world. His story is an interesting one, the story of a person fuelled by passion, without necessarily having the backing of resources.
In a story in TODAY Online from 2017, Paul recounted that in the early part of his journey in darts, he struggled. “I decided to quit my job and go to work on the American circuit. I worked part-time as a chef from Monday to Thursday, then from Friday to Sunday, I’d play tournaments….For my first two years, I had no sponsors and I depended on my savings and my job (salary).”
Paul excels in the soft-tip darts world, which he picked up two decades ago. Soft-tips are plastic, which allows for the scoring to be done automatically. Matches can be played online via the electronic dartboards. This makes it more player-friendly, which in turns draws a huge, younger crowd that is willing to spend.
In the same 2017 article, Paul noted that the soft-tip darts scene has exploded in Singapore, too. He estimated that there were around 20,000 players here. “Singapore has one of the most lucrative and active darts scene in the world,” he said…But agitation creeps into his voice when the state of the local steel-tip scene is brought up. “I feel really angry,” he said.
“We could have been growing in the steel-tip (competitions) too, but it’s just that the people who ran the (Singapore) darts association, for the last 10 years have run it to the ground. “We used to send teams to the World Cup, organise the Singapore Open, Pesta Sukan, (had) a great league system. It was great in the early days. “We have good players … but they can’t go nowhere, that’s a shame, really.” Without an association to be affiliated with, players are unable to represent Singapore internationally. Lim revealed that him and Harith – “Singapore’s best steel-tip player” – owe their participation in the PDC World Cup to a personal invitation from organisers.”
Sir, there used to be a Singapore Darts Association. I tried to find out if an NSA for darts still exists, and it does not appear that one does. I am aware that Sports Singapore does provide support for athletes in sports where there is no NSA, but it begs the question why there is no NSA and more concerted efforts in a field like darts, where we have world-class athletes and hence the potential to build on that.
Next, let me talk about E-sports, an industry at the early stages of growth world-wide. Indeed, Singapore recently hosted the world’s top tournament in this sport. Given the tremendous commercial potential for this sport, it deserves the kind of close analysis of success and targeted support that I spoke about. I am glad that there is an NSA for this sport, unlike darts.
In fact, in E-sports, Singapore won a SEA Games gold medal for Valorant , albeit not without some associated controversy.
This is a sport deserving of more media attention and one where our top performers can hopefully get support in attracting emulators. In fact, it is telling that a Yahoo News article from 2021 said that “Unlike Olympic athletes, our esports heroes don’t usually get prime time coverage in the media.”
Two names worthy of mention here are Daryl “iceiceice” Koh and Ho Kun Xian, who is known simply as Xian. They are some of the eSports athletes that have the biggest tournament earnings. Daryl reportedly made over USD1.7m in tournament earnings alone last year, excluding salary and sponsorships. Is the support they receive from the government proportionate to their sporting success and are determined efforts being made to build a viable eco-system, with new players entering who are inspired by these greats?
Also, eSports refers to a collection of various games with different publishers. There are different games like DotA, CSGO, Fortnite, Call of Duty, etc.
I would like to ask – how does Singapore choose to support specific eSports titles? Why is there no representation for DotA 2 and CSGO, for example, which have not only some of the biggest prize pools globally but have also hosted huge events in Singapore (such as the International).
Next, let me move to powerlifting.
On 6 June 2022, Singaporean Farhanna Farid set a world record in the open U-52kg deadlift at the World Open Classic Powerlifting Championships 2022 in Sun City, South Africa. She achieved 200.5kg, ahead of Noemie Allabert and Shizuka Rico.
The brothers Matthew and Marcus Yap have also managed a string of achievements in power-lifting. For example, in 2017, Matthew set a powerlifting squat world record (215.5kg) in the Under-66kg sub-junior category at the Asian Classic Powerlifting Championships.
Yet in 2017, Matthew and Marcus had to crowdfund plane tickets home after missing their flight from Minsk, Belarus, where they were participating in a competition where Matthew had set a new a world squat record. They did not receive any funding from Sport Singapore because powerlifting does not have an NSA, though having said that, an official at Powerlifting Singapore helped them to start the crowdfunding campaign and Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs asked the airline to lower the fare for both of them. According to Ms Dahpne Loo of Powerlifting Singapore as reported in an article in The Straits times, “Having worked 10-hour shifts at a Korean eatery and saving their allowances just to be able to make this trip to Belarus to compete, there was no way they could afford this. They had already spent SGD5,500 for this chance to win the World Record,” Ms Loo wrote.
The article said that as Powerlifting Singapore is not an NSA, there is no funding to send athletes overseas.
Next, let me move to billiards. We have a world-class athlete in Peter Gilchrist, who won the World Billiards Championship (English billiards) in 1994, 2001, and 2013 (long format), and 2019. Peter was a two-time Sportsman of the Year in Singapore.
We also have Aloysius Yapp, who was the world junior champion in nine-ball in 2014 and runner-up in the 2021 U.S. Open Pool Championship. In 2022, Aloysius won a bronze medal at the World Games in Birmingham, Alabama for nine-ball. He reached No 1 in the world rankings in 2021.
I note that Cuesport SG has received some government funding.
There are a number of other sports where we have great talent in Singapore and where more can be done to capitalise on that talent.
In the interest of time, I cannot delve deep on all these but I will refer to these briefly.
- In sailing, Cecilia Low and Kimberley Lim came in as the top Asian team at the Olympics, also winning one race where 21 countries competed, an Olympic first. Our sailors also won three of the nine gold medals on offer at this year’s SEA Games in Cambodia.
- In bowling, Singaporean Cherie Tan was named World Bowling Athlete of the year by the World Bowling Association in 2019. Shayna Ng won the International Bowling Federation Super World Championships women’s singles title in 2021.
- As my Hon friend Prof Jamus Lim mentioned, we also do well in tchoukball and dodgeball, being among the top 10 in the world, even though these sports do not have NSA-level recognition and support.
To conclude this part of my speech, I would like to pull together the threads of my key arguments on less well-known sports.
We clearly have some outstanding talent in less well-known sports, at global levels or at the regional level – people like Aloysius Yap and Peter Gilchrist in billiards, Paul Lim in darts, “iceiceice” and Xian in E-sports, Farhana Farid and the Yap brothers in powerlifting and Shayna Ng and Cherie Tan in bowling for example.
We ought to apply ourselves to do a few things as a country:-
1stly provide proper funding and support to our athletes in these less well-known sports with NSA backing, to enable them to keep winning for Singapore.
2ndly, we should channel more efforts towards raising the profile of these sports and sportspersons, so as to boost audience interest and attract new entrants into these sports, with these world-class athletes being role models and possibly future coaches and advisors to NSAs.
3rdly, our sports administration professionals at Sports Singapore or the NSAs should ty to unpack the reasons why we have such top talents and help tweak our eco-system to replicate such factors more broadly – the availability of certain types of training or attachment opportunities abroad, for example.
Investing enough in scholarships and awards for the most talented
I’ll move on to the third part of my speech, which is on identifying top talent that can perform at the highest levels in the region and the world.
What else can we do to make sure we are identifying such talent early and supporting them with the resources that are necessary to achieve excellence in competitive sports today?
In contrast to the ancient Greek Olympic ideal and perhaps disappointingly some might say, sporting excellence these days is to a considerable extent a function of financial investment in the best coaches, research and analytics, equipment, sports medicine doctors, sports massage therapists, even sports psychologists and so on.
Can we identify early and invest more in the handful of those Singaporeans who are truly talented and have the potential to be world-class or at least tops in the region?
It is well known that the cost of Joseph Schooling’s intense training in the USA prior to winning an Olympic Gold medal for Singapore was well over one million dollars. I suspect that not many Singaporean families have that amount to spend or would be willing to spend that on a sporting career for their children if they did.
In the case of Joseph Schooling, he did receive state funding but this came later in his career, after he had already started recording some good results in the US. As his uncle Max wrote in a public posts quoted in a Mothership article:
“His travel was not paid for by “state money” but by his parents. His fees at a very expensive school — chosen because it was a school that specialised in combining academics and sporting excellence in swimming — were paid for not by “state money” but by his parents. His accommodation in North Florida was not paid for by “state money” but by his parents. The same source of “money” was what paid for his specialist coaches, his trips to various competitions, and so on.”
According to Max, state money began to flow only very late in the game.
As Joseph himself said in a TODAY article from 2016, “[There is] Absolutely not (enough financial support). Which parent should have to pay over US$1 million out of their own pocket to help their kid succeed?…MAP (Multi-million dollar Awards Programme) is really nice if you hit the target, but without support and funding how do you hit those goals?”
In an interview with CNA in Nov 2022, Joseph said, “As far as financial support goes, I definitely think the associations can do a better job. We don’t really have much funding.”
There is a bit of chicken and egg problem here. State funding can be attracted if good results are achieved but to get good results requires funding at an early age. We need to solve this chicken and egg problem.
I am aware that there are scholarships available, like the SOF-Peter Lim scholarship and the NUS sports scholarship.
But Sports Singapore and the NSAs should give serious thought to how truly talented athletes can be identified and funded early enough in their careers to achieve their full potential, with funding calibrated to potential.
Here, we should direct funding drawn not only from the state but also philanthropic donors as well as corporate sponsors.
But we need to place our bets well. In doing this, we need rigorous, scientific early stage identification of potentially amazing athletes. Do we currently have a good enough infrastructure and system to spot amazing talent at an early age?
After all, the science of sports has advanced a great deal. There is now a significant academic and published literature on how future potential can be predicted to a considerable extent by performance metrics and facts determined scientifically at an early age. This is something Sports Singapore should strive to do and discuss more openly.
For example, are our sports teachers primed with the necessary training to identify revealing predictive metrics and to be able to escalate such cases for national attention? Are they trained to differentiate someone with the potential to become truly great as opposed to just above average? If such training is not practicable, can there be a centralised cadre of talent scouts who have such training, who can be called in to evaluate individuals or who visit schools proactively for observation?
I note that for many professional sports in the US, there is literally a professional vocation known as talent scout. These professionals are highly trained, held to clear KPIs and fly around extensively to spot talent. Do we have a system for doing this?
Ensuring sufficient talent in the sports business management field
The last part of my speech will be on the business aspects of the sports industry. If we succeed in attracting audience numbers and companies to certain sports where we do well, we will also need business managers who know how to optimise the business eco-system to make it attractive and sustainable.
Are we doing enough to train a cadre of professionals who have the necessary sports business management and marketing skill sets? Can we attract Singaporeans who have an interest in this field to take up sponsored training abroad (or perhaps attract foreign professionals in the short-term, aiming for some skills transfer, perhaps using ONEPASS for example)?
Such skills and best practices are available in abundance in countries like the US and UK, where sports is, in many cases, a thriving, profitable, multi-billion dollar industry. If you look at the US Superbowl, for example, sometimes the commercial advertisements compete with the on-field athletic performances for public attention.
This is important if we want to make the sports industry sustainable and attractive to athletes and other sports professionals and administrators on the financial level, as opposed to being a government-dependent industry where one is expected to sacrifice financial sustainability for love of sport. There must be enough money in the eco-system to attract and retain good people.
In contrast there are certain types of artistic or creative activity where it is hard to achieve full commercial viability anywhere in the world – symphony orchestras for example, certain types of classical art forms, museums and so on. In these industries, state funding will probably remain key, though even here efforts can be made to draw in philanthropic donations.
But in sports commercial viability is not a futile goal, as examples around the world demonstrate.
In conclusion Mr Speaker sir, with this motion, the Workers’ Party hopes to spark a national conversation on the future of sport in Singapore – what we want to achieve and how we’re going to achieve it.
I trust the debate today will generate many useful discussions and will spark public participation in the conversation. We need the Singaporean people to wholeheartedly shape and thus support our sporting directions and to walk with our sporting stakeholders to make the future for sports and our sportpersons in Singapore better than the past.