On the Sports Motion – Speech by LO Pritam Singh

Mr Speaker, I rise in support of the motion on Sporting Success filed by MP for Sengkang Jamus Lim and MP for Aljunied Muhammad Faisal bin Abdul Manap. I also join my Workers’ Party colleagues, members of this House, and all Singaporeans in extending our well-wishes to Team Singapore athletes who competed at the Southeast East Asian (SEA) Games and SEA Paralympic Games last month. 

At every international sporting event, a few Singaporean athletes stand out. At the SEA games, Shanti Perera’s name was on everyone’s lips and deservedly so, as she took her place as the fastest sprinter in Southeast Asia. Feng Tianwei’s grit was a source of pride for many at her swansong Commonwealth Games last August. And there are certainly athletes who wished they could have done better. To these sportsmen and women I say, failure makes future success even sweeter, so stay in the fight, and know that Singapore will always be rooting for you.

To this end, I want to express my support for the national U-22 football team which could do with more support from everyone right now. A few results during the SEA Games may have been hard to swallow but I look forward to Singapore football putting this tournament behind them. There are few sports that can unite Singaporeans nationally like football can. We saw that during the 2020 Suzuki Cup semi-final when the Lions, with the team down to 8-men, fought hard despite the odds. In doing so, they earned the respect of so many Singaporeans. Sportsmen and women have that incredible gift – the ability to lift their compatriots in a way very few expressions of human achievement can. That is the incredible unifying power of sports and why our athletes, regardless of their sport, play a huge role in nation-building and deserve our utmost support and respect.

On a more personal note, I would like to congratulate Aljunied-Hougang Town Councillor, Mr Francis Seet and his daughter, Tiffany. Despite starting the sport of fencing only a few years ago, she brought home, as part of the foil team, a gold medal from the recent SEA Games.

Sir, my contribution to this motion is focused on the resolution of disputes between sports authorities and athletes. I speak with specific reference to one of my residents, SEA Games silver medallist Soh Rui Yong, and his non-selection for the upcoming Asian Games in October. 

Right off the bat, it is important to recognise that there are certain obligations involved when an athlete competes under the national flag. There are rules to follow. 

However, as they are highly competitive individuals, it is not unusual to find that sport attracts its fair share of the strong-minded and strong-willed. In fact, this element of their character is sometimes the X-factor that pushes them to surpass their opponents. 

History is replete with such headstrong characters, such as the great Muhammad Ali, whose showmanship, both in and out of the ring, and incredible ability, combined to define him. To say that he routinely thumbed his nose at authority is an understatement. In March 1966, he conscientiously objected to being drafted to serve in the Vietnam War, earning the ire of those in authority, which he referred to as the ‘white establishment’. His sense of universal justice was captured for posterity in his famous words, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” Arising from his personal stand against the war, he was systematically denied a boxing license in every state in the US and stripped of his passport. As a result, he did not fight professionally from March 1967 to October 1970, when he was aged 25 to almost 29 — the best years of his sporting life – as his legal battle worked its way through the US criminal justice system until his conviction was overturned in 1971.

In many sports, people wear their hearts on their sleeves. In Singapore’s recent past, national footballer Noor Alam Shah was one such individual. Whenever I can, I make it a point to watch the Singapore Lions in action. Noor Alam Shah gave his heart and soul when in national colours. But he had a temperamental side, and was involved in violent conduct – conduct which cannot be condoned. Once, he was banned by the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) from football for 12 months, with the sentence cut to 7-months on appeal.

Passion is not restricted to athletes. After Singapore’s 7-0 loss to Malaysia in football at the last SEA Games, much fan frustration was directed at the management team of the Football Association of Singapore. One commentator on Instagram told the current FAS Acting President Bernard Tan to resign. Bernard Tan responded by challenging the individual to meet face-to-face, something he later apologised for. Given the emotions involved in sport and the popularity of football in Singapore, I can understand Mr Tan’s passion, even as it was always going to be matched by some of our long-suffering football fans. We can all accept that sport ignites passions. We win together, we lose together, we celebrate together and we hurt together.

To this end, I wish to speak about the Singapore National Olympic Council’s (SNOC) non-selection of long-distance runner Soh Rui Yong for the upcoming Asian Games. Rui Yong is the national record holder for the 5000m, 10,000m, half-marathon and marathon. My last substantive communication with him was to congratulate him on his performance at the recently concluded SEA Games. Not only did he win silver for the 10,000m, he earned plaudits in Singapore and beyond for a spontaneous display of sportsmanship – passing his own cup of water to his Indonesian opponent, whom he was neck-and-neck with, when the Indonesian dropped his water bottle. Prior to the last SEA Games, Rui Yong was left out of the SEA Games by the SNOC in 2019 and 2022 for disciplinary reasons, when he was at the prime of his athletic life. He had previously won the gold medal for Singapore in the marathon at the SEA Games, both in 2015 and 2017. His latest non-selection will seriously curtail his ability to run and medal for Singapore ever again. Unlike fixed term suspensions for violent conduct or criminal offences, SNOC’s blanket non-selection forces his sporting career into limbo, for an unknown period. 

From publicly available information, his latest non-selection for the Asian Games is a result of public comments he made online. 36 pages of documents, allegedly leaked to the Straits Times, detailed posts and comments that SNOC took issue with. According to a Rice Media article dated 17 June which was titled, ‘Soh Rui Yong isn’t Perfect. And he shouldn’t have to be’, Rui Yong responded to the SNOC’s objection by removing the posts in question. This did not placate SNOC and he was still not selected. The same article says that Rui Yong was not given a chance to clarify his posts before the Asian Games appeals committee. He was quoted as saying, “I look forward to proving myself on the track, and I hope the committee would see sense in putting me on the team for the Asian Games. And on my part, I also endeavour to be more careful.”

The Olympic Charter states that National Olympic Committees’ selection of athletes shall not just be based on sporting performance but an ability to serve as an example to the sporting youth of one’s country. I wish to restate that it is not unreasonable for SNOC to expect our sportsmen and women to exhibit discipline. SNOC must have the authority to bar athletes after a disciplinary panel has heard the affected athlete out, consistent with the principles of natural justice.

But I ask that SNOC take a more forgiving approach toward Rui Yong. Indeed, SNOC has a track record of forgiving athletes that have fallen short of being examples for our sporting youth and allowed them to compete for Singapore. For example, a silat exponent was allowed to represent Singapore at the last SEA Games despite a drink-driving conviction in 2022. A swimmer who won a silver medal at the last SEA Games had previously been disciplined for consuming controlled drugs and had his prestigious Spex scholarship suspended for one month. Both these athletes were involved in criminal offences. Soh Rui Yong has not been. So why is SNOC’s attitude towards Rui Yong different?  

The core of the schism between SNOC and Rui Yong appears to be a spat that arose when Rui Yong challenged the SNOC’s nomination of another athlete for an international sportsmanship award. Rui Yong disputes that nomination as a matter of principle, as he disagrees with the facts put forward. A very senior SNOC figure testified in a civil trial against Rui Yong and senior management figures in Singapore sports made online posts criticising Rui Yong’s actions. There is a widespread belief that the latest non-selection is a carry-over of that original spat. One cannot help but feel that things have turned personal, with SNOC taking a far stronger stand against Rui Yong compared to other athletes who have committed transgressions as if to teach him a lesson for his outspokenness. 

The current impasse makes everyone look like who they really are not. SNOC has done much work in promoting Singapore sports, bringing sponsors on board, and raising the esteem of sports in the minds and hearts of Singaporeans, and in particular many parents, in a big way. But in the eyes of many Singaporeans, on the Soh Rui Yong matter, SNOC as the highest sporting body in Singapore comes out looking petty, even as many also believe that Rui Yong needs to learn from the past and focus on his sporting career. 

It is time to move on from the previous episode involving the lawsuit, and I hope the Ministry officials, if not the Minister in charge for sports, can intercede to prevent the parties from reaching a point where Singapore sport cuts off its nose to spite its face. I believe that politicians should not be directly involved in sports and when they do get involved, it would be for such purposes – as a facilitator to raise the profile of our sports and sportsmen, generating support from corporates, society and parents, and to bring some much needed wisdom and equanimity into disputes such as those involving Rui Yong and the SNOC.

For their part, I am of the view that our sports administrators can afford to take an elevated approach as they have done in the past and be more big-hearted, especially when you consider their collective seniority and contributions to Singapore sports. To begin with, a more enlightened and mature approach from all, but particularly SNOC – which does not just hold all the cards, but is clearly the party in which the power-relationship between athlete and state representation resides – can make a massive difference. I hope this matter can be brought to an amicable resolution with better engagement with a mediator from the Ministry. I ask the Minister to take the initiative and support my call. Our sporting ecosystem is strengthened when we focus on sporting values, sportsmanship and bringing glory to Singapore.

Thank you. I support the motion filed by MP for Sengkang A/P Jamus Lim and MP for Aljunied Muhammad Faisal bin Abdul Manap.