Sporting Nation for All – Speech by He Ting Ru on the Sports Motion

Madam Deputy Speaker,

Today I will speak about the development of Singapore as a sporting nation for all. I believe that ‘sporting success’, as the original motion calls for, should not only be measured in terms of winning medals and doing well in various rankings, but also measured in terms of wider participation in sports across all segments of society. Specifically, I will talk about how we do on accessibility and participation in sports, and how this measurement should form an important part of our national developmental dashboard, an idea I first raised in Parliament in early 2022. I will also touch on inclusion in sports, from how we provide for the mental well-being of our athletes, to the crucial and important role that sports plays to work with and support persons with disabilities, and also neurodiverse individuals.

Sports SG recently released its National Sport Participation Survey, which took place for the 5 years between 2018-2022. It tracks sports participation across a few indicators, and it is heartening to see that for once, there appears to be a positive correlation associated with the pandemic: that regular sports participation rates increased to an all-time high of 74% last year. This is clearly an achievement worth celebrating, and I hope that this can be maintained. Yet we must continue to improve, to look to countries like Norway, where in 2021 a whopping 97% of those aged 16 and above participated in outdoor activities, and 86.9% stated that they participated in various exercise activities. 

We should include measures of sporting success as part of a development dashboard tracking our country’s holistic development. If we want to shift our focus towards holistic societal well-being rather than keeping a narrow focus on an increasingly outdated measure that is GDP, sports indicators should be one of the first places we should look at. This is because one, access to sports needs to be a right for residents in Singapore, especially as it embodies dignity, equality, and other values Singaporeans agree should form the core of our society. Two, sports is instrumental to many other things we see as important to our wellbeing, including our physical and mental health, and plays an important role in other national priorities including fostering national cohesion, and the creation of sustainable, good jobs. 

As my WP colleagues have spoken about participation in sports at the top levels, I would like to share some observations about more general participation in sports in our daily life, which I believe should be a key part of our measurement of sporting success.

Besides the obvious benefits outlined above, I believe participation in sports at any level can teach us many life lessons that will stand us in good stead as we go along our path in life. I was for most of my early years fairly bookish and sedentary, and did not particularly enjoy any type of physical activity. Yet this changed at university, when I was persuaded by some friends to attend a football training session for our college one weekend in my first week. Still a little homesick and coming to terms with a new life in a foreign land miles from home, and despite never having watched the game beyond clips of highlights occasionally as I was growing up, my curiosity got the better of me. It was to be the start of my three year journey with what eventually became known as the Corpus Terriers, as we cobbled together a ragtag group of students – both undergraduates and postgraduates – to become a good enough team that progressed from the bottom league, to gaining promotion twice to the league above in the university league tables. By my second year, I was having such fun being part of the football team that I doubled down and agreed to also join the College rowing team, and was part of the first eight that year. 

What participation in these sports taught me was not about winning or losing, but about the importance of perseverance and being there for your teammates. It did not matter if you were out in a nightclub or panic writing an essay until 3 in the morning the night before. Come 6:30am the next morning, whatever the weather, you were expected to be there on the river ready to start training, or else you would be the reason the rest of the team was unable to go out on the water. I have many memories of having to row on with ice forming on our blades, of beautiful winter sunrises seen on the river, and of having to play on in horrible winter drizzle, rain and mud, and of having to swap the footballs midway through a match to fluorescent snow-balls in order to be able to see through the fog.

The time we spent together as friends, as a team, on the river and the playing fields, more than the hours spent trying to make sense of dense and opaque scientific journal articles, are what I remember when I think of my time at university, almost two decades on. They also gave us important lessons in grit, resilience, risk-taking, and the importance of having each other’s backs; skills that ring through across so many areas of life long after leaving the formal education system. It also teaches us how to deal with often very strong negative emotions in a healthy manner. Experiencing first-hand the physical and mental health benefits of participating in sports made it easier for me to make a conscious effort to carve out time and to seek out suitable sporting activities to fit my current circumstances despite busy work and family schedules especially here in Singapore.  

What these experiences taught me is that we need to work to ensure that all of us – no matter who or where we are in life – are able to understand the benefits of sports – particularly organised sports – and reap these benefits. Starting from our very young, we have to continue to work to make sports and physical activity fun for all children, and to find ways to sustainability incorporate it into daily life in a way that complements, and not competes with academic learning. It can be as simple as stopping ourselves from shouting at our young children to stop when they have a sudden impulse to run or jump, but instead pause and ask them how they can run or jump in a manner that is both safe and situationally appropriate. As our children grow up, the sporting ecosystem has to evolve to be supportive and accessible enough to allow them to choose a sport they enjoy and have an interest in, at a level of participation they are comfortable with, and that fits into their current life circumstances. 

And while we are on the topic of participation, we also must not neglect the important role of our participation in sports as spectators. While the National Sport Participation Survey found that there appeared to be high levels of positive responses associated with a sense of national pride in our achievements in sports, how does this translate into attendance at live sporting events? After all, any competitive athlete will tell you that competing live is a truly unique and irreplaceable experience, and that the roar of the crowd is often instrumental in their performance during the match or race, and home support can make the difference between victory or defeat. 

Yet this seems to be an area which we struggle with. One highly publicised example in recent months was the cap that the Football Association of Singapore applied to limit the number of fans for Team Singapore football friendly matches at the National Stadium to a paltry 5,000. Apart from being extremely frustrating for fans, attendance numbers today are also a far cry from the regular 50,000-strong crowds during our Malaysian Cup and Super League halcyon days of the 1970s and 80s. This is also a contrast against the huge queues with fans camping overnight for tickets to matches, which even resulted in a tragic stampede in 1977 which resulted in casualties and even a life lost. Contrast sports event attendance too, to the fans who flooded the internet and even started camping from yesterday for tickets for when Taylor Swift will play at the National Stadium next year.

Lack of spectator participation also was an issue when I assisted to organise an international wheelchair rugby 4s tournament held at Toa Payoh sports hall and the Singapore Cricket Club, which was attended by teams from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and Europe. Despite the skilled havoc on the court in play – making for a wonderful spectator experience – we struggled to get more than a handful of spectators to attend the matches in Toa Payoh. This was a point made by Rohit Brijnath, the Straits Times assistant sports editor, who compared this against the 300-400 fans who turned up in an earlier leg of the tournament in Palembang. It was a shame, particularly as the Singapore team comprised members with incredible stories that I believe would have been very inspirational to people who actually watched them play. My kids certainly still remember sitting in the stands and watching the matches, and talk about it periodically, even today. 

In view of the above, sports spectatorship should be studied as part of the National Sport Participation Survey and be considered as a key indicator of national development beyond GDP. Apart from the benefits I outlined earlier, exposure to sports, whether as spectators or otherwise, also exposes us to intangible lessons in terms of the culture surrounding various sports, such as the importance of focus and balance in Taichi and Yoga, the importance of harmony in Aikido, and the respect for the opponents in a sport like Kendo, where participants do not celebrate scoring a point out of respect for your opponent who after all has trained as hard as you have.

Moving on to sporting success for people with disabilities, I am glad that we recognise its importance, and that new initiatives continue to be launched, such as the Para Sport Academy last year and the move to make all ActiveSG Gyms more inclusive by 2026. While I appreciate the need to develop specific hard infrastructure for people with disabilities to participate in some sports, we must put a lot more effort into growing broad, regular participation in sports. 

For instance, I note that the latest enabling masterplan reported that sports participation rate among persons with disabilities was approximately 50% in 2019, exceeding the target that was set. But the definition of the sports participation rate indicator only tracks whether an individual has participated in any sports or recreational physical activities in the past year. This definition is also different from the one used for the wider population in the National Sport Participation Survey, which uses the headline definition of regular participation of at least once a week. It would be good to harmonise the indicators used to better understand where we stand. 

Secondly, for people with disabilities participating or wanting to participate in sports at a recreational level, our residents share that much of our urban environment continues to present significant barriers to participation. Particularly for running, walking, and wheelchair use, cycle and walk paths often do not actually meet the Government’s walking and cycling design guide specifications, despite these specifications already making large allowances for our urban density. There often does not seem to have any safe passing distance designed for walking and cycling paths for those with disabilities. For example, intra-town cycling paths can be designed to be just 2m in width. The guidelines also allow for designs encouraging footpath users to enter cycling paths to manouvre away from oncoming cyclists or pedestrians in cases where footpaths and cycling paths are next to each other, including in the case of wheelchair users. Running, walking, and wheelchair use are among the most popular and lowest barrier to entry sports for people with disabilities. To get the basic building blocks for disability sports, we must first get everyday active mobility design right. 

The member for Aljunied GRC Leon Perera also spoke earlier about lesser-known or less popular sports, and I note that this issue is even more pertinent for PWDs’ participation in less popular sports. Many of us in this House lauded the achievements and success of our paralympians, and in particular, our para-equestrian athletes such as Laurentia Tan, who was the first Asian woman to win a Paralympic medal in equestrian sport in Beijing 2008. It is of note that para-equestrian events has its roots in therapy riding. And equine-assisted therapy is widely known to have myriad benefits, ranging from benefiting mental health and well-being, to therapeutic horseback riding, all of which work to build core muscles, balance, confidence, sensory motor skills, and is also extremely calming and relational. And these benefits accrue too to typical and non-disabled individuals.

Yet in spite of this, only a small handful of Singaporeans have access to equine-related sports and therapy. Charities such as the Riding for the Disabled do excellent work with children and adults from SPED schools and SSAs, and up to 7,000 individuals have benefited since its inception over 40 years ago. But nonetheless, the availability and accessibility to such sports remains extremely limited, despite the known benefits. And I fear that the closure of Singapore Turf Club along with the expiry of leases to stables like the Bukit Timah Saddle Club to make way for residential or transport infrastructure, will only make these sports even more expensive and inaccessible to Singaporeans who could benefit tremendously, particularly as some retired race horses do eventually end up working as therapy horses or for other equestrian-related sports at our dwindling number of saddle clubs. Uncertainty over whether the lease will be renewed or if the stables will continue to be allowed to operate only adds to the stresses that they face.

Horses aside, I also hope that more generally we also need to start paying more attention to accommodations that sporting participation – both as sportspeople and spectators – can make to cater to more diversity, particularly neurodiversity. With latest estimates of 10-20% of the global population being neurodivergent, it is a significant group that we should not neglect. For example, individuals with sensory sensitivities or on the autism spectrum may find taking part in organised sports difficult to cope with because of the sensory input or unmet expectations, and I hope that parents and officials are given the right awareness and tools to know how best to cope with unexpected situations that arise. This could take the form of training officials and coaches to communicate more effectively with these individuals, to better awareness for parents about which sports may suit their child’s specific needs. I also notice that exhibits at places like KidStop at the Science Centre have labels that stipulate sensory levels for various exhibits to aid parents to know whether the exhibit is suitable for their child, and perhaps the same system can be applied in the sporting context.

Finally, I would also like to draw attention to the increasing awareness of mental health in sports, with high profile athletes such as tennis player Naomi Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles withdrawing from major competitions citing concerns over their mental well-being. Far from resulting in the ‘wussification’ of our top athletes, I note that greats from previous eras such as Billie Jean King have been equally outspoken about their concerns on this, and do good work to increase awareness and support for current top athletes in a brutal environment. In turn, spectators and sports fans also should be aware of how we ventilate our frustrations when our team or favourite athletes suffer defeats or set-backs, as seen from the wave of anger and abuse our Lions team and Joseph Schooling received online in recent times after painful losses. Despite our disappointment, we must remember to continue standing behind our teams and athletes through thick and thin. I also hope that our sports training programmes with the National Youth Sports Institute and other sports associations adequately prepare our (often extremely young) athletes for life as a pro-athlete, which should go beyond how to cope on the pitch, but also off the pitch, not just mental health and well-being, but also in navigating media exposure and pressures online and off, and even making appropriate decisions over sponsorship and funding options. 

In summary, today I hope that we can have official performance indicators to more explicitly and holistically include key indicators for access and inclusivity in our sports ecosystem. Our agencies need to focus more on the fundamental issues to improve access and participation of all, especially persons with disabilities and different needs, which includes ensuring our urban mobility standards are improved and followed properly by developers. This will help us keep us on the path towards our aspirations with sports as well as help us reap the significant social, economic, and health benefits of becoming a sporting nation for all.

Thank you.