Sports for National Wellbeing – Closing Speech by Jamus Lim on the Sports Motion

I would like to thank all longsuffering members—like our die-hard and similarly longsuffering football fans—who have stayed till this bitter end. I had originally thought we would end by 6, which perhaps points to my own naïve optimism, and inability to set achievable goals. 

As the many varied and charged speeches from both sides of the House (as well as among our NMP ranks) delivered over the course of this motion attest, sport has a remarkable ability to both excite, inspire, and unite. It also has an incredible ability to foster euphoria as well as despair: I recall how I remained on Cloud 9 a good week after the Golden State Warriors—my favorite basketball team—won the NBA Finals last year, but I also felt a gnawing sense of loss when, back in May, I watched my alma mater’s A division rugby team lose in the final minutes to an arch-rival. Others will, undoubtedly, share how they felt after the Young Lions’ 7-0 trashing by Malaysia that same month.

This notion—that sports events can and does contribute to national well-being—is not only a vague hypothesis. Research has shown that there are strong associations between sporting participation and measures of economic success, such as per capita incomes and economic freedom.

Hosting sports events and national athletic success are associated with improved life satisfaction. And as He Ting Ru pointed out in her speech, there are clear biological pathways for why sports contribute to not just physical but also mental well-being; this sentiment was also echoed by Sylvia Lim and Xie Yao Quan.

Rebuttals, and issues with the government’s diagnosis of problems

SPS Eric Chua went through a slate of examples fot how the government’s sports programs have helped individual athletes, who have gone on to succeed in their sporting endeavors. We have zero quarrel with these, and indeed, congratulate both the sportsmen and women who have secured medals—often even with impressive academic results. We don’t even doubt that government support has been instrumental to their success.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. What of those who didn’t find success? The examples convey selection bias. The fact remains that for our level of income and what we spend, we underperform as a nation. And here it is useful for me to clarify that the source of the charts I circulated earlier is myself, done over two hours on a Sunday afternoon, base don publicly-available data on FIFA rankings, Olympic medals, and GDP.

And of course, I am well aware that sports performance depends on much more than income. I’m happy to share the 8 or so references, published in peer-reviewed journals, that control for many more factors, but come to the same conclusion. But I shared the chart because I thought it conveyed the point more cleanly than a suite of references would. As a political office holder, I’m sure SPS Chua would appreciate the value of a message, simply conveyed.

It comes down to the fact that Singaporeans have been starved of the opportunity to cheer their national athletes even more than they wish they are able to. So, even as we rightly celebrate success, let’s not be afraid to also accept the reality of how, unlike our successes in other national endeavors—from top airport to airline, to among the top Asian universities, to, yes, having some of the highest per capita incomes globally—we simply fall short.

And to be clear, we are not disparaging our current athletes, or when they inevitably stumble now and then. We rightly celebrate them—that’s right in the text of the motion—but not just for their medals, but accomplishments, which includes even qualifying for the Games in the first place. But the motion is asking, even pleading, on behalf of all Singaporeans, for the successful athletes we have yet to see.

MP Wan Rizal explained that sporting success is manifold, and felt that the text of the motion did not sufficiently capture this aspect. I’m afraid have to disagree on this one; indeed, both Sylvia Lim and He Ting Ru spoke about aspects of diversity, inclusion, and mental health, matters cited also by Darryl David and Wan Rizal. Hence, we fully agree with the need to focus on much more than just sporting achievements by national athletes but also the rest of us, albeit we also recognize the inspirational value of marquee events.

NMP Mark Chay critiqued an excessive focus on income as a determinant of sporting success, and offered what amounted to an apology for our relative underperformance. He said team sports take time. As a national sportsman and now coach, he would be much more familiar with individual sporting challenges, but I help but wonder if he would be as comfortable if those under his charge not only failed to perform after receiving significant financial support, but actually regressed in terms of their sporting performance.

A minor clarification about a point raised by Ms Poh Li San, which I offered earlier. To reiterate, I am, indeed, aware that we were ranked 6th in the recent SEA Games. But this is because medal types are counted differently, and having secured 51 golds to Malaysia’s 34, we ranked one above the latter, despite their 175 in total medals to our 157. The sentence in my speech referred specifically to “total medal count.”

Areas of improvement

Both Faisal Manap and Dennis Tan suggested specific improvements to our youth development programs for football, such as ensuring that the coaching and mentoring programs are on track—not least by making sure they have a training schedule that meets more than once every half a year—and devoting more resources toward lower levels of our grassroots soccer leagues. In the same spirit, Mr Tan also suggested that barriers to recreational football in our heartlands could be lowered, such as additional funding for sheltered futsal courts, either in open spaces, or atop MSCPs. Melvyn Yong also spoke about football, and especially stressed the need for dedicated infrastructure and facilities.

Improving the pathways to sporting success for the young was a point made also by Gerald Giam, Poh Li San, Melvin Yong, and Wan Rizal. Ms Poh cited the example of table tennis—one of the sports where Singapore has done relatively well—to argue that private efforts are an important complement to the public sector. Mr Yong expounded on the range of sporting activities for youth—especially the Pesta Sukan—where fresh talent may be identified. Mr Giam, in contrast, suggested expanding the Singapore Sports School, which in turn would feed into a collegiate sports career. He also stressed the importance of flexibility for student-athletes, a theme that was also made by Mr Leong Mun Wai, who spoke about how the way our young men serve their NS obligations could stand to be relaxed for our top-tier sporting talent.

Mr Giam also pointed out how media coverage for local sports could stand to be expanded, making these free-to-air or livestreamed online. Finals matches featuring Singaporeans, especially, should be broadcast live, for all of us to cheer our athletes along.

Leon Perera spoke up for less-known sports. His concrete suggestions include strengthening funding and support for lesser-known sports, a sentiment echoed by Mr Wan Rizal. Mr Perera also spoke of providing state financial support much earlier in the game for our budding athletes (especially to attend tournaments), and ensuring sufficient talent in the sports business management field—are all practical ones for beefing up our sports ecosystem.

Sylvia Lim, He Ting Ru, and Mark Chay offered ideas for how we can make sport more attractive, outside of the sporting arenas. Ms Lim made the case for medical subsidies for national athletes that extend beyond just the time that they actively represent Singapore, while Ms He stressed that we need to improve inclusivity in our ActiveSG gyms. And Mr Chay stressed the importance of giving regular folks a reason for people to remain active.

Inclusion also extends to our professional athletes. Both LO Pritam Singh and Leong Mun Wai made appeals that clear and objective criteria be applied to the selection of our national athletes, with both acknowledging that while good conduct is certainly important, sportsmen and women should not be held to unreasonable standards of behavior that are not always extended to other public figures. This helps us avoid unnecessary own goals, with our already scarce local sporting talent.

On my part, I pointed out that we can use the SportsHub—the crowning glory of our national sporting scene—as a catalyst and platform to improve community engagement in sports, and also called on a reexamination of the efficacy of our current national sports spending.

Achievable goals

Let me now attempt to sum up some of the suggestions members in this House have put on the table in terms of achievable goals. As my friend Faisal Manap has already articulated, we do not have any definitive answers. And of course, these goals should be established in consultation with all the stakeholders involved: the athletes and coaches, the national sports associations, and Singaporean sports fans at large. It is also unrealistic, since we do not have a complete picture of the aggregate financial resources that could be credibly committed to these goals. Still, it is probably fair to note—as I did in my opening speech—that we do not appear to systematically underinvest in sport; we just appear to underachieve, relative to how much we have put in. Hence, the issue is how we can be more effective in the monies we devote to sport.

For football—our almost-national sport—Faisal Manap did point out the medium-term goal of qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup by 2026. We could also chase the SEA Games football gold in a decade. These strike us as eminently reasonable, especially since Singapore had, in 1973, won the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, and secured silver over multiple years in the SEA Games between 1983 and 1989 (while also taking bronze as recently as 2013). Melvin Yong also suggested that we can benchmark ourselves against successful football nations, as a metric of achievement.

Lesser-known sports can also contribute strongly to our national sporting goals. Some of these sports have been immensely successful, and we can build off their current global rankings and set targets to raise them by a notch or two. At the very least, it seems appropriate, as Leon Perera has argued, to extend national sports association coverage to all sports, including darts, dodgeball, and powerlifting, just as they have belatedly done with tchoukball—which I’ll note only occurred this year, and does not appear to have been updated on the ActiveSG website—and in any case, well after the men and women’s teams had already found success.

Ms Poh Li San pointed to how our existing government awards—such as the Major Games Award Programme—plays an important role in helping make sports a viable career. I agree, but would go further; perhaps we should look to such programs as only necessary through the medium run, and we will hopefully wind these down in the long run, looking instead to a growing local sports audience to ensure a self-sustaining domestic market for professional athletes to function, much like many other nations, without government grants, relying instead on recognition and sponsorship.

Ms He Ting Ru also provided a clear goal for improving the infrastructure catering to walking and running—our country’s most popular sport, by far—for the nonprofessional sports man and woman: to ensure that our cycle and walk paths all meet the government’s own design guide specifications, islandwide. She also stressed the need to improve the participation rate in sports among the disabled, and others with special needs.

Proposed amendment

Given what I have shared above, it will be little surprise that we are unable to accept the proposed amendments in full.

We find amendment (1) uncontentious; after all, sporting celebrations—or any celebrations of accomplishments—should always recognize that it stands on the shoulders of those who have come before. We thank Mr David for the suggested amendment.

We find it difficult to support amendment (2). While we accept that the government has intimated that they have performed some review, we have not seen the concrete evidence that such a thorough evaluation for the sporting ecosystem has been performed, unless the government will commit to a future date where they will release a report or review documenting this effort. I understand that a report on football will come out soon. But not for the sporting system as a whole.

We are also unable to support amendment (3). This wiggles out of one of the most important fundamentals for sporting performance: appropriately defining success. It is important to have clarity in what our goals are, and ideally, set up not only eventual but also have intermediate targets we can credibly achieve. It also robs us of being able to meet the sort of mass participation goals that we alluded to. We also doubt that the government would be comfortable with such ambiguity for our other endeavors as a nation, such as where we want our universities to be, or the profitability of our state-owned enterprises.

Thanks to all that contribute to our sports ecosystem

It would be remiss if I did not close by reiterating my thanks all our athletes and para-athletes for representing our country. I know that all of them had to make enormous sacrifices, both mentally and physically, to be able to compete on the international stage. You have carried our flag, and done so proudly, and we, in turn, have lived vicariously through you, and are immensely proud of all that you have achieved.

But these thanks extend as well all those who have contributed, in ways big and small, to our local sporting ecosystem: the parents and coaches (who are sometimes one and the same), the die-hard and longsuffering supporters and fans, sports announcers, commentators, and reporters that keep us attuned and excited, the administrators and back-end support staff for our sporting infrastructure, and also the maintenance folks who keep it all going: the groundskeepers, stadium cleaners, floodlight technicians, media operators. Just like how it takes a village to nurture a world-class athlete, it similarly takes one to keep our sports system rolling.


Some may ask why the Workers’ Party has chosen to speak on this non-critical issue of sports at this point in time, when there appears to be more pressing matters on the horizon: pressures in the cost of living, unaffordable house and car prices, and a softening economy. To be clear, we have consistently raised issues of concern and participated in extended debates in this House in these very areas, and will continue to do so.

But we are fooling ourselves if we think, for a moment, that jobs and businesses and the economy constitute the entirety of life. We work, so that we may live—not the other way around. In this sense, sport captures—in the most general way—both the tradeoffs we routinely make in leisure versus labor that makes life worth living, while also embodying the measure of our aspirations as a people, a society, and a country. Or, in the words of Xie Yao Quan, it reflects our values. If there is one dimension in life where rankings indisputably matter, it is in sports league tables. Ultimately, sport is about rowing together, in unison, toward a common goal. The same as nation-building.And Singaporeans have shown, by their actions, that they indeed care about sport. The National Sports Participation Survey reveals that exercise and sporting activities reached at an all-time high in 2022. Perhaps the pandemic gave Singaporeans a taste of the importance of achieving work-life balance. Perhaps it was a reminder of our mortality, and what we need to do to ensure we remain fit and healthy. Or perhaps it allowed us to reflect on the true value of sports in Singapore.