Speech by Er. Dr. Lee Bee Wah in Parliament on 13th Sep 2016
Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, before I proceed with my speech, I would like to declare my interest. I am the adviser for Singapore Swimming Association and the past President for Singapore Table Tennis Association.
If I were to ask the question: are we a sporting nation? I am sure some will say yes, some will say no. Yes, because there are many exercise stations in our residential precincts, many brisk-walk groups. We have Vision 2030 and we have Olympic gold medal and Paralympic gold medals. But many would still say, “No, we have yet to be a sporting nation”. Why? There are several reasons. I will give you four reasons.
1. Live broadcast of sports meets
First, the episode on “live” telecast of the Olympics Games. We nearly missed the opportunity to witness “live”, the historical moment presented by our Joseph Schooling. The Sunday before the start of the Olympics, that is, 31 July, which was six days before the opening ceremony, our Minister reiterated that watching a delayed broadcast would be a different way of celebrating.
Immediately, there was a lot of response on the ground. A lot of discussions in the coffeeshops, friends’ gatherings, and a lot of my residents asked me, “Is our Government too calculative?” And they said that we can afford to pay hundreds of millions for the English Premier League, and yet, we cannot afford to pay for an Olympics “live” telecast. And I have residents who even suggest, “Why don’t we collect $1 from each of us? Six million people, $6 million!”
And for those of you who are sporting fans, you will know it is miles apart – a lot of difference between watching “live” telecast and delayed telecast. If you already know the results, the excitement is no longer there. Do we understand sports enough? Is there a lack of sporting culture?
We, as a nation, send athletes to compete in the Olympics but was not prepared to fork out money for a “live” telecast. Yet, we proclaim we know the importance and the value of sports in unifying people, in inspiring people, and so on. We must not leave this to commercial decisions. An opportunity to unite the nation should not be left to a commercial decision. I hope that in future, the relevant bodies: MCCY, Mediacorp, cable TV operators and telcos can pull their resources together and prepare their negotiations far ahead of time, allocate the budget to ensure we are guaranteed a contract to broadcast major sporting events “live”, including all major games that our athletes are taking part in.
For a first-world nation, it is almost unthinkable if Singaporeans are denied of this. Some joked that they have to go to neighbouring countries during the Olympics period. We are well known for planning ahead, and I am sure we can do it.
2. NS deferment
The second reason – it is National Service (NS) deferment. I had lunch with May and Colin Schooling before May left for Rio. I have known May for a long time. From time to time, she would share with me the challenges and the problems that she is facing. During that lunch, she shared with me her number one headache at that time, that is, Joseph Schooling’s (further) NS deferment. She said she has submitted reports, however, there was no concrete answer. It gave people the impression that our MINDEF is high-handed, is too rigid, and they will tell you the answer when they are ready to give you the answer. And MCCY gave people the impression that either they have no power or is not interested. And some civil servants even think that Olympic medals are not important.
So, our poor Joseph Schooling was under great pressure, not just to prepare for Olympics, but he had to deal with the problem of whether he needed to come back for NS, after end-August. Luckily, he turned pressure into strength, and the rest is history.
Following his win, there has been an outpouring of support for greater flexibility of NS deferment for local athletes. Evidently, Singaporeans do consider our athletes’ abilities to represent our country to be important.
I appreciate that after three years of debate in this House and after much appeals from the parents and NSAs, MINDEF changed its policy to let Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen defer NS till end-August 2016. But still, deferment is ad hoc, and only on a case-by-case basis. So, parents are still left unsure if they should support their sons in their desire to pursue their sporting dream or whether they should take the proven route and get back to the academic road.
I think MINDEF and MCCY could have done better in supporting our Olympic-bound athletes. They should work together to come out with a policy for our sportsmen so that it is transparent and everyone can be clear about what they can expect, and what standards they have to achieve in order to pursue their career in the sporting world.
In Korea, all male citizens are required to undergo 21 months of compulsory military service. I was told that Korean athletes representing their country get to decide when they serve their national service, so long as they serve before they turn 30 years old. As in the case of Singapore, the issue is a thorny one. The conscription law in Korea states that those who have contributed significantly to the nation through athletic or artistic skills are exempted from military duties. The only requirement is that they must go through four weeks of combat training. This law currently exempts athletes who win a medal at the Olympics or finish first in the Asian Games.
In Singapore, (the number of) athletes falling under this group is very small. For the Rio Olympics, it was only Quah Zheng Wen and Joseph Schooling. Can we afford to let them decide their NS deferment? I am sure we can. As Ang Peng Siong mentioned in his recent interview, one would need at least two Olympic cycles or even more in order to realise their Olympic dream. If the athletes, the swimmers can decide their own NS deferment, it would take away this additional pressure of what if they have to come back to serve their NS? Does it mean their dream of (the) Olympics is dashed?
3. More support for trainee athletes
A lot of people know that May and Colin Schooling spent more than $1 million on Joseph Schooling. Not many parents can spend that $1 million. While the spexScholarship supports elite athletes and para athletes, can Government do more? Can we further enhance the Sports School or NSAs? Can we set aside more funding so that we can tailor make programmes for those athletes that show potential? We can send athletes with potential overseas for longer term attachments, for example one to two years in Bolles School in USA for swimmers. I was told that it is (not) so much (because) of the curriculum but because over there, it gives the swimmers a lot more opportunities to compete.
4. Sports for every student who is keen on sports
When I told my friends that I am going to speak in Parliament on this topic, they tell me that, “Yes. We need to have more opportunities for every student who is keen in sports to play sports in school.” I thought this is already being made available. So, I asked the principals in schools. They told me, “Yes. Every student got a chance to play because they can play during recess time.” How long is recess time? Thirty minutes. And they have to buy food and then play sports at the same time?
I studied in a school in a neighbouring country. I remember that for Primary school, we played every day. Our school only had two table tennis tables, put along the corridor. We have one basketball court which was a clay court. And we played after school until it was dark. And in my Secondary school, it was better equipped. It had all the sports clubs – badminton club, table tennis club, basketball club, netball club, athletic club. We were free to join to join any clubs. We can join more than one club. And that is why I could play many different sports and I (later) represented NTU in five games.
The sporting culture should start from young. (It’s) not about winning inter-school (competitions), but providing platforms to all students to learn sports of their choice, I think, should be part and parcel of their education.
Sports, we all know, unite people across all ages and all cultures. In today’s context, this unifying factor is very important. We worry about race relations and here is a platform available for us to tap to unite the citizens. Sports promote team spirit and imbues camaraderie among the participants. Look at how people from across races come together before the TV screens to watch the Olympics, watch the soccer matches, and so on. It is so inspiring to see them united and enjoying themselves as they shout themselves hoarse.
I would like to take this chance to congratulate Yip Pin Xiu for her gold medal, and Theresa Goh for her bronze medal and to wish all our Paralympians the best. The athletic feats show the disabled that anything is possible. At the same time, our support for Paralympians show the disabled that they are valued members of our community.
So, while we look into how to improve support for athletes, I hope any improvements will also apply to para-athletes. And we keep looking for more para-athletes, by encouraging disabled people to pursue sports.
In conclusion, there is quite some way to be a sporting nation. We have made progress; we must not rest on our laurels. There is so much more we can and need to do. Unlike other countries with a much larger pool of talents and a far longer history of sporting achievements, we have to invest more efforts and wisdom in helping Singapore and her athletes pursue greater heights in the sports arena.
More importantly, we must not allow stagnation to erase the hard work that everyone, especially our athletes, have put in. I urge for greater flexibility, empathy and planning to help us keep moving towards our goal of making Singapore a truly sporting nation with a great sporting culture at all levels. Thank you.
Minister Grace Fu’s response here.