Singapore Just Wants a Sporting Chance

Singapore Just Wants a Sporting Chance

By Libby Coleman

The Singapore team during their warm up at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore, 2015.
SourceJason O'Brien/Zuma


Because everyone loves jocks more than nerds, right?

By Libby Coleman

At first, with the course clear ahead of him, Singaporean marathoner Ashley Liew thought he’d broken away from the pack. But then he looked back and saw … no one. All his competitors in the 2015 Southeast Asia Games had taken a disastrous wrong turn. It could have been an easy win for Liew, yet instead of literally going for the gold, he slowed down to let everyone catch up. Ultimately, he finished 8th.

Liew’s fellow citizens lauded his sportsmanship — but in a larger sense, Singapore’s sports mandarins are determined not to let victory slip from their grasp like that again.

Many countries hunger for athletic glory, but few are pursuing it as doggedly as Singapore, a city-state with fewer people than Wisconsin but an outsize lust for gold — medals, that is. Roughly a decade ago, the Land of No Chewing Gum established a dedicated sports school — an anomaly in a country where academic achievement is practically a religion — in hopes of bulking up 98-pound weaklings into international champions. The government has since doubled down with a 1.5 billion Singaporean dollar ($1.1 billion) program that is strewing the cityscape with new gyms, fields and pools and offering citizens SG$100 worth of “sports credits” for use at the new facilities; more than 700,000 people have so far signed up for the free money. The country’s culture ministry recently launched its first-ever scholarships for elite athletes and opened a new national sports complex that’s already staged a variety of international competitions. 

It’s a little as though Singapore — the smartest and most straight-laced, though possibly also the most insecure, kid in southeast Asia — has suddenly decided that brawn beats brains after all. Achievements in sports are a very good way to let people know more about the country, says Nicholas Fang, a chief representative of the Southeast Asia Games. “Most important, it’s a source of great pride to be able to do well in sports.” In other words, countries and high school varsity players have something in common: Sports can make them popular. And popularity — aka “soft power” in the language of international relations — brings all sorts of advantages, from diplomatic cachet and increased tourism to sponsorship dollars, investment and new business opportunities. It could even soften the city-state’s reputation as Asia’s resident scold — the know-it-all who can’t stop lecturing everyone about “Asian values” and how they should shape up and emulate Singapore’s quasi-authoritarian government and education-intensive economic model if they want to get ahead in life.

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Pelé and Eric Cantona pose for photos with local students of Singapore Sports School in 2011.

Source Redux

Whatever the reasons, the sports push appears to be bearing some fruit. The 11-year-old Singapore Sports School, for instance, takes between 100 and 120 students each year and has so far churned out four Olympians and eight world champions. “People say Singapore punches above its weight for its size, which may be true this year,” says Nicholas Aplin, a senior lecturer at the country’s National Institute of Education. In June, Singapore walked away with 84 gold medals in the Southeast Asia Games — a sort of regional minor league for the Olympics. That put it in second place behind Thailand, a nation with 12 times its population but roughly a tenth of its per capita income, and well ahead of its 34 gold-medal count two years ago.

Next stop: the biggest athletic stage in the world, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. Sure, Singaporean athletes have brought home only four Olympic medals (silvers and bronzes) in the city-state’s history, but the country’s boosters insist that the trend is their friend, since they nabbed half of those just three years ago at the London Games.

Singapore is far from alone in its ambitions. The Chinese government, for instance, recently outlined a massive two-year effort to revive its soccer team, currently ranked 79th in the world behind nations such as Haiti and Uzbekistan. With only-in-China-size ambition, that plan aims to create 20,000 soccer schools across the nation that will serve hundreds of thousands of aspiring athletes. Even developed nations like Canada have rolled out high-profile, government-supported campaigns like “Own the Podium,” intended to keep the nation ahead of the pack in sports like curling. And it’s not easy building a sports powerhouse, especially in a country where national service conscripts all young men when they turn 18. Some argue for granting service deferments to athletes, although that could backfire. What if parents whose children pursue different talents, like playing the piano, seek similar exemptions from the military? With a limited number of professional teams and a strong focus on academics, few athletes in Singapore commit to a career in sports or go abroad to continue training. At the present, contenders like Calvin Kang, a Singapore Sports School alum and a sprinter who competed in the Southeast Asia Games, are student-athletes who have to constantly divide their attention.

Singapore also has what you might politely call a mixed record when it comes to social engineering on this scale. The government currently spends SG$2 billion a year trying to encourage residents to have more children, offering everything from baby bonuses and housing preferences to parental gift bags. Yet the city-state’s fertility rate remains stubbornly stuck between 1.2 and 1.3 children per woman — well under the “replacement rate” of roughly 2.1 kids.

The 2016 Olympics might not offer much joy, either. Singapore is currently projected to win just one medal — and that’s in, well, table tennis, according to Simon Gleave, head of analysis at Infostrada Sports.

Christoph Cöln contributed reporting.