The Singapore women table-tennis team’s victory over China at the World Championship a week ago has polarized public opinion and sparked an intense debate among Singaporeans if the win truly belongs to Singapore.
The trio who brought the trophy home are all born in China and came to Singapore as established table-tennis players – Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei.
A significant proportion of Singaporeans labeled the match as “China Team A versus Team B” and felt that there is nothing really to celebrate.
Some even poured scorn on the policy-makers splurging millions of taxpayers’ monies to “buy” success at the detriment of developing local sports talent.
The PAP’s “foreign talent” sports policy has been a controversial one all these years with many Singaporeans disagreeing with its approach and strategy of enticing foreign players to take up citizenship in order to represent Singapore in international competitions.
While the Singapore women table-tennis team has secured an unprecedented victory over perennial world champions China and put puny Singapore on the world map, the mood on the ground has been rather sombre and nonchalant despite the pathetic attempts of the state media to whip up public sentiments including a delayed telecast of the match by MediaCorp.
PAP supporters and apologists come out in force in the internet chatrooms, decrying the critics as “xenophobic” and arguing that other nations have imported foreign talents as well to represent them.
China is no doubt the undisputed world leader in table-tennis, having producing several great players, some of whom now ply their trade in other countries.
Though some nations like Hong Kong and United States have imported China-born players to represent them like Singapore, more than half their team still consists of natives.
Let us take a look at the Olympic teams of Hong Kong and United States:
1. Hong Kong: Ko Lai Chak, Lau Sui-Fei, Song Ah Sim, Li Ching (China), Tie Ya Na (China)
2. United States: Jasna Fazlic, Mark Hazinski, Sean O’Neill, Wang Chen (China), Gao Jun (China)
As we can see from the above, China-born players make up less than 50 percent of the teams in contrast to Singapore which consists 100 percent of China-born players including the coach.
Some defend the PAP’s sports policy as akin to that adopted by many countries like France, whose 1998 World-Cup winning team consists of many players of African descent like Zinedine Zidane whose parents emigrated to France from Algeria.
These blind supporters miss the fact that most of France’s players were born in France or came to France at a very young age. Zinedine Zidane was born in Marseille while Thierry Henry in Paris.
France did not import established players from Brazil or Argentina like Robinho and Lionel Messi into its team by offering them instant citizenships like Singapore.
Furthermore, the French players of African descent are already naturalized French citizens who speak French with a native accent and are French in every other way compared to Singapore’s China-born players who look, speak and behave differently from Singaporeans. There are even doubts if they can sing Singapore’s National anthem and recite the Pledge.
Singapore cannot claim any credit for nurturing the three China-born players as they were already established professionals when they joined the Singapore team. In fact, their Singapore citizenships were fast-tracked precisely because of their “talents”.
Both Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei were already ranked among the top ten players of the world when Singapore roped them into the team.
Wang made her inaugural appearance on the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Pro Tour in June 2005 at the Volkswagen Korean Open in Suncheon, South Korea, where she and Sun Beibei took the silver medal in the women’s doubles. On 24 September 2006, Wang achieved her first gold medal on the Pro Tour at the Japan Open in Yokohama before she took up Singapore citizenship in 2008.
Feng Tianwei was ranked 73th in the world and was playing in the Japan’s professional league when she was talent-spotted by former national coach Liu Guodong.
Not withstanding the fact that Feng was only in the China “B” team and unable to break into its “A” team after three years, she is already far ahead of the local-born Singapore players in terms of international experience and exposure. It is not entirely a surprise that her world ranking improved dramatically after given the opportunity to shine by Singapore.
Instead of dismissing the criticisms from the ground as mere grouses and complaints from jealous, disgruntled and marginalized citizens, the policy-makers should pay attention to some of the feedback given.
After all, sports does serve a secondary objective of bonding the nation and it makes little sense to spend millions of dollars to develop table-tennis only to receive such a lukewarm response from Singaporeans.
The backlash from the ground will be less had the team comprised of some native Singaporeans and if the players had come to Singapore at a very young age for other purposes other than to play ping pong.
It is both unfair and unreasonable to label Singaporeans as “xenophobic” just because they do not see eye to eye with the PAP’s “foreign talent” sports policy.
By and large, Singaporeans are the most open, tolerant and accepting people in the world partly due to our upbringing and the cosmopolitan nature of our nation.
Most of us do not mind bringing in young foreign talents to complement our limited talent pool to increase our global competitiveness, but a clear demarcation must be drawn between importing and nurturing potential talents and “buying” established talents.
For example, the reaction from Singaporeans was predictably less hostile towards China-born swimmer Tao Li who came to Singapore at the age of 13 and studied at the Singapore Sports School.
There is an urgent need for the authorities to review its long-standing “foreign talent” sports policy and start listening to the people who are ultimately paying for their expensive “investments”.
As one netizen sums it up succinctly:
“There is no honor in buying trophies. I rather watch a team comprising of native Singaporeans get thrashed at the finals than a team of China-born players winning the competition.”