A win for the other team: immigrant athletes in Singapore

Event: 2012 London Olympics. Sport: table tennis.

All you can hear is the continuous back and forth of the plastic ball hitting the paddles. Even watching from a laptop screen, you can feel the tension. One hit, one miss, one loss – not for an individual, but for a nation. The rally continues, accelerating by the second. What would determine a whole people’s athletic rankings for the next four years: paddle to paddle, athlete to athlete, country to country. Japanese athlete Kasumi Ishikawa misses the ball by a mere second – Feng Tianwei of the Singapore national team wins.

They say it’s a win for Singapore, but some think it’s more of a win for China. At least that’s what 80% of Singaporeans online said about their Olympic medal win.

Despite the fact that the Singaporean $10 bill has the word “sports” written on it, Singapore isn’t a major sporting nation. The country holds top rankings in several fields – sports, sadly, isn’t one of them. But with its resources and wealth, the little red dot has the ability to bring in athletes from around the world to represent Singapore in international sporting competitions like the Olympics.

With Singapore’s 1.46 million non-residents, one would think that locals wouldn’t have a problem with a foreign-born athlete representing their country. Not so. Even after obtaining Singaporean citizenship, these foreign-born athletes still aren’t accepted by all locals.

Singaporean perspectives aren’t always heard in our day-to-day lives, but online it’s quite a different story. Blogs like The Singapore Sports Sports Fan Says… reflect local voices through brutally honest comments like, “What’s a Singapore passport to most of our foreign sports ‘talents’? Nothing more than an exchange of services.” Another blogger who runs “the unofficial Singapore website” Askmelah gives his opinion on several controversial subjects on what the Singaporean government can improve upon.

Most Singaporeans, including the aforementioned bloggers, remain anonymous online, due to the country’s strict government that isn’t a fan of those who hold opposing views. However, some individuals choose to reveal their identities online. George Low Ser Hui believes that, “One main reason for the bilingual inability is that the entire team comprises imported talent from China. No other sports team in Singapore is so glaringly lopsided. I am certain that when the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme was initiated in 1993, it was not meant to purvey an entire team of foreign imports.”

Jeffrey Law (Lee Beng), who is notorious for speaking out against the government, says, “These people are opportunists. They have the notion that Singapore needs them more than they need Singapore.”

Though that may seem harsh or opinionated, this view on immigrant athletes actually reflects the opinion majority of Singaporeans. According to a Yahoo poll, 80% of Singaporeans feel as though naturalized athletes misrepresent their nation, and the importation of foreign athletes is only increasing. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) has been scouting anywhere from 39 (2009) to 54 (2008) athletes annually and granting them a Singaporean citizenship to play on their national team.

SAS students have their own opinions about naturalized citizens being allowed to compete at a national level for the Singaporean team, despite the fact that they may have been a citizen for less than five years.

Junior Suparna Samavedham said, “I definitely do think that they should be allowed to compete. Just because in a globalizing world, I feel like a passport plays little to no significance. You could have a passport from, for example, the U.S., but you could’ve never lived there. I think that’s the case for a lot of people, so when it’s like that, you really can’t justify loyalty by passports. If an athlete is willing to compete for the country and if they have the ability to do so, I don’t think they should be restricted just because they’ve lived in the country for a very short amount of time.”

But some students like Tarini Chaudhuri Iyer, sophomore, took a different stance. “That’s a really controversial topic; I feel that being a citizen myself and having to wait two years for citizenship, it’s definitely harder, but I understand where their country’s coming from. Athletes are beneficial to the nation, so it is important that they get citizenship in order to participate as a Singaporean, but is it fair? No, but is it beneficial to the nation? Yes.”

This is not only prevalent in Singapore, as many countries in the past have granted citizenship to immigrant athletes. Canada, a country that’s been very successful in earning at least one medal in every Winter Olympic game, had a team that consisted of nine foreign-born athletes in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Countries like Israel and Azerbaijan, who aren’t recognized for their winter sports, even had teams that consisted of all-immigrant athletes. Even the U.S. imports athletes. Kenyan native Bernard Lagat, who’s had a competitive career representing his home country, changed his home to the U.S. He had won two Olympic medals for Kenya prior to switching teams in 2004. Though the American government had no problem with this, several Kenyan officials displayed concern. So why is this such a big deal?

Bernard Lagat at 2010 Berlin ISTAF (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)
Bernard Lagat at 2010 Berlin ISTAF (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Singaporeans in the past have expressed concern when foreign-born athletes represented their country. Many think that these foreign athletes aren’t committed and are joining their national team as a last resort. Immigrant athletes like Gu Juan dropped out of the Singaporean national team in 2007 to go back and play for China, though he rejoined the team a year and a half later.

Singaporean citizens’ resentment towards foreign-born athletes representing Singapore in international competitions can possibly be alleviated if the athletes fused into Singaporean culture and showed loyalty to the little red dot. Priscilla Cabuyao from Nanyang University’s School of International Studies said, “It may suggest that integration should come first before citizenship. Glory will be viewed as genuine because the people will feel represented by athletes who truly want to represent them.”

Though when SAS students were asked, some think it’s up to the individual athletes and officials. Nikhil Agarwal, sophomore, says, “Well I say yes […] if the player chooses to represent Singapore, even though he can’t choose China then, so be it, let them represent Singapore. […] the governments and officials will decide if he has the choice or not in the first place, so if there’s a Chinese representing Singapore, it’s because he’s allowed to and officially he can.”

Former national stadium (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)
Former national stadium (Photo courtesy of Creative Commons)

Ali Lodhi, sophomore, brought up the point that taking in foreign athletes reinforces Singapore’s melting pot society, saying, “It also represents the multicultural aspect of Singapore and society.”

At the end of the day, most Singaporeans just want the chance for local talents to be recognized and not have the spotlight always on the foreign-born athletes. Natural-born citizen, Jason Kho, in Today article entitled, “The S’pore I want to see in 2032” said, “I want Singapore sports to do well at the international level with local-born sportsmen, with more funding, focus and effort to groom our young, aspiring sportsmen to greater heights.”

Author: Kristi Yang

Kristi Yang is a senior in her seventh year at SAS and is a third-year reporter for The Eye. She was born in New York but raised in New Jersey, Beijing, and Singapore—where she currently resides. Despite having lived in Asia for the past nine years, and in Singapore for the past seven, she still considers New Jersey to be home. You can find her running late to class (from Starbucks), leading painless workouts at House of Pain, or loitering around the media lab in the wee hours of the night (just ask campus security). She can be contacted at yang43603@sas.edu.sg.

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