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Let's not wait another 22 years to host SEA Games

THE defining moments of the Singapore SEA Games were not the record-breaking feats in the swimming pool or on the running track.

They were the occasions of national pride and togetherness that the athletes inspired at the 28th Games, which drew to a close last night. And the moments were all the more special for being unplanned and unexpected.

Who would have thought that a broken PA system during the playing of Majulah Singapura at the victory ceremony for the women's 4x200m freestyle relay would result in the SEA Games becoming the hottest item on social media?

The video of spectators at a packed OCBC Aquatic Centre picking up where the faulty system left off and singing the national anthem with gusto touched the hearts of both swimmers and thousands of others.

The Straits Times article about the heartfelt moment has been shared more than 69,000 times, and counting, on Facebook and Twitter. The video of the victory ceremony, posted by Sport Singapore on YouTube, has been viewed more than 330,000 times.

Contrast that number to the 5,000 views the Singapore men's 4x200m freestyle relay got for their race and you can see why that was an anomaly.

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, who was presenting the gold medals to the four swimmers, described the moment as one of the highlights of a "stunning" Games that have "rallied and lifted us".

Recalled Mr Goh, who was Prime Minister the last time Singapore hosted the Games in 1993: "They were on the podium singing our national anthem and watching the Singapore flag being raised. Then the audio system broke down.

"Hardly missing a heartbeat, the Singaporeans in the stands continued with an a capella rendition. That was Singapore. That was the SEA Games spirit."

By now, many Singaporeans would also have seen the footage of silat fighter Muhammad Nur Alfian Juma'en breaking down as he sang the national anthem after a hard-fought win in the men's tanding F Class final.

His gold was the only win for silat - a win that mattered greatly to the sport, the fans and him.

As one comment on ST's Facebook read: "We cried with you."

In just two weeks, the Games have managed to bring this country closer than it has been for a while, bridging divides over issues that range from freedom of speech to gay rights. While the Games were on, it was like National Day every day, for 12 days straight. That was something only sport - which cuts across age, gender, race and social boundaries - could do.

Social media, so often the medium of choice for vitriolic messages, had, more often than not, good things to say about the Games.

Yes, to a large extent, the feel-good factor was generated by Team Singapore's outstanding performance. The final medal haul included a stunning 84 golds, far exceeding the previous best of 50 at the 1993 Singapore Games.

Although certain events were introduced to boost Singapore's medal haul, this was not the Mic-key Mouse Games. Swimmer Joseph Schooling clocked some world-class times while Malaysia's and Vietnam's gymnasts posted scores that would have stood out on the world stage.

One of the best parts of the Games was seeing Singaporeans go out and support not just gold medal favourites but also unfancied athletes like national sprinter Shanti Pereira, who delighted the country with her surprise win in the women's 200m track final. Not many among the 10,000 who turned up at the National Stadium to watch her expected a gold for Singapore in the event and so victory, when it came, was all the sweeter.

Some 22 years separated the last Singapore SEA Games in 1993 and this year's. My appeal is that we not wait another 22 years to play host once more.

There will always be arguments against hosting such a costly event. With a price tag of $324.5 million, would it not have been better to channel the money elsewhere, such as social welfare?

But perhaps the better question to ask is whether the investment was a worthy one. And in the case of the 2015 SEA Games, the answer is surely yes.

The harvest of 84 golds was a record, heralding a new era for Singapore sport. It was not only the usual suspects like swimming and sailing that delivered, but also sports like synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, which saw Singaporeans win their first golds. A total of 18 sports contributed to the bumper haul, another record.

But success was not confined to the sporting arenas.

Sales numbers at Kallang Wave Mall saw new highs, and businesses at Raffles City also saw hikes of 20 to 30 per cent. But it is arguably the intangibles that Singapore most benefited from.

Singapore marathoner Ashley Liew's decision to wait for his fellow runners to rejoin him on the right route, after they had mistakenly taken a detour, did more for the teaching of fair play than any physical education lesson could. His first instinct was not to capitalise on his competitors' mistake but rather, to make sure sportsmanship prevailed.

No fewer than three ministers praised him, with Foreign Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam congratulating Liew on Facebook for "making us proud, as Singaporeans".

The anti-foreign talent sentiment never really caught fire at this year's Games as only 14 of the 84 golds won came from naturalised citizens.

In an era when the cost of hosting a major multinational, multi- event sports extravaganza has skyrocketed - the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon cost US$1.62 billion (S$2.1 billion) while next year's Rio Olympics are set to cost US$12 billion - the SEA Games represent an attractive substitute.

A nation committed to growing a sporting culture should always start with baby steps, and the SEA Games are ideal to nurture young sports talents and to market sport to the masses. At these Games, the winners were not just the 402 gold medallists, of whom more than 100 were Singaporean. Singapore, as a nation, also won.

marclim@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2015, with the headline 'Let's not wait another 22 years to host SEA Games'. Print Edition | Subscribe