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The rise and fall of golf in Singapore

Political winds no longer favour sport played by exclusive group; less interest among young

If you are a Raffles Country Club (RCC) golfer, you might feel like you've just been hit on the head by a stray ball after missing a short putt for a double bogey.

Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!

It's especially painful because RCC was one of those unaffected by the announcement in 2014 involving several clubs whose leases were due to expire in 10 years' time.

Keppel Club would be no more by 2021 and others like the Singapore Island Country Club and Tanah Merah Country Club (TMCC) would lose some of their land. A year later, in 2015, it was announced that Jurong Country Club was next on the Government's acquisition list.

But Raffles seemed safe at the time because its current lease extended to 2028, the longest of all the clubs on 30-year leases.

Wednesday's announcement that its entire 146ha would be acquired next year was a lightning strike from way beyond the out-of-bound markers.


Singapore golfers, it's time to say "bye bye, birdie". The game is played by about 36,000 here, or less than 1 per cent of the population. With land owned by clubs like Jurong Country Club (pictured) slated to be acquired by the Government, the days of a plethora of courses have come to an end. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

It's every golfer's nightmare now playing in Singapore - will his club be next?

While there are specific reasons for the acquisition of Raffles and Jurong - to make way for the construction of the High Speed Rail to Kuala Lumpur and other transport facilities - there appears to be a change in thinking about golf courses in Singapore.

 
 

What a change in fortune from not that long ago, when the golfing gods looked kindly on the fairways here and declared there was room for more.

The Urban Renewal Authority's 1991 Concept Plan, which is the country's strategic land use and transport masterplan, envisaged having 29 golf courses, up from the then 22.

This was what it said:

"Land will also be safeguarded for more sports facilities. Swimming pools, stadiums, tennis courts, squash courts and golf courses will be increased in number...

"As we begin Living the Next Lap, it is plain to see that there will be no lack of entertainment or recreational opportunities. Singapore will become a playground, perhaps even an internationally renowned one, a home and workplace that offers a great deal more than just home and work."

Golfers thought then they were a protected species.

Why do they now look like an endangered lot?

While there are specific reasons for the acquisition of Raffles and Jurong - to make way for the construction of the High Speed Rail (HSR) to Kuala Lumpur and other transport facilities - there appears to be a change in thinking about golf courses in Singapore.

One reason for this: The 1991 plan projected a much smaller population than what later planners had to work with.

Then, the plan was for a population of only four million in Year X - an unspecified future date used for planning purposes. Today, it is already 5.6 million, so the pressure for space for housing, transport, recreation and other uses is much greater.

There were no plans for the HSR in 1991, and the planned MRT extensions were much more modest than what we're seeing today.

When these were later put on the drawing board, some things had to give.

But why was golf the main fall guy?

Couldn't the misery have been more widely spread among other activities?

Enter the political winds blowing across the island which have not been favourable to a sport played by a small, exclusive group.

The growing income divide between the rich and the rest and the public reaction to it have made governments everywhere wary of being seen to be promoting the interest of the well-heeled.

Singapore too has had to moderate its ambition of being a global city attracting the rich and famous with their jet-set (and golfing?) lifestyle.

There is also greater awareness today of the environmental costs of building and maintaining golf courses, including the amount of water needed.

It is entirely possible golf has been a casualty of this political reckoning.

The game is played by an estimated 36,000 in Singapore, or less than 1 per cent of the population.

There is not much sympathy for their loss, no champion for their cause.

It has been said there are fewer golfers among the top echelon of the public service than during the earlier years.

I joined TMCC in 1983 because of my boss at the Ministry of Communications, its permanent secretary, Mr Sim Kee Boon.

He was an avid golfer and built the two 18-holes at TMCC - Garden and Tampines - with the same care and attention to detail as he developed the airport.

The minister in charge then was Mr Ong Teng Cheong, who also played golf.

I did not at the time, but didn't need much encouragement to pick it up, not when your bosses played the game and you wanted to be part of the club.

It's not the case today.

There is declining interest among the younger generation, including in the political and public service leadership.

It takes up too much time; there are many other options available today for the physically active and which don't cost as much.

I'm afraid Singapore golfers have to accept the reality that their bogey-free days are over.

In fact, they have had it too good for probably too long.

There is no city in the world with so many golf courses within such close reach, half an hour by car at the most.

In many other places, it would have taken at least two hours to reach the nearest course.

But proximity is a double-edged club.

Being too close to the city also increases the risk of being acquired as the city grows.

Singapore golfers now know this the painful way.

Ouch!

  • The writer is also a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 08, 2017, with the headline 'The rise and fall of golf in Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe