Badminton: SBA going local to attain goals

Outgoing SBA chief Lee Yi Shyan says Singapore has much to learn from Denmark, who won the Thomas Cup for the first time last Sunday when they beat former giants Indonesia, as they have a similar population size. He will step down next month, after the ma
Outgoing SBA chief Lee Yi Shyan says Singapore has much to learn from Denmark, who won the Thomas Cup for the first time last Sunday when they beat former giants Indonesia, as they have a similar population size. He will step down next month, after the maximum eight years allowed. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Relying less on foreign talent and more on youth will sustain badminton's development

With about two weeks to go before he steps down from the Singapore Badminton Association (SBA), Lee Yi Shyan knows he is leaving before the path of change he has set the sport on comes to fruition.

He will step down as president at the association's annual general meeting next month, after completing the maximum eight years the SBA's constitution allows its office holders.

Reflecting on his tenure, Mr Lee, who will remain adviser to the SBA, told The Straits Times yesterday that one of the bolder changes he made has been the make-up of the national team.

The last time foreign-born shuttlers received Singapore citizenship under the Foreign Talent Scheme (FTS) was in 2014.

Since then, the SBA has adopted a more inward focus.

For a sport that has previously produced SEA Games, Commonwealth Games and tour champions through foreign-born players, this paradigm shift meant "trade-offs" - but one that the East Coast GRC MP felt was necessary in the sport's pursuit of sustainable development.

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

They must have this passion and idealism that one day, we can also do very well.

MR LEE YI SHYAN, on people the SBA seeks.

Fu Mingtian, who won the 2011 SEA Games women's singles, is Singapore's last major Games champion. Yao Lei and Shinta Mulia Sari's 2010 Singapore Open women's doubles title remains the Republic's only Superseries triumph.

"Yes, winning medals is important and if our goal is to win medals at all costs, then maybe we will consider doing something very different," Mr Lee, who is also executive adviser for property developer OUE, said in his 33rd-floor Orchard office.

"But we want to take the more difficult route, the more resource-, labour-intensive route of creating capability within our system."

Several of the next-generation shuttlers in SBA's stable remain foreign-born. For instance, Olympics- bound Liang Xiaoyu is from China, while 2015 SEA Games bronze medallist Loh Kean Yew and his older brother, doubles player Kean Hean, were born in Malaysia.

The difference, said Mr Lee, is that they spent much of their growing-up years here being groomed by the SBA system, rather than as by-products of the FTS.

"It's harder," he added. "(But) this form of relying on our own players, own system is a more sustainable mode of developing the sport. It will force us to focus on youth development.

"We may not have that many 'highs'... but neither do we say that our more senior youth players cannot perform internationally."

He drew comparisons between Singapore and Denmark, and said that the Republic has much to learn from a nation that has a similar population size, yet capable of producing a Thomas Cup-winning side. He says his successor must possess belief that Singapore can punch above its weight too.

He said: "There is a long way to go, but that shouldn't deter us from pursuing this dream. Therefore, people who come to the SBA must have this passion and idealism that one day, we can also do very well. We have to give ourselves a chance."

The quantity and quality of the national team has taken a hit in recent years, with no fewer than 12 senior players, like 2008 Olympian Xing Aiying (injury), 2012 Olympian Yao Lei (studies) and Zhang Beiwen (declined to play for Singapore but now represents the United States) no longer donning the country's colours.

It means the new SBA president has the task of helping the younger shuttlers step up to the plate stronger - and sooner.

Said Mr Lee: "(It has meant) quicker succession planning that we have had to activate in our system - faster than we have wanted it to be. But we live in a free world. If people feel that their calling is somewhere else, we won't force them.

"We'll pay attention to our younger players - how we want to groom them, and give them opportunities."

Nominations will be finalised on Saturday, but ST understands that first-term MP (Fengshan) Cheryl Chan, who was co-opted into the SBA months ago, is a possibility. She was first seen representing the SBA at an event in March.

"We'll see whether she finally takes up this invitation because as a new MP she has a lot on her plate," he said, noting that the SBA is ready to run without any politicians at its helm. He himself had succeeded current Minister for Manpower Lim Swee Say.

Mr Lee added: "When I came in, I was a blank sheet of paper ready to do whatever made sense. I always believed in succession planning, in building to last, and in having a sustainable organisation.

"We always have constraints. On the whole, if we have occasional brilliance from time to time from our players, I'll be quite happy and it's been rewarding watching them."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 26, 2016, with the headline 'SBA going local to attain goals'. Print Edition | Subscribe