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Making a mark on world stage

Teong Tzen Wei won the 50m freestyle when he made his SEA Games debut last year. He is inspired by Joseph Schooling's Olympic win in 2016 and hopes to compete with the world's best one day.
Teong Tzen Wei won the 50m freestyle when he made his SEA Games debut last year. He is inspired by Joseph Schooling's Olympic win in 2016 and hopes to compete with the world's best one day.

From athletes to artists, Singaporeans are getting noticed globally. In the third instalment of an occasional series supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, Senior Social Affairs Correspondent Theresa Tan looks at how they are stepping up with confidence.

Swimmer Teong Tzen Wei vividly recalls the moment fellow swimmer Joseph Schooling won Singapore's first Olympic gold medal.

Teong, 20, watched it live at home and the win reignited his hopes of competing with the world's best one day.

Up till then, he felt it was beyond his reach as Asians tend to have smaller physiques than Caucasian swimmers.

He said of Schooling's win: "It made everyone feel that even though we are a tiny nation, we can still do something. If Joseph can do it, it shows it's possible."

Teong, who started training when he was six or seven, struck gold in the 50m freestyle when he made his SEA Games debut last year.

Now training full time as a swimmer, he said: "I realised if we work hard - with a bit of luck - we can reach the goals we set. Joseph has inspired many of us to pursue our sporting dreams."

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Schooling beat legendary American swimmer Michael Phelps to win Singapore's first Olympic gold medal in the 100m butterfly.

He put Singapore on the world map and boosted the nation's confidence that Singaporeans have what it takes to make it to the top.

Besides Schooling, many Singapore athletes are deemed to have the potential to win a medal on the Asian, Olympic or world stage, said Mr Lim Teck Yin, chief executive of Sport Singapore, the statutory board that promotes sports.

More than 110 athletes with potential have been awarded Sports Excellence Scholarships since the scheme started in 2013.

A decade ago, there were just "a handful" of athletes with potential to win on the world stage, said Mr Lim. But their numbers have grown, thanks to the authorities' support and the athletes' growing belief that they have a shot at winning at the highest levels of their sport, which drives them to excel, he added.

Singapore now boasts of junior world champions in sports such as fencing, shooting and sailing.

Said Mr Lim: "At the SEA Games, we are already up there with the bigger countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.

"In Asia, we are not among the top 10 yet (in terms of the medal tally at the Asian Games), but we are quite clear we can get there."

Besides athletes, Singaporeans in other fields are also blazing new trails and making a mark for themselves - and Singapore - internationally.

Take, for instance, jazz singer and host Joanna Dong, 36. She won fame and critical acclaim after coming in third in popular Chinese singing competition Sing! China last year.

Dong said she did not feel she was up to taking part in another singing contest after being voted out of the Singapore Idol competition in 2004. But Singaporean singer Nathan Hartono's second-place showing in Sing! China in 2016 gave her a shot in the arm.

"Nathan does not speak Mandarin much and he was willing to go way out of his comfort zone. I have no excuse as I'm fluent in Mandarin," she said. "Singaporeans are incredibly talented."

Besides Singaporean Mandopop stars such as Kit Chan, Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, there are also local musicians such as Ruth Ling and Mei Sheum who tour with the biggest names in Chinese pop, she noted.

The little things that constitute the country's rich heritage are also what Singaporeans can be proud of, noted Mr Loh Lik Peng, chairman of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). These can be anything from delicious hawker food, buildings and places, to shared memories and experiences.

He said: "Heritage is everything that makes you who you are."

When it comes to museums, he noted that while our museums' collections may not have the breadth of New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art or the British Museum, they have niche collections that are world-class.

Mr Loh cited ACM's Tang Shipwreck exhibit with its impressive haul of Tang-era ceramics. "This is the only collection of its kind in the world and even the major overseas institutions do not have anything like this in their collections," he said.

And in a reflection of the growing confidence among young Singaporeans, more feel empowered to step up to try to make a difference.

Take the Young ChangeMakers programme, where young people get to decide which youth-initiated projects that benefit the community will receive funding.

The number of projects funded under the programme, which is administered by the National Youth Council (NYC), has grown.

In NYC's last financial year, which ended in March last year, there were 177 projects, more than double the 81 projects in the 2013 financial year.

In one project, tertiary students coach younger students. In another, the elderly are taught to use smartphones to make payments, said Mr Muhd Nabil Noor Mohd, 29, the scheme's former chief curator.

He works at the National Trades Union Congress and used to volunteer to evaluate projects under the programme.

Mr Muhd Nabil, the eldest of three children of a driver and a housewife, received bursaries when he was growing up and wanted to give back to society.

He said: "The youth may not want to make mega changes. But more of them are looking out for one another. They know they have a part to play and are more confident in doing something to make the community a better place."


Dreaming big to hit the bull's eye in life


Nur Syahidah Alim, who made it to the top eight at the Rio Paralympics in 2016, said her archery training has made her more confident of herself and her abilities. PHOTO: ST FILE

Nur Syahidah Alim was hooked on archery after trying it for the first time at 18.

The feeling of hitting the bull's eye was great, said the 33-year-old who was born with cerebral palsy.

Syahidah can walk without crutches, but her gait is unsteady if she stands for long.

So she takes aim while seated on a stool, instead of standing.

Since she started taking part in archery competitions for people with disabilities in 2015, she has done herself and Singapore proud.

In her debut at the Asean Para Games in 2015, Syahidah won two gold medals. A year later, she made it to the top eight at the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

"It was a great honour to be the first Singaporean to represent Singapore in archery at the Paralympics," she said.

She also successfully defended her gold medal at the Asean Para Games last year.

Syahidah, who has a master's degree in knowledge management, is a recipient of the Sports Excellence Scholarship, which allows her to train full time.

The scholarship is administered by Sport Singapore.

She now trains five to six days a week.

Despite her disability, she would challenge herself by taking part in 5km walks.

She said: "I walk slower than others and also have an issue with balance. But I want to push myself beyond my limits."

Her archery training has also made her more confident of herself and her abilities.

Asked what she wants to tell others, she said: "Dare to dream big and pursue your dreams."


Painting with syringes and hands, not brushes


Artist Jane Lee has won a host of accolades for her works, which have been exhibited in at least 10 cities worldwide and at major events. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Artist Jane Lee, 54, has been described as one of Singapore's more notable contemporary artists and her work has garnered a host of accolades.

She is known for her innovativeness and unconventional approach to painting, said Dr Eugene Tan, director of National Gallery Singapore.

Lee has exhibited her works in at least 10 cities and at major events, including the Venice Biennale and Art Basel Hong Kong.

Some of her works were sold for over $50,000 a piece to collectors around the world. They have also been showcased here.

But a career in art is a path that Lee embarked on only in her 30s. She used to work as a fashion designer, but quit as she felt constrained by commercial demands.

Lee, who described herself as quite rebellious, said: "I wanted the freedom to create. I'm questioning the idea, the meaning and the process of painting. I wanted to find something new, an art language that speaks to my heart."

For example, she paints without brushes, using her hands, syringes or utensils instead.

Dr Tan said: "For a young society like ours, this adventurous spirit is inspiring not just to Singaporeans, but also to artists and critics abroad whose interest towards works by Singapore artists continues to grow."

When Lee went into art full time, some family members and friends discouraged her, worried that she could not make a living. But Lee followed her heart.

"I'm not too goal-oriented, so I don't know if I'm successful or not. But I have a lot of opportunities and quite a number of fans."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 25, 2018, with the headline 'Making a mark on world stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe