SINGAPORE - President Halimah Yacob has urged Singapore's Paralympians to share their sporting journey and experiences with the community to inspire all Singaporeans to "believe in themselves and pursue their dreams".
Madam Halimah was speaking to all 10 athletes who competed at the Aug 24-Sept 5 Tokyo Paralympics over Zoom in a virtual engagement session on Tuesday (Sept 7).
She said: "I hope that you will share your sporting journey and experience with the community. Inspire and encourage other persons with disabilities to also lead an active lifestyle, so that we can build a better sporting nation together.
"Beyond sports, your can-do spirit will serve as a beacon for Singaporeans to believe in themselves and pursue their dreams."
Addressing the group, which included swimmer Yip Pin Xiu who won two gold medals in Tokyo, Madam Halimah thanked and congratulated them for their "remarkable achievement" in competing at the Games. She hailed their "sheer effort, determination and can-do spirit" as admirable given the disruptions and uncertainty caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said: "You have sacrificed so much, and done so with great courage and tenacity. You have demonstrated how you are not constrained by limitations, but instead are driven by what is possible. We are proud of you."
Calling the athletes an inspiration, Madam Halimah also noted that over the past two weeks, many at home were in awe of their performances in Tokyo.
She added: "You have shown us that with hard work and sacrifice, we can realise our dreams. Your achievements also exemplify how a nation as small as ours can punch above its weight."
Of the 10 athletes, four made their Paralympic debuts in Tokyo. They were powerlifter Nur Aini Mohamad Yasli, cyclist Steve Tee and swimmers Toh Wei Soong and Sophie Soon.
Madam Halimah noted that it must have been an exciting experience for the debutants and "one that I hope will fuel your aspirations towards achieving greater heights of sporting excellence".
"I wish everyone all the best in your pursuit to return to this global stage in the future. We are all behind you as One Team Singapore," she added.
Aini, 29, the first Singaporean powerlifter at the Paralympics, told The Straits Times: "The fact that she took the time to speak to all of us means a lot, especially since when we competed, there was no audience, so to have this kind of support back home, to know that whole nation is behind us - it means a lot.
"She told us (while serving stay-home notice) to just unwind, fully recover and relax before we start on another Paralympic cycle. She was also very encouraging, she said to go eat your favourite food and have enough rest."
Tee, 40, said he was grateful for the support from Madam Halimah and members of the public and it will serve as extra motivation as he continues his sporting journey.
Yip, 29, who retained her S2 50m and 100m backstroke titles to take her Paralympic gold medal tally to five, said: "It's nice she acknowledged us and it goes to show that sports is quite a high priority for the President, with us representing the nation and for a sportier culture for Singapore."
The para swimmer's achievement in Tokyo has also sparked renewed debate on the issue of unequal prize money awarded to Olympians and Paralympians. In the past few days, Singaporeans have taken to social media and sent letters to ST's Forum to question why the cash payout for a Paralympic gold is $200,000 - a fifth of the $1 million reward for the Olympics.
The public support for parity has warmed Yip's heart. "It's nice that people are standing up for equality and it's nice that there's some event that caused it to happen but it would also be great if this conversation happened all year round," she said.
"But I'm grateful for people speaking up for us and calling out for more equality and it's nice that I read a lot of articles and people's messages on the Internet and voices calling for that.
"I don't know if it will increase but the gesture and people trying to make things move... I'm grateful for that."
At Tuesday's virtual engagement session, Madam Halimah also sent her appreciation and recognition to the athletes' coaches, family, friends and caregivers as well as officials from the Singapore Disability Sports Council, Singapore National Paralympic Council (SNPC) and Singapore Sport Institute (SSI).
The session was also attended by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, SNPC chairman Teo-Koh Sock Miang, SSI chief Toh Boon Yi and chef de mission Shirley Low.