S'pore has some way to go to be a sporting nation: Lee Bee Wah

Badminton player Derek Wong carrying the national flag and leading the Singapore contingent during the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics in Brazil last month.
Badminton player Derek Wong carrying the national flag and leading the Singapore contingent during the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics in Brazil last month.PHOTO: REUTERS

Singapore's best athletes have made huge strides on the world sporting stage, but Ms Lee Bee Wah (Nee Soon GRC) reckons the country still has "some way" to go on its road to becoming a sporting nation.

In an adjournment motion yesterday in Parliament, she cited examples to back her stand.

That Singaporeans very nearly missed out on live telecasts of the action at last month's Rio Olympics was "unthinkable", she said.

Ms Lee, who was president of the Singapore Table Tennis Association from 2008 to 2014, also felt that when it comes to national service deferment, efforts to support elite male athletes bound for the Olympics have been left wanting.

She noted that swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen had been granted long-term NS deferments, but felt that more could be done so that others mulling over an elite sporting career have a clearer picture of what is expected.

She said: "(Mindef and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth) should work together to come up with a policy for our sportsmen so that everyone can... be clear about what they can expect and what standards they have to achieve in order to pursue their careers in the sporting world."

Ms Lee, an adviser to the Singapore Swimming Association, asked if the nation could follow South Korea's example and allow athletes a say in when they fulfil their NS obligations, as long as they do so before turning 30.

On funding, she called on the Government to invest more money in developing high-performing athletes. She said that while initiatives such as the Sports Excellence Scholarship support athletes - both able-bodied and those with disabilities - more funding would allow programmes to be tailor-made to those with potential, allowing them the opportunity to go on longer-term attachments abroad.

Students should be exposed to sports from a young age and not simply for winning trophies, she added. "We have made progress. We must not rest on our laurels. There is so much more we can and need to do... We must not allow stagnation to erase the hard work that everyone, especially our athletes, has put in.

"I urge greater flexibility, empathy and planning to help us keep moving towards our goal of making Singapore a truly sporting nation with great sporting culture at all levels."

In response, Culture, Community and Youth Minister Grace Fu said nurturing national athletes is an effort that goes from the youth level - from the Singapore Sports School and the National Youth Sports Institute - to the elite stages, in the form of a High Performance Sports system last revised in 2013.

A total of $60 million is budgeted over five years to provide all-round support to elite athletes. Close to $90 million is spent each year when grants to national sports associations and all athletes are included.

Ms Fu, who also called on the corporate sector to be part of this nurturing process, said: "Success in high-performance sports is borne from the partnership with many stakeholders and not just the Government alone.

"The journey towards fulfilling our sporting vision is a marathon, not a sprint... We hope that with the support of all stakeholders, we can develop a healthy ecosystem and inspire Singaporeans to live better through sport."

Separately, the Workers' Party in a statement called for local athletes who win medals at the Paralympic Games, which have a smaller pool of competitors, to get the same prize money as Olympic medallists.

"Our Paralympians demonstrate what we can achieve as an inclusive sporting nation," it said.

Singapore Disability Sports Council vice-president Raja Singh told The Straits Times that a reward system had been put in place with officials and there was no dispute when this was agreed upon.

•Additional reporting by Jonathan Wong

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 14, 2016, with the headline 'S'pore has some way to go to be a sporting nation: Lee Bee Wah'. Print Edition | Subscribe