SINGAPORE - Local athletes have more say in their national bodies than ever before, but more can be done to empower them at the executive level so they are able to effect change.
Mark Chay, who chairs the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) athletes' commission, says that for this to happen requires one word: trust.
There is some form of athlete representation in 13 of the 64 national sports associations (NSAs) in Singapore, but only three are involved in decision-making at the executive level, for example in management committees (MC).
Chay, a former national swimmer, said: "I've spoken to many of the NSAs and I know which are receptive (to the idea of ) and which are not.
"There is the idea from those that are not, that the athletes' representatives will use the opportunity to gain information and undermine (NSA leadership)... and so they just don't trust their athletes enough.
"There may also be a situation where NSAs cannot find a suitable representative (but)... from everything I have hear, I think it really is mainly about trust. And NSA leaders have to really open their minds if this were to happen."
The issue of athlete representation in NSAs is in the spotlight following Singapore Athletics' (SA) extraordinary general meeting last Monday, in which the track and field fraternity tabled a proposal to remove voting rights for its athletes' commission representative. The proposed amendment remains unresolved.
The purpose of such commissions or representatives is to represent the voice of athletes in their respective NSAs, serving as a link to management so sportsmen and women can articulate their concerns or feedback.
Chay says the overall landscape has been seen an improvement; when he was elected SNOC athletes' commission chair in 2017, just one NSA - the Singapore Swimming Association - had an athletes' commission.
There are now seven. The governing bodies for athletics, badminton, canoeing, gymnastics, silat and table tennis have since formed respective athletes' committees or commissions. The Singapore Disability Sports Council also has one.
Six NSAs - bowling, cycling, fencing, rugby, sailing and tennis - also formally recognised athlete representatives.
A spokesman for Sport Singapore (SportSG) told The Straits Times: "More NSAs are expected to form their own athletes' commission as recommended by SportSG's model NSA constitution."
The national sports agency has told ST that it is supporting efforts by the NSAs "to professionalise and strengthen their governance" and that it has "provided guidance through a set of Governance Principles for NSAs and a template of a model constitution" to help them revise their respective charters.
However, only athletics, tennis and canoeing have these representatives in their respective MCs.
A STEP BACKWARDS
SA's bid to remove its athletes' representative's voting rights, therefore, is seen as a step backwards by some.
Chay was disheartened by SA's proposed change.
"I thought that giving their athletes a voice and a vote (in 2019) was a very progressive thing, and going back now is regressive," said Chay.
"My conversations with SA (on the matter) have also been disappointing because from what I understand, SA is mooting the change because of one individual.
"But if you are unhappy with an individual, deal with that individual, don't change the system. To do this is to take away the vote of the people they are supposed to serve."
National marathoner Soh Rui Yong, who has sued SA for defamation last year over its statement on his non-selection for the 2019 SEA Games, said that athlete representation at the executive level is vital to help sportsmen and women deal with "on the ground challenges" in the modern sport which he believes some on Singapore Athletics' MC are "out of touch with".
"The athletes' (representative) is just as important if not more so than the other members as they (represent)... the most important stakeholders in this sport - the athletes," added Soh.
"In the SA (general meeting on Monday), I believe (honorary secretary) Eric Song said that the athletes' commission need not have voting rights, and can still have their voice heard at the table. To me, that is rubbish.
"As it is, it doesn't look to me like that MC listens to the athletes' commission when it does have voting rights. What more when it doesn't?"
SA has told ST that the decision to revoke the athletes' commission representative's voting rights was done with a broader principle in mind - that non-elected members of its MC or board, who were not democratically elected by the association's clubs, should not be given a vote.
Soh, who won the marathon at the 2015 and 2017 SEA Games, added that he believed every NSA should have not just one but two athlete representatives - one male and one female - with both accorded voting rights at executive level.
OTHER AVENUES AVAILABLE
SSA president Lee Kok Choy described his association's relationship with its athletes' commission, which is currently headed by Pang Sheng Jun, as "productive and valuable".
Yet he stops short at exhorting for all NSAs to have official athlete representation.
"I think it's definitely good and important for the athletes' voice to be heard, but the means would be dependent on the structure of the organisation," he said.
"It could be a commission, a single representative, or an equivalent - the main consideration is that problems must be heard and issues must be addressed.
"Different sports have different considerations, so I would rather not be too prescriptive."
He added that having an athletes' representative at MC level might not be the most optimal approach, as it would require them to be a part of "support work" done by the NSA such as working with sponsors, or strategising coaching certifications, which do not have a direct impact on athletes' well-being.
In football, former national defenders R. Sasikumar, and then Hafiz Osman, tried but failed to set up players' unions to safeguard the interests of players, many of whom ply their trade in the Singapore Premier League (SPL).
The SPL is the only professional national sports league in Singapore, and there have been numerous contractual disputes between clubs and players since the league was started in 1996, when it was known as the S-League.
A Football Association of Singapore (FAS) spokesman told ST that while it does not have official athlete representation in the NSA, it has established various standing committees - such as the players' status committee and players' welfare committee - to look into different areas of the local football ecosystem.
Added the spokesman: "The majority of these standing committees are led by and/or consist of members of the current FAS council, of which three are ex-international players (Razali Saad, Lim Tong Hai and Yakob Hashim).
"Although retired from active play, they remain a key conduit for active players, and having gone through similar experiences themselves, they are able to relate to the current players and ensure that their interests are taken care of."