Singapore (IDN): The stunning victory by 21-year old Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling in the 100-meter butterfly at the Rio Olympics on Friday has reignited debate about the intricacy of importing foreign sporting talent to raise the profile of local sports, especially in the international arena. It was the tiny island nation’s first ever Olympic gold medal and Southeast Asia’s first Olympic Gold in swimming.
Schooling beat his childhood idol, and perhaps the greatest swimmer of all-time, Michael Phelps of the United States, as well as Commonwealth Games champion Chad Le Clos of South Africa and the 33-time European champion Laszlo Cseh of Hungary. All three of them tied for silver medal, while the young Singaporean took the gold with a new Olympic Games record.
The name Schooling may make one wonder if he is the child of a Caucasian father, and in 2014 when he won the same event at the Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea with an Asian Games record, there were questions asked in Singapore whether he was a true blue Singaporean. His Singapore-born father Colin Schooling, then gave media interviews in the local Malay and Hokkien languages to prove their family credentials to Singapore. But, today, the young Schooling is considered as a true blue Singaporean and an example of how local talent could triumph in the global stage. In fact, his latest success has encouraged Singaporeans to speak out against importing “foreign talent” to boost the international profile of this small island nation of 3 million people, which a former Indonesian President famously called the “little red dot” in the 1990s.
Joseph Schooling is a third-generation Singaporean who is ethnically categorized in Singapore’s multiracial society as a Eurasian-Singaporean. The main ethnic group in the island is Chinese (originally from China) making up about 70 percent of the population, while the more indigenous Malays (mainly Muslims) and Indians (mainly Tamils) make up the other main ethnic groups. Schooling’s mother is ethnic Chinese from Malaysia while the father is Singapore-born, to a British military officer who married a local Portuguese-Eurasian and settled in Singapore.
Schooling was born in Singapore, went to school in Singapore, but in his early secondary school age he went to the US to pursue his swimming ambitions while his parents remained in Singapore. It was reported that, at the age of 6, after a conversation with his grand uncle Lloyd Valberg, Singapore’s first Olympian at the 1948 London Games, he told his father that he wanted to swim at the Olympics. The middle class parents’ dedication to save and help their only child to pursue the Olympic dream – which many in Singapore thought was an impossibility – is now seen as a reflection of real Asian values.
A tearful father, Colin, who could not go to Rio to see his son swim in the Olympics, told Singapore television immediately after watching his son’s historic feat on television, that “what made me cry is, I managed to fulfill his dream (of winning an Olympic gold medal), and I’m sure he also has many other dreams and ambitions for Singapore. So this is just a whole pent-up thing that I’ve been going through this year, and I don’t know how many years before.”
Just hours after winning gold, Joseph has packed his bags and decided to return to Singapore for four days to celebrate with his compatriots. He had initially planned to go straight back to the University of Texas to continue his studies.
“I’m going back so that I can celebrate this moment with everyone in Singapore,” he told Singapore television at the Rio airport, after having only slept for two hours during the night. “Not just my mum and my dad and friends, but everyone who has supported me through the years and watched me grow up. I think this moment is really important not just for me but also for everyone in Singapore, and I’m looking forward to it.”
While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and other government leaders have hailed Schooling’s achievements, there has been much buzz among netizens about the sensitive issue of “foreign talent” in sports.
Between 1996 and 2013, 64 athletes have been granted Singaporean citizenship under a Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. Most of them have lived in Singapore for over two years before being granted citizenship, and some of them have gone on to win medals for Singapore in the global stage. At the 2012 Olympics, Feng Tianwei, a foreign talent from China, won bronze for Singapore in Table Tennis. In 2010, when Singapore won for the first time the World Table Tennis Championships in Moscow beating the Chinese in the final, almost the entire Singaporean team was made up of “foreign talent” from China.
Thus, when Singapore was crowned world Table Tennis champions, the government and the media found it very difficult to drum up pride among Singaporeans. Instead, what became a popular joke was that China’s “B team” has beaten its “A Team.” Many Singaporeans have felt that this scheme discriminated against local talent and the government was more concerned about tapping into the multimillion dollar global sports industry rather than developing local sporting skills talents and accompanying pride in its success.
Schooling’s success has triggered this debate, especially among netizens. Comments accompanying the first article on his Olympic success on Yahoo Singapore was overwhelmingly focused on how local talent can make it in the global arena with proper investments in training, done mainly by his parents.
“Singapore Government needs to nurture more true blood Singaporeans, we should not be buying winning golds with PRs (permanent residents). Why can’t we have world renowned coaches in all sports sectors to train our own true Singaporean instead of “buying foreign talents” to represent us?” asked one.
“Finally I feel so proud to be a Singaporean when I see J Schooling touch the finishing line. Hope from now on, the government please stop funding so-called foreign talents. I’d rather see a local born fight it out and lose than an Ft win… When table tennis won a silver/bronze in the last 2 Olympics, I didn’t feel anything, but when Schooling touched the finish line, I felt a sense of, how to describe it, like tears of joy,” added another.
“Why do I feel the euphoria when Joseph Schooling won the Gold medal at the Olympics? A feeling that I never experienced before, even when the paddlers won gold medals. Our government has been spending our taxpayers’ money on these imports, giving them citizenship and all other perks, while the Singaporeans have been voicing out their frustrations. I hope this win by a local boy would open their eyes to see that if we put all those resources we wasted on those foreigners we could have had our own pool of local champions. You have done us proud Joseph, hooray!” added yet another netizen.
Thousands of Singaporeans turned up at Changi airport early Monday morning to welcome home their hero, and he is expected to have a victory parade this week before returning to the US to continue his studies and training.
Singapore’s Parliament passed a special motion on Monday acknowledging Schooling’s feat and the session was attended by the champion swimmer, flanked by his parents. He will also become a millionaire when he receives a 1 million Singapore dollar reward from the government for winning gold at the Olympics.
“One hundred meters? That’s all it takes to rewrite history? Launch a revolution. Glue a nation … to lift the mood. To give proof of excellence,” noted the Strait Times’ senior sports correspondent Rohit Brijnath. “Joseph Schooling is going to inspire Singapore, but no one can ever imitate him,” Brijnath said, adding, he is number one, and “every Singaporean Olympian from now on will only follow” in his footsteps.
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The author teaches communication at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.