Joseph Schooling and the Singapore Gahment set ups for sporting excellence.
So this thing about Joseph Schooling: what did the government do right, and what did it do wrong? The simple answer to this is, neither. It didn't do anything for Joseph Schooling. This has produced a great controversy where there has been some concerted effort to push Singapore sportsmen to excel, and that has been shown up in Joseph Schooling's feat.
It's a little difficult to put into words why Joseph Schooling's gold medal matters so much, but there was a time when we were discussing our hometowns. A colleague of mine dissed his own hometown and said that it's one of the most boring places in the world. I said, “I know how you feel, I'm from Singapore. We've given you nothing.” And somebody snidely made a comment that I was being insecure. But it's true, the individual achievements of Singaporeans are nothing to shout about. Until now. Until now, we're the country who's not won any medals since Tan Howe Liang's silver medal. We've had to import China's second team for our world champions team (to be fair, if we get a silver medal for table tennis, that's a gold medal for “best of the rest”).
I'm not that well-versed in swimming and I don't really know what's involved. From what I can see, it's a lot of sports science. A lot of expertise acquired through many years of experience. The physical conditioning, the diet, the number of strokes taken. I don't really know how easy or difficult it is to replicate the system in Singapore. Singapore is not there yet. They'll be able to produce the Joscelin Yeos who can pawn everybody else in Southeast Asia, and that's going to be an increasingly difficult task since our neighbours have nowhere to go but get stronger.
Joseph Schooling said something rather telling: he wants to be able to say that it's possible for people from smaller countries to win big medals. In this statement, he's acknowledging that it's difficult for Singapore to have the system that the US has.
Here's the reason why.
In the US, you have the economies of scale. You can safely build world class sports training facilities. You can attempt to excel in 100 different sports, and you know that your hinterland is so large and wide that somehow, somewhere, you'll get somebody from some obscure province, and he'll end up being some hero. It's funny but I think the manhattan project – to build the first atom bomb – was basically a collaboration between midwestern boys from small towns and the top scientists escaping from Europe. A lot of the people who ended up turning America into the academic superpower of the world (at least in higher education). The streets may not be paved with gold in the USA, but they can just pull freakishly talented people out of their own asses.
So with these raw materials, you can build a big machine to process raw talent into Olympic champions. One half of this is the individual talent, the Joseph Schooling. The other half is the talent machines, the Bolling Schools, the UT Austins.
What can Singapore do, going forward? Here are a few things I know that could go wrong. First, you could possibly pick on the wrong horse. You could staff it with political appointees instead of people who are the best in the business. You could end up with a game that people are no longer interested in. Maybe like squash?
You need to manage what happens when people devote their entire careers to the running of this show. If you don't want to set up a school for sports science in NTU or something, at least give people scholarships to go study sports science. And get them to work in overseas schools to get the best expertise.
I have a controversial suggestion. If you open a school for swimming, make it available to the rest of the world. Don't worry too much that it will disproportionately benefit other countries, because what you want are the economies of scale. Get swimmers from all over Southeast Asia, and train them up. Make them compete against each other, and they'll only bring up the standards. And hopefully, they're going to return the favour by opening their doors to us on other things. Maybe Indonesia has a badminton school of excellence that keeps on pumping out top class shuttlers, we can get our foot into the door with them too.
The things that Singapore is traditionally strong in are obviously what we want to start with. Swimming, sailing, water polo.
The other thing is, inevitably, how are we going to excel in football? Team sports are different from individual sports, in that you are working with the average ability of the team. You will find it harder to exempt promising players from NS. However, I think that people can train with the Young Lions as a part of NS, and hopefully that would help.
Building a football center of excellence is not easy. I used to believe that it's hard to get Chinese people to play football. Maybe things will be a little different. But you'll still need a Joseph Schooling situation, where people can make a real life out of it. At least now Joseph Schooling will be a star, and he'll have sponsorship deals, and plenty of money from celebrity endorsements.
But the important thing is: what are you going to do with the people who try and fail? How are they going to find their way back to Singapore society, especially one as competitive as this? If you read the football pages, they are full of people who had fallen on hard times once they gave up playing. Anybody seen Noh Alam Shah these days? He may not have been as famous as Fandi Ahmad, but Fandi Ahmad didn't have 2 Southeast Asian Championship medals (although he had 5 or 6 Malaysia Cups). I know he was a hothead, and he's had to work as a hawker's assistant during a time when he was banned from football. So here's the thing, who wants to be that type of hero? OK, some patron has given him a lifeline, I see. But what about those who aspire, but fail to be like Noh Alam Shah?
You are not building a monument. You are building a community, and the champion athletes are the apex of the pyramid. You cannot have a mountain peak without the mountain underneath it. And here's the bad news, the really really bad news: the mountain is difficult. But it is doable, and if you think about the mountain, one day you can do it.
And that means all these things: small leagues. Big leagues. Big crowds at football stadiums. Training. Fitness. Conditioning. Scouting. Strategies. Dossiers. Sponsorship deals. Commissioners. Franchising. Business. Hospitality. All the shit. From the ground up. Not some big fuck cocksucker who can just wave World Cup 2010 like what.
It will be hard for football, because we are not blessed to be in a part of a world where our neighbours are great football powers. If the Thais, the Malaysians and the Indonesians pull their weight, then we will all have a chance to lift each other up into the big time. Otherwise, it is nothing more than pak chwee cheng. All the pundeks north of the border who kick us out of the M League are just shooting themselves in the foot. We have always been better when we play against each other.
Then the Indonesians and the Malaysians – why have they been able to excel at badminton? What kind of a set-up do they have? What do they have to teach us? Why is there a Singaporean, that Benjamin Tan in the upper echelons of Thailand's FA and what the fuck is he doing there instead of Singapore? Do we have real men to do real men jobs in our sporting setups or do we have por lampar cocksucker yes men? I'm not saying either way but those are issues you got to think about.
And one more thing, if the Singapore govt doesn't really know how best to “help” Joseph Schooling, if they can't do anything within their system to help him, just throw money at him so that he can carry on. Just keep a good thing going. That's the best and the least worst solution.