Our hearts swelled with pride as we watched Joseph Schooling explode in the pool to win Singapore’s first Olympic gold. We could faintly hear cheering in the distance as Schooling punched the water on realising that he has beat his childhood idol and created a new Olympic record. As the Singapore flag was raised in Rio and our familiar Majulah Singapura was played, we could feel the celebratory mood all round Singapore. Yet, soon, we also heard murmurings that Schooling should just stay in the US because Singapore did little to contribute to this historic moment.
Did Schooling win because of the Singapore system or in spite of it? He had to pack his bag and go to boarding school and university in the US in order to get the training he needed. If his family was not well off, could he have gone on this path? In fact, his parents had to go to extraordinary lengths to fight the Singapore system to get a long term deferment for National Service. Some arguments could also be made that the Singapore system supported his quest for Olympic gold. Would Schooling have been successful if he was born somewhere else? Did Singapore not provide the environment for him to at least start his journey towards Olympic gold?
The fact remains that his parents went to extraordinary lengths to support Schooling. From getting him the best coach, deferment of his NS, uprooting him from the local school and sending him overseas. They did not limit themselves to what the country had to offer. They took things in their own hands and made things happen.
But, which olympic champion was not made through extraordinary actions, effort and a path less well trodden, both by the individual and his support structure? If we agree that champions are only made through extraordinary action and effort, then the question thus is how can we repeat this feat as a nation? Should we not facilitate the individuals and parents in making this extraordinary effort? Should we not make our system extraordinary to groom our future olympians. We can reduce the burden on the parents when they decide to take the path less travelled.
We have invested heavily in sports infrastructure and to try to encourage sports. We built a new Sports Hub, opened the Singapore Sports School, blew a fortune to host the Youth Olympics, etc. This was a good start. But it is time to move on and take the next step.
The Schooling family had enough fortitude to decide that swimming was a viable career path for Joseph. They had enough courage to go forth and do something totally different. Singapore has benefitted tremendously from their courage. What can Singapore do to create the conditions for our sporting talents to consider sports as a viable career path? We are indeed small and I am not sure how, but surely we can innovate and find a way?
While I am glad that our government is now showering attention on our newly minted Olympic gold medalist, I wish they could do more for athletes who wanted to try. I wish they not just show love to those who bring home medals. Perhaps it’s idealistic. But I wish our government is like the type of parent I strive to be. To bring out the best in our sons and daughters. To believe even if they can’t see (yet). Nurturing and supportive. Not mercenary and calculative.
There is a difference between our table tennis team bringing home medals and Joseph Schooling winning last week. The former probably stirred up more controversy than support from fellow Singaporeans.
We can identify with Joseph Schooling, a true blue Singaporean who was born and bred here. In fact his Eurasian heritage most aptly represent Singapore’s multiracialism. His success story is an inspiration to fellow Singaporeans. His parents probably went through the same anxiety when it came to choosing Primary school and Schooling taking his PSLE. They believed and were courageous enough to take the path less travelled. Schooling’s story was part of the Singapore story. His experience was part of the Singapore experience.
For a young multi-cultural and multi-racial nation that is becoming increasingly polarized along socio-economic and political lines, nation building is no mean task. For me, sports can be an integral part of nation building and that is why we should invest in sports and stop buying mercenaries to play for Singapore. It’s not just about winning. It’s how we get there, as a country, as a nation.
What do we really have to unite us? Singlish? National Service? The national anthem? A national dress? Food? Every time I meet someone from another country, I would be amazed at how proud they are of their history, traditions, culture, and things that make them unique. I tried many a times to find something uniquely Singaporean.
In recent times, I began to find anchors to the Singaporean experience that transcended all racial, religious, and social boundaries. One such anchor was the passing of our founding prime minister LKY. The memory of that week long mourning still brings back goosebumps. It reminded me of our unique experience and journey to the First World. I began to understand that what really makes us Singaporean is the unique Singaporean experience. Our own little histories, stories, idiosyncrasies, and traditions no matter how small and silly they may look.
In that 50.39 seconds that Joseph Schooling took to win the 100m butterfly, he didn’t just give us our first olympic gold medal, he made Singapore stronger as a nation as we rallied and cheered him on, regardless of race, language or religion.
There is no KPI for nation building. There is no direct economic return for nation building. It is not quantifiable or measurable. But it is the glue that bonds us together as a nation and do amazing things.
To the Schoolings, congratulations to your amazing win and thank you for making us stronger and prouder as a nation, as a Singaporean.
Here’s what Joseph’s 50.39s taught this mother