March 9, 2008
DEBATE RAGES ON...
Is the foreign talent scheme working?
By Leonard Lim
THE behaviour of some athletes, like China-born thrower Dong Enxin who has gone AWOL, has given critics the chance to question the usefulness of the Foreign Sports Talent scheme.
THEY created history just two days before, emerging second to mighty China in the World Table Tennis Championships.
But when paddlers Li Jiawei, Wang Yuegu, Feng Tianwei, Yu Mengyu and Sun Beibei arrived at Changi Airport last Monday, only two Singapore Table Tennis Association officials and one player's family members were present to receive them.
This, after the women - all foreign sports talent from China - had recorded the Republic's best finish at the event.
The conspicuous absence of any fanfare has added more fuel to the already raging debate surrounding the Republic's Foreign Sports Talent (FST) scheme.
Twice, over the past few weeks, the scheme - introduced in 1993 to fast-track promising foreign athletes for Singapore citizenship - was brought up in Parliament.
According to figures mentioned before the House, 54 foreign-born athletes have since become Singaporeans.
But only 37 of them are still in active training. Table tennis player Zhang Xueling, badminton's Xiao Luxi - both from China - and Brazilian footballer Egmar Goncalves are among those who have packed up and returned to their native homelands.
The 30 per cent drop-out rate prompted Nominated MP Jessie Phua to say in Parliament on Wednesday: 'It is certainly not a case of a few bad apples.
'There are some real issues to be addressed.'
The reasons behind the implementation of the FST scheme were simple enough 15 years ago.
With Singapore's small talent pool of less than five million and with so few citizens willing to commit to a life of pursuing sporting excellence, there was a need to look abroad for promising youngsters.
These foreign stars would not only bring success to the country, but also hopefully inspire young Singaporeans to follow in their footsteps.
Yet, today, it has turned out to be much more complicated.
With instances of these new Singaporeans returning to their native countries at their peak (table tennis' Zhang), some even going AWOL (thrower Dong Enxin) and now the seemingly indifferent public sentiment to their successes, the spotlight is now more than just on medals.
Said SingaporeSailing president Low Teo Ping: 'The most tangible measure of success would be the the number of gold medals won.'
But there are also the intangibles, he noted.
'What's important is also the legacy they leave behind, whether these stars can transfer their expertise and inspire our home-grown youngsters.'
Parliamentary Secretary (Community Development, Youth and Sports) Teo Ser Luck agreed, but added: 'What is integral is that these athletes also help build the system, and be part of the sporting pipeline for Singapore.
'They must essentially lift the standard of their respective sports.'
This week, Teo told Parliament that, in spite of the recent questions being asked of the scheme, it is here to stay.
But he told The Sunday Times that he is concerned that foreign talent has become the overwhelming majority in certain sports.
He said: 'This is an issue. It's also important that we do not become a trading hub, where one foreign athlete that leaves is replaced by another.'
Football Association of Singapore general secretary Steven Yeo is another who subscribes to the view.
Since 2002, the FAS has drafted eight foreign-born footballers into the national team.
But Yeo added that the long-term emphasis is still on Singapore-born footballers, saying: 'The FST scheme should never be at the expense of local talent.'
Along with football, table tennis and badminton account for over 60 per cent of the 54 citizenships given out so far.
And neglecting the development of local talent has been something both table tennis and badminton have been accused of in the past.
Half of the 10-member badminton team that finished a best-ever third in the team event at last year's World Junior Championships were foreign-born, for instance.
But this is set to change for table tennis, with the sport's world body recently passing a rule that restricts paddlers from switching nationalities once they turn 21.
Yet, while the consensus is that the 15-year-old FST scheme needs fine-tuning, there is no denying that it has its merits.
Foreign talents have come closest to breaking the country's Olympic medal drought, one which dates back to 1960 when Tan Howe Liang won a weightlifting silver.
Table tennis paddlers Jing Junhong (in 2000) and Li Jiawei (in 2004) were both a win shy of bagging a medal at the Olympics. They lost both their semi-finals and subsequent bronze-medal play-off matches in the singles.
At last December's South-east Asia Games in Thailand, the foreign brigade contributed 34.9 per cent of Singapore's 43 gold medals, even though they made up only 7.6 per cent of the 423-strong contingent.
In the 2002 Commonwealth Games, the four golds won in table tennis were down mostly to foreign talent.
Their golden performances have also rubbed off on the locals.
Shuttler Kendrick Lee, who became the first Singaporean in 24 years to reach the South-east Asia Games badminton final last year, is one who will readily credit Indonesia-born Ronald Susilo for his success.
Said the world No 21 shuttler of his teammate: 'Ronald sets high standards, so the rest of us have a good gauge of what it takes to be a world-class player.'
The FST scheme has also allowed locals opportunities to compete on the world stage, alongside foreign talents.
Even officials who have had bad experiences dealing with foreign talents are of the opinion that the FST scheme still has a role to play.
The Singapore Athletic Association's experience of bringing in eight China-born athletes has resulted in a well-documented waste of $1 million in funds.
Although three eventually became Singapore citizens, only thrower Zhang Guirong is in active training.
But SAA president Loh Lin Kok maintained that, with competition for sporting success so keen, it would be naive of Singapore not to do what other countries are also doing.
China-born athletes now represent European countries in table tennis and badminton, while African runners are a common sight in Middle East nations.
Said Loh: 'Look at the big picture, if we don't get them in, others will. We shouldn't and won't close the door totally. But we must use our bitter experience wisely, and fine-tune the system to decide who to give citizenships to.'
When asked how the scheme could be improved, sailing supremo Low said it was important to 'establish the desired outcomes'.
He said: 'If it's to catalyse local development, then let's be clear about that. Foreign athletes musn't be brought here on an experimental basis, say I try five and hope three can be successful.'
Mr Teo acknowledged there was room for improvement, especially in efforts to integrate the FST athletes into society.
He said: 'There should be a concerted effort by us to welcome them and show our support.
'But athletes must also be willing to make the effort.
'It always takes two hands to clap.'