The case against importing athletes

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By Michael Y.P. Ang

The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme has been surrounded by controversy since it started in the nineties. Over the years, proponents of the scheme have been trying to justify it.

“It inspires native-born athletes.”

However, as mentioned in my Dec 24 article “SEA Games surprise wins a wake-up call”, Singapore’s unexpected medallists have shown there is no need to rely on foreigners for inspiration. A genuine passion for their chosen sport and a deep desire to win honours for their homeland were enough to inspire them.

“Foreigners improve our teams’ standards.”

Not always.

Singapore last reached the Thomas Cup (badminton’s world team championship) finals in 1986, years before foreigners were recruited, but have yet to repeat that feat despite having foreign talent; while the Lions, at times playing with five or six imports, still struggle to compete outside the relatively weak Asean region.

The more foreigners we field, the more native-born athletes we deprive of opportunities to gain valuable competitive experience. The lack of competitive experience makes home-grown athletes weaker, making calls for foreigners louder. Is this how the government builds a Singaporean sporting culture?

“Foreigners’ global achievements raise Singapore’s international profile.”

Our China-born female paddlers have certainly improved the national team’s standard, but have their achievements really raised Singapore’s international profile to the extent of boosting tourism or foreign investment?

When they won a silver and two bronze medals at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics respectively, Singapore’s national flag was raised and the country mentioned in front of a global audience. The only problem is: with over 300 Olympic events being contested, what proportion of the audience paid real attention to women’s ping pong?

Pro-immigration political tool?

If foreigners win medals for Singapore, Singaporeans might embrace imported athletes as their own. This would, theoretically, make Singaporeans more likely to embrace increased immigration.

But was there widespread celebration when our table-tennis team won Olympic medals? Were Singaporeans moved by those Olympic feats, or were we more inspired by the relatively humble SEA Games achievements of native-born athletes?

It is very tempting to view the foreign talent scheme as a weak tool for generating support for the government’s immigration policy. If anything, negative views of foreigners could have the effect of creating more-intense rejection of the its pro-immigration desires.

Government agency recognising essential value of being native-born?

The Science Centre Board (the government agency that promotes interest in science and technology) is planning with two local organisations to launch a Singaporean-manned space flight on National Day, 9 Aug 2015.

One key criterion: the chosen Singaporean must be born in Singapore.

What happened to choosing the best candidate regardless of birthplace, a view commonly held by pro-immigration individuals? Perhaps a government agency is now embracing the intrinsic value of being native-born when celebrating nationhood or one’s nationality.

Fifa condemns foreigner recruitment as a farce

Having seen more and more countries deliberately recruiting foreign-born footballers, many of whom are Brazilian, with no familial or ancestral ties to their new country, Fifa president Sepp Blatter told the BBC in 2007:

“If we don’t stop this farce, if we don’t take care about the invaders from Brazil towards Europe, Asia and Africa then, in the 2014 or the 2018 World Cup, out of the 32 teams you will have 16 full of Brazilian players.”

Fifa has since made it more restrictive for naturalised players to represent their country of adoption.

Even if the Singapore government does not share Fifa’s view that the recruitment of foreigners is going against the spirit of competitive sport between nations, it would still be to the government’s own benefit to clarify the rationale behind its controversial sports policy.

If the previous two Olympics are any indication, the 2016 Olympiad will almost certainly provoke further public debate about imported athletes, making an unpopular sports policy fresh in voters’ minds during an election year. Even if the next general election is held in 2015, the SEA Games that year will likely also spark a debate on this issue.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently talked about charting a new direction for Singapore through a strategic shift in the PAP’s nation-building approach. If the government cannot provide a justifiable basis for its foreign talent sThecheme, it would benefit the PAP to modify or scrap it.

Such a move will demonstrate to voters that there is indeed a new direction, at least as far as Singapore sport is concerned.