This report came out in The Straits Times a couple of weeks back. It was about new Singapore Table Tennis Association president Lee Bee Wah’s new plans for developing local talents for the national squads.
Citing her desire to see a good mix of local and foreign talent in future national teams as well as to see more locals playing professionally in five to seven years’ time, Lee unveiled a slew of plans as part of the STTA’s preparations for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG).
* Coming up with a 22-month training plan for selected paddlers that includes local and overseas training stints and overseas competitions
* Hiring a school teacher as the team manager so that he/she can double up as a maths and science tutor when the youths are training overseas
* Hiring a new national youth team coach in former China national player Xu Xiang Dong and
* Getting former national player Tan Paey Fern to come on board as the new national youth team assistant coach (see report here).
I’ve always welcomed Lee Bee Wah’s appointment as the new STTA chief, the main reason being my being completely sickened by the state of affairs at the STTA under the previous regime.
Of course, I had some initial apprehensions too. After all, Lee is a Member of Parliament and a member of the ruling governing party, which made me wonder whether we would see her obediently towing the government line of welcoming foreign talent, calling them essential elements in our quest for excellence and making them the “pillars” of our national table tennis team.
There were, however, whispers from my sources, back in June, before incumbent president Choo stepped down (or made to step down?), that Lee and her new management team would be ushering in a new era for the STTA and that there would be a greater emphasis on developing young local talent for future national representation.
Ironically, my impression of her also went up a couple of notches when she took national team coach Liu Guodong and team manager Antony Lee to task and blasted them for the way they treated national men’s team member Gao Ning during the Beijing Olympics.
Ironic because Gao is just another former Chinese national turned naturalised citizen who was roped into the national team through the Foreign Sports Talents scheme.
But it was Lee’s reasoning that made me sit up and take notice. As she told The New Paper in the report “Liu to go” (The New Paper, 23 Aug 2008):
“He (Gao) told me that he spent more than 50 per cent of his training time as a sparring partner for the girls. That is not right. If we send the men’s team here, we have to prepare them like how we prepare the girls.”
Lee, as we all know, subsequently took a lot of public flak for her actions.
People called her a publicity-seeker and said that her public reprimanding of Lee and Liu was ill-timed (because it spolit the festive mood of the Singapore women’s team’s silver-medal win at the Olympics) and an attempt to draw attention to herself.
But to me, Lee’s reasons for her actions showed her strong belief in the idea of giving equal treatment to all, that there is no such thing in her books as preferential treatment for a few just for the sake of pursuing sporting glory.
And wonderfully, we now see this principle of equal treatment emerging again in the STTA’s new plans for youth development.
To me, the STTA’s new plans really signal a genuine attempt by Lee and her team to eradicate the bad and suffocating habits of the past and to usher in the winds of change into its training halls. You see the threads of equality running through almost every single one of them.
For example, the STTA’s 22-month plan for the YOG will not only see local young talents getting more opportunities to train and compete overseas but also includes the plan to get a school teacher to be the team manager of all travelling national youth teams. This is so that the team manager can double up as a maths and science tutor when the young paddlers are training or competing overseas.
In other words, there seems to be a genuine effort by the STTA to invest in our young paddlers and to help them stay the tough and rocky course of developing into future national senior players – instead of just opting for the usual short-cut route of importing foreign-born players into our national training squads.
The move to hire a school teacher as a team manager is an especially significant one because it means that the STTA is also trying to do its bit to help our local young talents to balance their studies with their sports training.
Previous batches of imported foreign table tennis talents never had this problem with academic pressures because they were either young adults when they came here or because they never went to school at all while in Singapore.
Look at Li Jiawei: all she did ever since she came here as a 15-year-old back in 1996 was play table-tennis every day. Which probably explains why there is now such a yearning in her to want to go back to Beijing to study at Peking University.
But the most significant move of the lot, for me, is Lee’s successful efforts in persuading former national paddler Tan Paey Fern to become an assistant coach with the national youth squads.
Simply put, it means that the STTA recognises the need to get local role models that our young talents can identify with and be inspired by.
I seriously think Tan’s presence, her illustrious playing career, and her belief in developing local talent will be a far greater source of inspiration for our young paddlers than a foreign coach or even a Li Jiawei or Feng Tianwei can ever be.
She will be the living example and epitome of how far a local player can go if he/she is determined to work hard and to succeed.
All the STTA needs now to equal things up is to get another local hero, some one like former four-time national men’s champion Lai Chin Pang (who won a mixed doubles gold with Li Jiawei at the 1997 Commonwealth Championships) or Koh Chin Guan to be an assistant coach and a beacon of inspiration for the boys.
It’s a very promising start for the STTA under Lee’s charge. I’m now keeping my fingers crossed that we will see the first fruits of the new regime’s labour by the time the YOG comes around.
Yours in sport
Singapore Sports Fan