This letter was pubished in the Think section of The Sunday Times last weekend (12 Oct 2008).
It was in response to a report in The Sunday Times the previous week about Singapore table tennis player Li Jiawei getting engaged to a Beijing-based businessman and Chinese national who shares the same surname.
Will Jiawei stay on after marriage? (The Sunday Times, 12 Oct 2008)
I refer to the report ‘Li and Li – Jiawei engaged’ (Oct 5).
It is good to hear about our table tennis star’s engagement and we wish her a happy marriage ahead.
While it is not in my interest to rain on her wedding parade, it seems inevitable that Singapore will lose Li Jiawei in time to come. The signals are there.
In your report, it was mentioned that the couple registered their marriage in Beijing, where Li’s parents and fiance live. There were also considerations over a place to live in after their marriage.
There are too many pull factors for Li to return to her place of birth in Beijing. In fact, she had contemplated going to Beijing to further her studies when she came back to Singapore after winning her Olympic medal.
While I can empathise with her reasons for eventually moving back to Beijing, as a Singaporean, I can’t help but feel disappointed.
Singapore gave Li many opportunities to don its national colours in international sporting events and even allowed her to be its flagbearer at the Olympics opening ceremony, yet the chances of her returning to China are very high.
Have we failed on our part? Could we have done more to make her stay?
That our foreign talent no longer feels beholden when presented a gift of good faith reflects a shortcoming on our part.
On the other hand, we should not be too judgmental. We need to spare a thought for Li as she is torn between trying to fulfil her obligations to Singapore while being a filial daughter to her parents and a future wife to her husband-to-be in Beijing.
It took much sacrifice on her part to be separated from her parents at an early age to train in Singapore. It is only natural that she will be homesick.
Still, we must examine and reflect on what more we could have done to make foreign athletes call Singapore their home.
We cannot help but wonder if the Singapore Table Tennis Association and Singapore Sports Council will pull out all the stops to encourage Li to stay on and contribute to our local sports ecosystem even after her marriage.
I couldn’t help being amused by Edmund Lin’s last paragraph in which he wondered whether the Singapore Table Tennis Association and the Singapore Sports Council will pull out all the stops to encourage Li to stay on and contribute to the local sports scene.
Let’s be realistic.
There is NOTHING that the STTA and the SSC can do to keep Li in Singapore if she does not have a sense of belonging to the country beyond table tennis.
Don’t get me wrong. The above sentence is not – I repeat – not a criticism of her.
But it harks back to my previous posting of what the Singapore passport and the pink identity card means to all these foreign sports talents who have been scouted and brought in by some of our national sports associations (in particular, the STTA and the Singapore Badminton Association).
As I wrote previously, the Singapore passport, in such instances, is just the symbol of the exchange of services that takes place between the foreign-born athlete and the NSA.
The NSA offers the foreign-born athlete citizenship and the chance to represent a country at the highest levels of competition, opportunities which will not come the athlete’s way if he or she continues to stay in his or her country.
This offer also includes many lovely carrots too, namely all the financial rewards that can be reaped from winning international competitions.
In return, the foreign-born athlete offers the NSA the best years of his/her life as a professional athlete, and immerses himself/herself in a life that revolves only around training, competition and bringing sporting success to the country.
After several years of servitude, the foreign-born athlete decides to retire or stop playing. When that happens, there’s nothing left to attach him or her to the country. Why? Because it’s just the end of a well-paying playing contract.
The foreign-born athlete decides it’s time to go home to his/her country of origin – and Singapore sports fans throw up their arms in despair because the numerous sporting honours that the athlete has won for Singapore suddenly seems hollow and meaningless.
Coming back to Li – how can we expect her to feel a sense of belonging to Singapore when each and every single day of her 15 years here was spent either in training or travelling overseas to represent Singapore in competition?
I am given to understand that she never had any form of public or private education here, and spent many years living in STTA quarters. So the chances of her interacting with Singaporeans on a daily basis were minimal at best.
It’s also why even after 15 years, she is still only seen and heard speaking in Mandarin and can barely utter a sentence in English/Singlish
Also, look at who she has (publicly) fallen in love with in the time she has been here: first it was Ronald Susilo. Now, it’s this Beijing businessman. One can only surmise that she is only able to identify with a fellow foreign-born athlete or with a fellow Chinese national.
So, really, can one realistically expect Li to continue living in Singapore after wrapping up her playing career?
Once again, the people at fault here would have to be the STTA officials and to a certain extent, the SSC.
And let me clarify:when I say STTA officials, I don’t mean Lee Bee Wah, who became the NSA’s new president in July, and her management team.
I mean the people of the previous regime – in this case, the ones responsible for scounting her and bringing her in 15 years ago and who have been looking after her development as a player.
Clearly, there were no efforts by them to help the likes of Li and her fellow foreign sports talents to get to know their new country better. It doesn’t look as though the SSC did much either to ensure that the STTA do a better job of integrating their new citizens with their new country.
So now, the STTA, the SSC and Singapore sports find themselves finally reaping what they have sown. And my, my, what a bitter harvest it is turning out to be, hey?
What’s worse, there’s nothing both organisations can do now by way of damage control. Because the damage was done a long ago.
And as a result, slowly but surely, the sweet euphoria of winning that Olympic silver medal in Beijing is starting to leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. The sense of national pride in that achievement is starting to deflate and the win is now increasingly looking like a hollow victory.
Can you imagine what you will be telling your children or even your grandchildren in future if they should ever ask about this historic sporting achievement?
Can you imagine yourself saying: “Yes, we won an Olympic medal after 48 long years. But most of the players who won it for us have all gone back to China. I don’t know what they are doing now.”
Better start practising – because it’s going to happen.
Like I said, we are now reaping what was callously sowed by the previous regime of the STTA.
Nice feeling, hey?
Yours in sport
Singapore Sports Fan