War of words between the Singapore Sports Council and the Singapore Athletic Association

The reports:

Of all the newspapers, I felt that The New Paper’s coverage of the current spat between the Singapore Sports Council and the Singapore Athletic Association was probably the best.

That’s why I am reproducing the paper’s interviews with SAA president Loh Lin Kok (18 Dec 2009) and SSC chief executive Oon Jin Teik (19 Dec 2009) here so that people can get a good overall idea of what the spat is about, and make up their minds about who is talking sense and who is not.

I’ve begun with Loh’s blast which came after Sports Minister Vivian Balakrishan and Senior  Parliamentary Secretary Teo Ser Luck’s criticisms of the SAA.

On Tuesday, during a Team Singapore gathering at the Singapore embassy in Vientiane, Sports Minister Dr Vivian Balakrishnan had said that the SAA needs to do an internal house cleaning.

“Without athletics firing on all cylinders, Singapore’s final performance in multi-sport events will always be hamstrung,” he said in one of the strongest rebukes of the SAA in recent years.

The following day, Teo Ser Luck, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Community Development, Youth and Sports, fired another salvo at the SAA. Speaking after James Wong’s victory in the discus, he said he was disappointed that in the flagship sport of every multi-sport Games, Singapore are standing still.

“I can’t say we are a sporting nation until we sort things out in athletics,” he said pointedly.

“We have a strong swimming tradition which also has a renewal process. I need athletics to step up.”

Loh then blasted back. Here’s the report (The New Paper’s questions are in bold):

****************

THEY DECLARED WAR, NOT ME

(The New Paper, 18 Dec 2009)

Singapore Athletic Association president LOH LIN KOK breaks his silence in a no-holds-barred interview with ERNEST LUIS after the constant barrage of statements from Singapore’s sporting powers at the South-east Asia Games

ERNEST: Would you say this means war for Singapore athletics? Between the Singapore Sports Council (SSC), Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS), and the Singapore Athletic Association?

LOH: Yes, they have declared war. Not me.

We had peace all these years, but it’s been like a mini-tsunami in the last few weeks.

But let me say this. I’m amicable. I’m open. For all the accusations that have been thrown our way, I’ve been open to engaging them. But they refused to engage me. I could have spoken up earlier but I didn’t.

Now, all hell is breaking loose. How hard is it to reach me? You just called me up like this, and I’m speaking to you. Why ostracise us to this extent?

Teo Ser Luck, Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports & Ministry of Transport, said this in (yesterday’s) The Straits Times. That the ‘SSC is considering funding athletes and coaches directly’. What are the implications?

Of course, such a thing is possible. But this is a very serious statement that can boomerang in his face, do you know that?

All over the world, we’ve seen countries who have destroyed their sports because of such political moves. There is an established system. Does it suggest a secessionist group? A rival association? Do you know that if that happens, the IAAF (world ruling body of athletics) will really ostracise Singapore from all athletics events?

That won’t kill me. But Teo Ser Luck could go down in history as the man who single-handedly destroyed Singapore athletics? That’s a very explosive statement to make.

Two days ago, the SAA and the SSC announced a split over the organisation of the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon. Standard Chartered will support the SSC’s own marathon, while SAA will be the sole rights holder to the Singapore Marathon. All this, coming at the same time as the claims about your association made at the SEA Games?

Well, isn’t the timing coincidental? It’s not rational in thinking.

Personally, I’m not keen on running my own marathon. I was open to them, but do they care?

As it stands, the world’s top runners will have to come to our event because that’s the way the system works. They have to go to the IAAF-sanctioned events around the world, and we are a sanctioned affiliate of the IAAF.

Their (SSC and Standard Chartered’s) marathon will become a People’s Fun Run. That’s what it means in the end. But it looks like it’s all part of a concerted effort against us.

Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports Dr Vivian Balakrishnan said that ‘without athletics firing on all cylinders, Singapore will always be hamstrung in our final performance in multi-sport events’.

Teo also said that ‘if in every SEA Games we are winning only one or two golds when there are 45 on offer, then I think something needs to be done’ and he compared athletics to swimming.

I have a young team and we entered for 10 events. Do you expect me to enter them for every event? Also, there shouldn’t be a direct comparison.

That’s a sweeping statement. That’s because people know athletics is different from swimming. Each event is almost a specialist event, unlike in swimming where the strokes can be used in multiple events, to help each athlete win more than one medal.

From a sprinter, to a shot putter to a long jumper, these are all very different specialist events.

Teo also said in yesterday’s The Straits Times, he was disappointed that in the ‘flagship sport’ of every multi-sport Games, Singapore are ‘standing still’.

This has been an often-used phrase against us. But are we really at a standstill?

You guys in The New Paper yesterday analysed the times and distances that our youngsters did so far. That progress – despite the lack of medals from them – shows we have a young team, and we are not at a standstill.

What about the claims that the SAA has not really developed all the athletes, that the Sports School really should claim the credit for developing, for example, the jumpers like Stefan Tseng and Matthew Goh? But then, there’s the jumps coach Valeri Obidko from the Sports School on the SEA Games coaching team?

That’s why I keep saying there’s a system. A National Sports Association like ours will have affiliates. The Sports School has a tie-up with me. We share the costs. Half Obidko’s salary is paid by me, the other half by Sports School. We all work together for Singapore athletics. This is the system.

Even James Wong himself, after winning the first medal for Singapore athletics on Wednesday, said on national television: ‘Personally, it is sad to see that I have to make a comeback in the sport to make a contribution to the medal tally (for athletics). Your reaction?

That old guy should be a beacon of light for his younger team-mate Scott Wong.

Scott finished fourth with a personal best (44.95m) compared to Wong’s winning distance of 53.60m.

Today, I’m very proud of my 4x100m team which won the silver medal behind the Thais, despite all our known setbacks.

We did it all since April this year – the start of our financial year – without a single cent in funding from the SSC for preparing for this SEA Games.

We spent $140,000 since, from our reserves to help pay our staff, coaches, train athletes for this SEA Games.

How much reserves do you have?

That’s the magic question everyone’s asking right? They just want to see how long I can last like this.

I don’t know what I’ve done wrong. It’s like a mini-tsunami in the past few weeks.

Do you think it’s simply because it’s you who is in charge of Singapore athletics? Do you feel like a bad guy?

How can I be a bad guy? Is it fair?

Do it in a democratic way. We’ve been open. Assist us, but I see it’s all lip service. We try to engage them, but they don’t want to engage us.

Instead of promoting sports, they are treating us like lepers. I feel like this is not the Singapore Athletic Association. It’s more like the Singapore Leprosy Association and I don’t want to offend leprosy patients, but that’s how they (SSC and MCYS) are making us feel.

Your final words on this war on Singapore athletics?

What disorder are they claiming? Leadership? The association?

I’m more than amenable to discussion. But there’s the feeling they would like the public to know that I’m not open.

What I’m saying to them (SSC and MCYS), is this: You may have declared war on us. But I’ve not.

Tell us what we’ve done wrong. Engage us day and night till we satisfy you. Call me any time, any day after this.

I don’t want this SEA Games to be remembered by Singaporeans for the wrong reasons.

I’m not the party-pooper here. I didn’t start this.

*************

Following that blast, SSC Oon Jin Teik gave an interview to The New Paper to rebut all the points that Loh had made. His replies are in bold:

$12 MILLION of the people’s money spent and what did we get?

EMPTY PROMISES

(The New Paper, 19 Dec 2009)

In The New Paper yesterday, Singapore Athletic Association president Loh Lin Kok said Singapore’s sporting powers had declared war on him and his association. Today, Singapore Sports Council chief executive OON JIN TEIK tells ERNEST LUIS there is no war but…

ERNEST: Loh Lin Kok told The New Paper that the SSC and Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) have declared war, not him. Your reaction?

OON: From our perspective, this is definitely not war.

We never used the word ‘war’. We simply want everyone to be good in sports. We can’t afford to go down this path. There’s nothing personal I can assure you, despite what he told The New Paper.

ERNEST: Loh said the idea of funding athletes and coaches directly implies a secessionist group or rival association which could see the IAAF (world ruling body for athletics) ostracising Singapore from all athletic events, and destroy Singapore athletics. What are your reasons for such a move when there is an established system for the National Sports Association (NSA)?

OON: We are not suggesting any of that at all. We recognised the NSA is a democratically elected group which has its own constitution and is a strategic partner of the SSC. Any issues would be perhaps to upgrade governance. Otherwise, it would be suicidal of SSC to even suggest setting up a rival association.

We ourselves know the boundaries. There is an NSA, then the Asian federation, and finally the world ruling body.

ERNEST: So why the direct funding of athletes and coaches for athletics in this case?

OON: As I said, these are taxpayers’ funds. There’s governance and return of investment, and we’re responsible for giving out such funds.

When funding through a third party like the NSA may not help achieve the objectives, we want to ensure the athletes and coaches receive their grants they need to better themselves.

So none of them get sidelined, while we sort out other administrative issues with the NSA, in this case, SAA.

How it works is that we issue a cheque direct to the athlete.

ERNEST: Loh said in yesterday’s The Straits Times that funding for next year’s Youth Olympic Games of $50,000 has also been withheld by the SSC. What do you have to say to affected athletes and their parents?

OON: Like the national athletes, athletes preparing for the Youth Olympic Games will not penalised. We will fund them directly in the same system until we sort out all those outstanding issues with SAA.

My message to all athletes is to keep their hopes high and concentrate on being better athletes. Don’t let the politics around you worry you.

We just want to get them to be the best in South-east Asia for a start, and that’s the reason why we’ve been doing this (temporary direct funding measure since November).

ERNEST: Loh said his Singapore Athletic Association (SAA) has spent $140,000 of its reserves since April this year to pay staff, coaches, train athletes, after the SSC withheld funding from it. He said SSC wants to see how long the SAA can last like this. Your answer to that?

OON: Let’s talk about the tangible here.

I have a set of figures and targets which the SAA gave us, since 2004. In return for all those key performance indicators and targets that they clearly listed out to us, we gave them $12m in funding.

This is taxpayers’ money. We have to be accountable for this too.

How can we keep spending taxpayers’ money like this when they have refused to engage us on addressing a 12-point plan (first presented in July) to improve the state of affairs in athletics?

ERNEST: But you do accept that in sports, there are no guarantees of medals because there is unpredictability. Do you think that what the SAA delivered in the end – since 2004 – is worth anything close to $12m?

OON: Not even close. And yes, that’s even when we know that there are no guarantees in winning sports medals.

But the signs of decline are clear from the lists we have shown you.

Since 2005, there have been questions over depth, qualifiers for finals, top-half finishers, and even the age group, to show these athletes have a longer span to aim for.

And this is only at the SEA Games, the lowest level of competition for us. We are doing this to ensure survival first, then work on success.

But we cannot throw water on the element that the SAA’s young team at this SEA Games has shown potential of being developed further. There must be progress, not talk.

ERNEST: Loh said he’s been open to engaging you. But you’ve refused to engage him all this while. He said to engage him day and night till he and his association satisfy you.

OON: Let me correct this perception that everything seems to have been done only in e-mail correspondence.

At the 2005 SEA Games, I was sitting next to Mr Loh and as we saw our own performance, compared to the rest of the countries, I said we need to sit down and have a talk. There was danger of decline.

Since then, I’ve always met him twice a year, face to face.

This year, I invited them to a meeting. I’ve even met with him and our SSC chairman Alex Chan, and Teo Ser Luck (Senior Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports & Ministry of Transport).

We drew up a 12-point plan for the sport, and we followed up by e-mail to see how we could put up a plan. But Mr Loh turned around and said we never spoke about such things during our face-to-face meetings.

ERNEST: So what’s the next concrete step that the SSC, MCYS and SAA can take? Loh said to call him any time, any day, after this SEA Games.

OON: He keeps saying, and I keep reading, that there are no problems. So I think the breakthrough will only come if he recognises there is a problem. Then, we can start discussions to improve things all round for Singapore athletics.

I’m not here to go after Mr Loh. I’m willing to second my best staff there, to do whatever it takes to help SAA.

*************

Finally, here’s the list of targets that the SAA apparently presented to the SSC in 2004, which the SSC showed the paper during the interview. If it is all true, then it is very telling…

WHAT SAA PROMISED

The following are the targets set by SAA since 2004, which the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) revealed to The New Paper yesterday.  All this, in return for $12m of taxpayers’ funds from Singapore Sports Council since:

2004 OLYMPICS: A finalist.

2005 SEA GAMES: Five to seven gold medals.

2006 COMMONWEALTH GAMES: A medal or finalist.

2006 ASIAN GAMES: One to two gold medals.

2007 SEA GAMES: 10 to 13 gold medals.

2008 OLYMPICS: Medal or finalist.

2009 SEA GAMES: 10 to 15 gold medals.

WHAT SAA DELIVERED:

2003 SEA GAMES : 4 golds, 4 silvers, 1 bronze

2005 SEA GAMES: 3 golds, 1 silver, 4 bronzes

2007 SEA GAMES: 1 gold, 1 bronze

2009 SEA GAMES: 2 golds, 1 silver

***********

Yours in sport

Singapore Sports Fan

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