Both Singapore and Malaysia have had impressive showings at this year’s Olympics, with the former bagging 2 bronze medals and the latter getting 1 silver medal. But the manner by which they won these medals could not have been more different.
When Lee Chong Wei arrived at the KL International Airport after his 2012 Olympic campaign, some 500 fans were waiting for him at the arrival gates with placards showing their support for their national hero. Contrast this with Feng Tian Wei’s situation – a day after she won an individual bronze medal for table tennis, some 77% of respondents in a Yahoo Singapore online poll said they were not proud of a foreign import winning an Olympic medal1. So it seems unlikely that we would be seeing a passionate contingent of table tennis fans waiting for the Singapore team upon their return at Changi.
1. Country. The Olympics is all about this, isn’t it? It’s really like modern warfare, where countries can flex their muscles and prove their superiority with less risk of bloodshed. The bigger countries try to haul as many medals as they can (US, China). The smaller countries just try to get medals. The minnows are just happy that their athletes make it to the finals at all. So there’s something for everyone.
But the key is that, the athletes must come from the country whose flag they bear on their attire. Clearly Singaporeans don’t feel like Feng is one of them – she only came to Singapore in 2007 and naturalised a year later. Which was, by the way, the year she represented Singapore at the Olympics in Beijing. It’s reasonable to assume that she naturalised so quickly (before possibly having a chance to be integrated into Singapore and its quirks) just so Singapore could send her to the Olympics under its flag. The whole thing smells… mercenary. Oh, it also didn’t help that she threw flowers into the China crowd after receiving her medal. Score one for subtlely.
Lee Chong Wei, on the other hand, lived his entire life in Malaysia. Amongst his supporters there must have been some ex-classmates, friends, colleagues, friends who are Malaysian just like him. It’s easy for Malaysians to rally behind him because he is one of them. Can the same be said of Feng?
2. Peripherals. Feng has unwittingly given Singaporeans a channel to vent their frustrations on the government’s immigration policies. The sudden population influx from China, among other countries, has led to a huge strain on the housing, transport, and physical space available to everybody. By the unfortunate fact of having been a Chinese national before this, Feng is a salient feature that just begs to be flamed. Which brings us to consider this – if she had been, say, Japanese before this, would Singaporeans accept her more?
3. Money. The Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FST) is used to explicitly attract foreign nationals to play for Singapore. If that first sentence sounded wrong to you, that’s because it is. Mercenaries, by definition, are loyal only to money. If Feng was not offered this obscene amount of money to come to Singapore, would she have done so? No matter how you interpret it, this was a business transaction – Singapore wanted medals, Feng wanted the chance to play at the Olympics (something she might not have been able to do with the China team). So medals you can buy, but not loyalty or patriotism. It’s the whole idea of buying talent that leaves a taste of disgust in Singaporeans’ mouths.
4. Passion. For the sport, in this case. Before the table tennis team’s silver medal at Beijing 2008, who in Singapore cared about table tennis? In fact, who cares about table tennis now? I’m not talking about the Singapore Sports Council and their policies, I’m talking about the average Singaporean who might engage in sports recreationally. How many of your friends play table tennis in their spare time? Without a strong fanbase, a cuontry will never become good at a sport – unless you buy athletes over. Winning medals this way is a lot easier, and faster. But once the money stops flowing, so will the medals.
Compare this to Malaysia. I don’t have the statistics to support this, but it seems like almost every other person plays badminton recreationally. The courts are perpetually booked (in most cases, people book a specific time slot every week for a year), and the standard even amongst casual players is incredibly high. If the national sport of England is soccer, then Malaysia’s national sport is badminton (South Korea’s, of course, is Starcraft). It’s this kind of grassroots culture that makes a nation rally behind one person at the Olympics even though they know there’s a 70% chance he would lose. And that, money can’t buy.