10 worrying trends in Singapore’s sports culture

NMP Dr Ben Tan running along the green corridor. (Photo courtesy of Dr Ben Tan)

By NMP Dr Ben Tan [Delivered in Parliament on 19 January 2015]

Emerging gaps in Singapore’s sports participation

Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to declare my interests as President of the Singapore Sailing Federation (SingaporeSailing) and Sports Patron of the Singapore Disability Sports Council.

In my clinic each day, I see lots of students from both our local and international schools, with their parents in tow. At some point during the consultation, the Singaporean parent will ask, “Dr Tan, can you write my son an MC [medical certificate] to excuse him from Physical Education (PE) and sports? At the same time, can you also ask the school to allow him to use the lift?” You’ll see a similar dialogue with pre-enlistees or their parents requesting for excuse letters or permanent downgrades. Many doctors will tell you that these are common scenarios.

I see students from our international schools as well, such as the United World College (UWC) and the Singapore American School. No, it’s not the MC that they are after. Rather, they want me to sort out their injuries so that they can continue and finish the baseball season and be fully fit before the swimming season begins! It is very common for students from the international schools to do multiple sports – with full support from their parents.

When I see such contrasting attitudes, it worries me. I am worried because this is just one manifestation of a systemic disease in Singapore’s sports participation framework.

Singaporeans are pragmatic – we are goal oriented and we monitor closely our key performance indicators (KPIs). We pay close attention to what is tangible and measureable, i.e. medals and grades. Without fail, before each major Games, the media will ask me, as President of SingaporeSailing, what is our medal target and whether we are on track. Do they ever ask me whether our sailors truly enjoy sailing, whether they are familiar with Singapore’s rich maritime history, whether our sailors see sailing as a lifelong pursuit, whether they are inculcated with the desired values, or whether we have sailors who sail for reasons other than medals? I wish they did, because those are the pertinent questions that matter much more than the medals. I would say that the Singapore National Olympic Council, Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth, and Sport Singapore have done a thorough job of reviewing our High Performance Systems over the years – from the Sports Excellence (SPEX) Programme in the ’90s, to the Committee on Sporting Singapore (CoSS), Project 08/12 Go For Gold and the Olympic Pathway Programme, to the current High Performance Sports (HPS) Programme. Through such comprehensive initiatives, our elite athletes have progressed to the point where we are winning Olympic medals, and last year our sailors won Singapore’s first two Youth Olympic Games gold medals. On the academic KPI, we have done exceedingly well, topping the International Baccalaureate exams for the fourth consecutive year and achieving the best showing at the ‘O’ levels in 20 years.

What we need to do now is to pay more attention to mass participation, where the results and benefits are less tangible. Yes, we had Sports for Life in the ’90s, and the current Vision2030 master plan, which adopts a more holistic outlook, has introduced ActiveSG. Nevertheless, there appears to be worrying trends emerging in our local sports culture. I will highlight ten of them:

1. Singaporeans are not exercising enough. The 2011 National Sports Participation Survey revealed that only 42 per cent of Singaporeans exercised at least once a week, down from 50 per cent in 2005. Compare this with Finland’s enviable 76 per cent in 2005. Participation levels fell amongst Singaporeans below 60 years of age, particularly those in their teens, which fell, by 16 per cent, to 68 per cent. This does not bode well for the future. On top of that, blue-collared workers recorded a larger decline in sports participation compared to professionals, managers, executives and businessmen (PMEBs).

2. Too many of our young are not enjoying sports. When I ask my patients from the local schools if they look forward to their school’s Sports Day, I get a cynical look. When I asked a patient from UWC the same question, she said, “We all love it – it’s so much fun!” She continues effusively, “Sports Day is run over three whole days and everybody participates and gets to try multiple sports. There’s aquatics, games, and athletics. We are rotated from one station to another, and end up trying a lot of things. You don’t need to be good, and it is do-able for everyone!” When young Singaporeans have a pleasant introduction to sports and physical activity, the exercise habit is likely to continue into adulthood and beyond. We need to review how we approach physical activity promotion across various groups, especially the young. We may have the best-laid policies and plans, but let’s see how we can do better in bringing these into fruition.

3. Our motivation for being physically active is questionable. Do we do it because it is simply the natural thing to do, or because it is part of our culture and tradition? Or do we participate in sports to accumulate Co-Curricular Activity (CCA) points or notch a higher level of attainment under the Leadership, Enrichment, Achievement, Participation and Service (LEAPS) 2.0 framework; for direct school admission (DSA); or for a shorter Basic Military Training? In our international schools, the norm is to participate in at least one sport. Many participate or compete in multiple sports despite the fact that the international schools do not award CCA points. In fact, do we really treat sports as truly ‘co’-curricular? In January 2000, the Ministry of Education (MOE) acknowledged the integral role of co-curricular activities in achieving the desired outcomes of education by replacing the term “extra-curricular” with “co-curricular”. It is work in progress, and I look forward to more and more Singaporean parents – and consequently their children – adopting the right mentality, participating in CCAs for the right reasons.

4. There are not enough opportunities to learn sports. Again, citing our international schools as an example, there are ample opportunities for their students – for each sport on the comprehensive menu of sports that they offer, there are teams of various levels, including beginners. Another one of my patients from an international school wasn’t much of a basketballer when he enrolled in the school, so he simply joined the novice team. As he got better, he progressed to team C then B and eventually ended up in team A. Contrast that with our local schools where parents have told me that if you are not good enough for the school team, you are not offered a chance to participate in that sport at all. Take sailing for example. In the past – there were multiple entry-points into sailing. It didn’t matter if you didn’t start sailing in primary school – you still had another chance to try out sailing in secondary school, and if you missed that, there’s still junior college and polytechnic. Now, apart from the international schools, hardly any local school in Singapore will offer to teach sailing – they accept only ready-made sailors. I find this disappointing because a significant number of national sailors did a credible job of representing Singapore even though they started sailing relatively late. Stanley Tan and Stanley Chan got introduced to sailing through their junior college. Stanley Tan went on to represent Singapore at two Olympic Games while Stanley Chan is a multiple Asian and Southeast Asian (SEA) Games representative and medalist. Despite such success stories, their junior college has since shelved their sailing programme. If our schools do not undertake to accept new entrants to various sports, there will be no future Stanley Tans or Stanley Chans. A Football Association of Singapore (FAS) survey of 100 primary schools earlier this year found that nearly one in two children wanted to play football, but only 5.9 per cent of boys and 1.6 per cent of girls were given a chance to.

5. Are our schools too focused on winning medals, at the expense of sports participation? Even school teams face the threat of being scrapped simply because they can’t achieve a podium finish. The 14 Dec 2014 issue of The Sunday Times cited a veteran football coach who said, “My principal said the football team will be scrapped if we don’t reach the nationals tournament.” Is winning the only thing that matters to our schools? While policies have shifted, how can we help the policy implementers put it right?

6. Singaporeans are struggling with their fitness levels. A lecturer at one of our polytechnics estimates that 70 per cent of poly students fail their National Physical Fitness Award (NAPFA) test. Another lecturer at a different polytechnic cited a failure rate of 60–70 per cent. Pre-enlistees struggle to get fit for national service and many NSmen struggle with their Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) as well. The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF)’s recent simplification of the IPPT format and increased flexibility in the IPPT Preparatory Training (IPT) are steps in the right direction, as keeping the status quo will not yield better results.

7. Reduced fitness levels in turn lead to increased obesity rates and a heavier burden of chronic diseases. Singapore’s prevalence of obesity rose from 6.9 per cent in 2004 to 10.8 per cent in 2010 while diabetes rose from 8.2 per cent to 11.3 per cent in the same period.

8. Our sports events can be more veteran-friendly. One is never too old to participate in sport and there is ample medical evidence that one can benefit from exercise even if one starts late. What message are we sending when Singapore’s biggest marathon offers older runners only one age category, i.e. the above-40 masters category? Lumping a 60-year-old runner together with a 40-year-old in the same competitive category can only discourage the 60-year-old even before the race has started. When I was at the International Sailing Federation meeting last November, there was naturally and understandably a lot of emphasis on youth sailing and how to attract young people to the sport. Hence I was impressed with the insight of a windsurfing official who reminded the meeting that, in fact, the biggest market for windsurfing is actually the older age groups.

9. The physically challenged are still facing significant barriers to sports participation. For the disabled, sport offers a beacon of hope and is an important avenue for reintegrating into society. Desmond Tong lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 1999. After the accident, his life went into a tailspin – he dropped out of university, was ostracized by his friends, and became depressed and suicidal. Through sports, he has since picked himself up and has been training diligently to do Singapore proud in the archery event of the ASEAN Para Games to be held in Singapore this December. His main obstacle now is not his missing leg, but the fact that he does not have a 70-metre range to practise at after he finishes work on weekdays. Jason Chee, who lost both legs and his left arm while serving on a Navy ship in 2012, now represents Singapore in table tennis. Together with his doubles partner Darren Chua, he won a bronze medal for Singapore at the ASEAN Para Games last year. Jason is now training hard for the next ASEAN Para Games. What is his number one obstacle? Jason says, “Transport to and from my training venue.” Dr William Tan, a long-time advocate for challenged athletes, added that apart from permanent training venues and transportation, another major obstacle faced is funding. Dr Tan shared, “The financial support from the existing carding system is meagre for challenged athletes – any financial support received goes mostly to transportation costs.”

10. The struggle for recreational space, especially for sports, is escalating. Agencies like the National Parks Board, Urban Redevelopment Authority, Public Utilities Board, and Singapore Land Authority have been very progressive in optimizing our shared spaces – as a result, we witness water sports in the heart of our Central Business District in Marina Bay itself, beautiful running tracks along our waterways, recreational activities on various reservoirs, and ciclovia (the closing of a section of Orchard Road to cars one evening a month in favour of pedestrians). In a highly-urbanized Singapore, there will always be challenges when it comes to sharing spaces. Take, for example, the constant struggle between cyclists and other road users or pedestrians. Last November, Mr Eric Khoo, the organizer of the HolyCrit cycling race in Tanglin Halt explained that he did not seek permits from the authorities primarily because an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 in compliance costs would be needed. The sailing community could not continue its proud tradition of the popular Round Island Race because permits would not be granted. Maritime security and safety are certainly valid concerns, but we need to push the boundaries and take a leaf from others – if other countries were as conservative as us, there would be no Sydney Hobart Race or boating activities in the busy Sydney Harbour or San Francisco Bay.

Each of these 10 points represents a major obstacle to Singaporeans adopting an active lifestyle. Collectively, they form a formidable barrier to sports participation. Each of these issues fall under the purview of a few agencies – this is reminiscent of the fishball stick anecdote that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong shared at the last National Day Rally. I hope we won’t need a sports equivalent of the Municipal Services Office to systematically address these multifaceted challenges. But let us not wait till our obesity levels catch up with the west, or for our healthcare costs to creep further up, or for the pipelines to our national teams to run dry before we strengthen our resolve to address these emerging gaps in Singapore’s sports participation.

This is reproduced with permission from Dr Ben Tan, a Non-constituency MP. Note that The Domain of Singapore Tutoring Experts is not politically affiliated with any party/organization.


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