A bronze medal, but at what cost for Singapore?


It’s taken six days for the

Olympics to come alive for Singapore and I almost wished it hadn’t.

Because instead of uniting a nation as sports often does, Feng Tianwei’s bronze medal win has done the exact opposite.

Singapore’s first individual medal in 52 years has divided the nation and re-ignited the vicious, ugly debate surrounding imported foreign talent. In fact, it’s brought it into ever-sharper focus.

The most replied comment to her win on Yahoo! is “No matter how successful in whatever Games Singapore has won is useless. I am sorry to say this. It is not won by a true Singaporeans. No ill feelings to the participants. It is just that you are not a true Singaporean.”

Among the over 200 comments on Yahoo! Singapore’s Facebook wall that poured in immediately after her win on Wednesday, Elle Toh writes, “Honestly, I cannot bring myself to feel proud for a foreigner to win a medal for us, although they carry our Singapore flag. But I thank Feng Tianwei nonetheless for putting our name on the chart.“

Personally, am I proud of her win? Yes.

Would I feel prouder if it was won by a “true-blue” Singaporean? Most definitely.

If Feng’s magnificent win has triggered an outpouring of national pride among some, imagine what a Schooling, a Jasmine Ser, a Heem Wei can do should they mount the podium. It's exactly why names like Fandi Ahmad and Sundram are still revered in Singapore.


On the one hand, I feel bad for Feng because as an athlete who has trained and shed sweat and tears for Singapore for the last five years, it must be so disheartening for the Harbin-born China native to have her sterling achievement tainted by such debate. 

Imagine how the 25-year-old must feel reading and hearing the reaction surrounding her win.

As a sports fan, I also applaud her grit, determination and skill as an athlete at the peak of her game – her inspiring battle in the semi-finals against world No. 1 Ding Ning demonstrate perfectly the Olympic values of Faster, Higher, Stronger.

But on the other, the voices on the ground can no longer be ignored and dismissed as “noise”.

For sure, the debate is not new – the same furore surrounded the women’s table-tennis team’s silver in 2008 and even long before – but now it has only intensified.

From what I gather, the on-ground sentiment is that Feng has not been “naturalised” enough.

For all the talk about Singapore’s
forefathers themselves being foreign-born, Singaporeans want to see one of their own succeed.

Much debate surrounds what “one of our own” means.


Let me attempt to define it: A "true-blue" Singaporean is someone who may not necessarily have been born here, but he or she must definitely have been raised, schooled and lived in Singapore.

Having served National Service is a big plus for the males, while being able to appreciate and speak the local lingo and enjoy our local food, traditions and culture are also a given. In short, this person’s ROOTS, family included, must be here, come what may when the chips are down and no matter where he or she is in the world.

Of course, the cash incentives for winning medals in Singapore cannot and should not be separated from the issue.

Feng’s bronze medal win is worth S$250,000 under the Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme.

Minus the 20 per cent she’s expected to return to the table-tennis association, she will pocket a cool S$200,000 – enough for a downpayment for a Singapore condo  – or some say, a luxury mansion back home in Harbin.

Why not remove the MAP incentive? Then let’s see how many still want to represent, sweat and bleed for Singapore.

By all means, reward athletes for important victories AFTER they win, but don’t hold up a billboard advertising our little red dot accepts sports mercenaries for hire.


The questions, whether out loud or in thoughts, being asked now in coffeeshops and homes across Singapore now is:
1) Will Feng stay in Singapore for good?
2) Did she come here for the money?

And people’s concerns are justified; there have been painful, bitter lessons in recent Singapore sports history.

Footballer Egmar Goncalves, table-tennis' Zhang Xueling, shot putter Dong Enxin and badminton’s Xiao Luxi are just some who were given the red Singapore passport only to ditch it when they made their riches and conveniently no longer had the need for one.

Along the way, years of hard work, training and tax-payer money down the drain.

Not only that, the debate surrounding Feng’s victory is a microcosm of what, some say, ails Singapore.

Success at all costs, short-term quick fixes and a money-can-solve-everything approach.

There is a ray of hope however – the younger ones in Singapore seem much more accepting of her win.  And her win does pave the way for even more to believe that a world champion can be trained and groomed to win at the highest level in this tiny nation.

But the discontent and unhappiness must be addressed. For too many, Feng’s medal win means nothing.

And if the goal of sports is nation-building and to unite Singaporeans as one, her victory, and others like hers in future, has done anything but.