COMMENT: One million Singaporeans don't care about SEA Games

Photo via AFF Suzuki Cup 2014
Photo via AFF Suzuki Cup 2014

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist. He worked at the former Singapore Sports Council before covering local and international sports for Channel NewsAsia for several years. Follow his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports for commentaries on sports issues that matter to Singaporeans. The views expressed are his own.

By Michael Y.P. Ang

One million Singaporeans are unmoved by the upcoming South-east Asian (SEA) Games.

But they still have to contribute towards covering the massive cost ($324.5 million) of Singapore staging the biennial ASEAN event in June.

The Singapore SEA Games Organising Committee (SINGSOC) executive chairman, Lim Teck Yin, recently said that “more than 70 per cent of Singaporeans are supportive of the SEA Games”. With a citizen population of over 3.34 million, it means there are one million Singaporeans who don't care about the Games.

This despite ongoing government talk of a new vision for Singaporean sport and building a thriving sports culture.

Zero improvement since 1993

If hosting multi-sport events such as the 2010 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) and 1993 SEA Games was aimed at promoting Singaporean sport and lifting the profile of national athletes, then it can be said that while it's too soon to assess the effects of YOG 2010, the 1993 Games certainly didn't make any significant difference.

Over the past 22 years, Singaporean sport has failed to generate much interest among the public.

Clearly, something is amiss. With only a few months before we welcome ASEAN's elite athletes to our shores, the conversation still revolves around raising public interest in the SEA Games. We have a very costly Sports Hub, but what kind of sporting culture do we have?

Note that part of a country's sporting culture is also reflected in how well the country governs sport.

What has been done?

The Games’ hosting rights were given to Singapore in late 2011. But was anything concrete done over the past three years to raise Singaporeans’ awareness of, and increase their interest in, Team Singapore athletes?

If Singaporeans are unfamiliar with Team Singapore, why would they turn up to support their national athletes? Simply counting on Singaporeans’ sense of patriotism isn’t going to cut it. The attendance at last November's Singapore-Malaysia AFF Suzuki Cup match illustrates this point.

Singapore versus Malaysia in football is an event with a rich history of rivalry and involves our most visible national team. Yet, last November’s match couldn’t attract a full house, unlike in the past. There were some 7,000 empty seats at the 55,000-capacity National Stadium when the Lions lost 1-3 to the Tigers.

If even Singapore football is losing popularity, what are the chances for sports that are much less visible, with a history of attracting little attention from the public?

One may point to increased coverage of SEA Games athletes in Singapore's media, but let's face it: Apart from the immediate months leading up to and during the Games, how often does one read about our national teams or athletes, other than the Lions?

Power of video

A few months ago, money was spent to produce a video appealing to Singaporeans to get behind Team Singapore athletes.

It's good to have such a video. But as one Team Singapore athlete says, it's “too little, too late”.

If video images are deemed to be a powerful tool for tapping people’s emotions, to generate behaviour change, shouldn’t Singapore be investing in a free-to-air sports channel on MediaCorp that either exclusively or primarily broadcasts events and programmes featuring Singaporean teams and athletes?

The SEA Games has a budget of almost $325m, while $387m was spent on YOG 2010. The total amount is $712m. Imagine putting aside 15% of that, or $107m, to set up a MediaCorp sports channel, which has the potential to make a significant, lasting impact on raising awareness and increasing popularity of Team Singapore athletes.

While StarHub has a free-to-air sports channel (SuperSports Arena), the majority of its programmes feature foreign sports events not involving Singaporean athletes.

Same problem in 2065?

While SEA Games tickets for aquatics, badminton and gymnastics have proved popular for now, regardless of the level of Singaporean spectatorship in June, the question is: How will any healthy spectator interest be sustained over, say, the next 50 years?

If the national strategy is to keep having more talk about a grand sporting vision and less concrete action on strengthening our sporting culture, which sports issue do you think we'll still be discussing when Singapore celebrates a century of independence in 2065?