Singapore’s First Olympic Gold – Going Back to School with Schooling
Joseph Schooling, a teen Singaporean with multiple ethnic heritage personifying the best of the country’s multi-cultural demography, has captured singular glory and distinction for his country, who is incidentally celebrating our 51st Birthday, with the country’s First Olympic Gold Medal at the 100m Butterfly Swimming Event at the Rio Olympics. He has also bested his idol the 22-Olympic Gold Medalist Michael Phelps into 2nd place shared with 2 other competitors by over half a second.
Singapore’s first Olympic Medal was won in 1960 by Tan Howe Liang who won the Silver Medal in the Weighting (Lightweight Category) in Rome, Italy. To date, athletes from Singapore have won a total of 5 medals at the Olympics including Schooling’s Gold. The other Silver and 2 Bronze Medals came from Table Tennis, respectively from the 2008 (Beijing) and 2012 (London) Olympics.
Schooling’s Gold Olympic Medal and Howe Liang’s Silver Medal struck at Singaporean national pride in a much more radically fundamental way – both of them are home-grown original Singaporean athletes.
The other Singapore Olympic Medalists - Li Jiawei, Feng Tianwei and Wang Yuegu – were formerly from China who adopted Singapore as their home country and thus became eligible to represent Singapore at the Olympics. For the record, Singaporeans have happily welcomed them as fellow Singaporeans and proud that they ended our Olympic medal drought in 2008.
In essence, Joseph Schooling is “One of Us” – a 3rd generation Eurasian Singaporean who is “a true son of Singapore” to quote his Father, Colin, in The Sunday Times. Joseph studied in Singapore’s top Anglo-Chinese School (ACS) for 8 years before going to the United States to pursue his swimming passion and studies.
Schooling’s Olympic Gold Medal achievement will revive debates as to whether we as a nation have done enough to consciously groom and develop local athletes. The same debates will also debunk our narrow obsession with academic excellence as the ONLY definition of human talent deserving of social investments and cultivation.
Gold Olympian Schooling did not have the benefit of the massive investments, to the tune of several thousands of S$$, that went to the National Table Tennis players who have very, very few homegrown Singaporeans. Singapore has paid beyond money, coaches and amenities to include our valuable and prestigious Citizenships in the desperate attempts by sports officials to ignore local talent development in favour of the easier method of buying ready foreign ping-pong talent to represent Singapore.
In ACS, Schooling benefitted from his School’s objective “to nurture all-round development and help students achieve their potential outside the academic field”. Another top elite school, RI, had 20 years ago decided to drop soccer from their list of games and co-curricular activities (CCA) because she had not been the soccer champion over the preceding years despite repeatedly producing the nation’s top students. Wonder what happened to the lesson “Don’t Quit” in their development of youth for leadership!
In ACS, the School Motto is “The Best is Yet to Be”. In 2012, Schooling finished badly, actually last, in Heat 5 of the 200m Butterfly Swimming event after Olympic Officials objected unfairly to his cap and goggles. He returned dejected and disappointed, but determined to go at it again by focusing on the 100m. His story is now Singapore’s history. Would he have been so encouraged if he were in RI instead of ACS?
As Singapore prepares herself to celebrate Schooling’s Olympian Gold Honour for Singapore, we should not forget the many Singaporean athletes who could have brought Singapore earlier to the Olympic Gold Medal if only they had been carefully nurtured, adequately funded and provided with the sports eco-system and infrastructure to grow into the stature of Olympian qualifiers, like we did for the National Table Tennis Team.
Athletic and all human talent development begin when young in schools. The wise adage “if you want life-guards, first develop swimmers” is so true.
Singapore can certainly afford to buy all the 2016 Olympic Gold and Silver Medalists, offer them “special” Singapore “Dual”-Citizenships; and I am sure there would be even more Gold Medals and “Majullah Singapura” refrains in the 2020 Olympics when they represent Singapore in Tokyo. This approach would certainly be meaningless and the accolades short-lived, as they provide neither impetus nor emulation model for the younger generations of Singaporeans. Again, we will be wasting our money and resources just to ensure the career promotion of certain sports officials.
From a helicopter’s view, there are the broader related issues of talent development in Singapore. Talent excellence must and should embrace to include as many forms of talent as possible, given Singapore’s only true asset being our human resource.
Many Singaporeans are receiving accolades as they excel beyond our shores as musicians, actors, entertainers, bankers, commodity traders, business men and women, inventors, researchers, entrepreneurs, logisticians, engineers, management consultants and University Professors. And then some. Yet, they are very seldom recognized nor cited for emulation locally simply because they do not belong to the “Scholar” Elites. Many Scholars however, having gravitated easily along pre-planned career paths, could succeed only within the protected environment of the Civil Service. Very few senior Scholar-Civil Servants are actually sought after by headhunters for the private sector.
True talent is visible to all, and the impact of real talent is to add value to benefit others, especially to encourage their fellow countrymen and women, as well as the coming generations not only by bringing honour and glory to Singapore, but to propel her to ever greater heights of authentic excellence and achievements in many talent domains.
The Schooling lesson to our educators, talent developers, sports officers and political leaders is to go back to School for a re-imagination of our talentscape and to re-calibrate the limitless talent possibilities of our children and their grandchildren, so as to have more Schoolings for Singapore.