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For those of you whose hobby is to look for ministerial gaffes, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan is probably your poster-boy. He is the gift that keeps on giving. Put in charge of staging the inaugural youth Olympics in Singapore, Dr Balakrishnan has managed turn the event into a tragi-comedy.
He heads the MCYS, now officially the Ministry of Clangers, Yuks, and Screw-ups, and has possibly set the record for the most inept minister ever to grace the scene of Singapore’s history. How did he do this? Let us count the ways.
Big bucks, big yawn
It started with him playing fast and loose with our money when he bid $100 million for the YOG that, according to the IOC, cost only half that amount to stage.
But the price, according to Dr Balakrishnan, was worth it because it would generate much international attention for Singapore which would translate into tourist dollars.
The strategy bombed – big time. Foreign newspapers greeted the games with one big yawn. The few reports that did appear was how much over the budget the Government had spent for the competition. A French journalist with the Le Monde newspaper had called to interview the SDP about another matter. We asked him whether there were any news reports in France about the YOG. His answer: “Zero.”
But how, some may argue, was the Minister to know that the YOG would garner so little interest in the world of sports?
You don’t need to be an opthalmologist to know that football is the world’s most popular sport. When soccer bodies show no interest in the competition, it’s a good bet that the other sports would fare even worse.
And how uninterested was the soccer world in the YOG? Of the nearly 150 football federations around the globe, only 6 bothered to send teams for the boys’ tournamen – Zimbabwe, Cuba, Bolivia, Vanuatu, Montenegro and Haiti. Our football-mad neighbours in Southeast Asia didn’t even bother to take part.
Lights were flashing, sirens were wailing and the ‘Warning’ sign was hyperventilating. All the Minister needed was to remove his blind-fold and ear-plugs and he would have seen that no one was interested in the Games. Yet he went on a spending spree, throwing good money after bad and stuck us with a tab of $387 million.
When chastised for the profligacy, he retorted: “But the real question is if I knew that it was going to cost this amount, would I still have proceeded to bid for the games? The answer is a definite ‘yes’.”
Of course he would. Why wouldn’t he? It wasn’t like he was spending his own money.
The art of stumbling, fumbling and bumblimg
The lack of interest was not just among foreigners. Tickets for the various competitions were left unsold even as the Games loomed. Sensing a major embarrassment developing, the Government sold (read “gave”) the tickets to the Ministry of Education in the hope that students would fill the stands.
But even free tickets could not get our youngsters to be part spectator and part stage-prop at the various arenas. Some had to be threatened financially to show up as the stands remained empty.
But when some people decided to go to the venues to catch the games, they were told that the tickets were “sold-out”. Someone forgot to shut the door and the empty stands were there for all to see.
The sports arena weren’t the only empty places. The million-dollar concerts that were organised as side-shows had performers singing to empty plastic chairs. Some wit suggested that all the concert-goers were at the seventh-month Hungry Ghost getais.
Then there were the volunteers. Dr Balakrishnan had made an impassioned plea to Singaporeans to volunteer as helpers. Many heeded. But when lunch was served, volunteers found in their boxes a piece of meat, a few strands of long beans and a glob of plain rice. They were not impressed.
It rankled even more when they learnt that IOC members were put up in suites at the Ritz-Carlton. A word to the wise for the doctor: Don’t, to quote many an angry Singaporean, see our locals no up.
Adding more gastronomical insult to injury, 30 volunteers were suffered from food poisoning after they ate the lunch given to them during the triathalon competition.
When the the Games were finally over, it didn’t dawn on the Minister to acknowledge the volunteers’ contributions – until someone complained.
He quickly printed out certificates and despatched them. It turned out to be a case of more haste, less speed. (Or was it more wayang, less heart?) The signatures on the documents were not authentic, only imprints. Ouch!
Hard to believe but it got worse. As if to make up for his callousness, he decided to give out tickets for the F1 race that was held last weekend. It was a nice gesture. It would have been nicer, though, if the volunteers had received the tickets before the race. As it turned out Mr Fernando Alonso was already savouring his victory in his hotel room when the volunteers got their tickets. Incredible but true.
Had there been a free press, Dr Balakrishnan would have been made to eat humble pie and even forced to stand down for his supreme ineptness. But then, had there been a free press, he wouldn’t have been so bold to waste our money on such a non-event in the first place.
But such is the reality that allows him to shrug off the criticisms and continue with his arrogance, not to mention incompetence.