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13 December 2003
Singapore’s performance in international sports has been boosted by foreign-born players, but the city-state is now reviewing its programme of importing athletes to augment the local talent pool.
Out of the some 300 Singapore representatives who competed in the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games which ended over the weekend in Vietnam, 22 athletes were born overseas and they helped clinch a third of the island republic’s 30 gold medals, a bigger haul than expected.
Under the review, all new applications for citizenship, permanent residency and employment passes under the 10-year-old foreign sporting talent scheme have been put on hold by the Ministry of Community Development and Sports (MCDS).
A spokeswoman said the ministry conducts “regular reviews of policies as a standard process” and public feedback had been sought as part of the process.
“The aim of the review is to clarify the role of foreign-born athletes in our sports development and the process and criteria for bringing them to Singapore, their integration into society and naturalisation as citizens,” she said.
The ministry hopes to complete the policy review within this month.
Singapore, which has barely over three million citizens, has set its sights on becoming one of Asia’s top 10 sporting nations and is seeking to double the value of the local sports industry to 800 million Singapore dollars (465 US million) by 2010.
Singapore launched “Project Rainbow” in 1993 to help overcome the limitations of the small population and the lack of a professional sporting ethic.
Forty foreign sportsmen, including Chinese table tennis players and European footballers, have been naturalised since then and the scheme has certainly served Singapore well.
At last year’s Commonwealth Games, Singapore achieved its best performance at the Games with 13 medals, out of which 12 were clinched with the help of foreign-born athletes.
But the table tennis and badminton victories had little lustre for some Sngaporeans who felt as if the predominantly ethnic Chinese nation had bought the medals by naturalising foreign players.
Sports minister Yaacob Ibrahim spoke up for the imported sportsmen then, saying they help boost the standards of local athletes and expand Singapore’s small talent base.
“With more champions in our midst, and with well-structured training programmes in place, we can bring about a more competitive and dynamic sports environment here in Singapore,” he said.
“We can then look forward to producing more home-grown champions as we have done in the past.”
China-born table-tennis champion Jing Jun Hong, one of the policy’s pioneers, was exasperated by the furore last year.
“I’ve been in Singapore for more than 12 years, I married a local and I’m the mother of a four-year-old Singapore boy,” she said.
“I’ve been proud and happy all these years but, every now and then, there will be some who will bring up these questions of loyalty and citizenship.”
“Really, what can I say? Is there any way of proving myself? Is there a test I can take?”
Meanwhile, the Singapore Sports School, the first of its kind here, is due to open its doors in January with an initial intake of 150 students, aged 13 and 14, who are gifted in badminton, bowling, track and field, sailing, swimming, table tennis, football and netball.
With full boarding facilities, it hopes to strike a fine balance between academics and sports, breeding a new generation of athletes who will reduce the island’s need to bring in outsiders.