Foreign-born athletes representing Team Singapore have been a sore point for plenty of Singaporeans.
You might have heard these criticisms: they’ve failed to live up to standards (or expectations), they’re a waste of resources which could have been used to develop local talent, they don’t give interviews in English, and they don’t make enough effort to blend in with Singaporeans.
These criticisms usually end off with the same argument – that foreign-born athletes aren’t true Singaporeans. The hard work and sacrifices made by them to bring glory to Singapore on the international stage is often disregarded.
That conversation was again reignited earlier this year when South Korean footballer Song Ui-young, who has represented local football club Home United for the past seven years, expressed his desire to don the Lions jersey.
While there was plenty of support for Song, there were some who were skeptical about his intentions. This, despite Song saying he knows how to sing the Singapore national anthem and has even given up an opportunity for better wages in Indonesia so he can remain in Singapore.
One athlete who knows what it’s like to be criticised simply because she’s foreign-born is former national swim queen Tao Li.
The 29-year-old came to Singapore from China when she was just 13 and, within two years, won a SEA Games gold medal for her adopted country. She went on to achieve even more success (and medals) later in her career, becoming the first female Singapore swimmer to make an Olympics final.
Bizarrely, her success brought her resentment from Singaporeans instead of respect.
“It was after I started winning medals for Singapore and my name got into the media that the show of resentment started,” Tao explained to The Pride. “(I’ve heard things such as) ‘she’s not a real Singaporean, she’s a foreigner, here to take our place’.”
Tao, who came to Singapore because her mother came here to work, said: “It was painful to be rejected by Singaporeans… I didn’t shop for a country to go to. I didn’t google a world map and point my finger at the little red dot. I wasn’t paid to come to Singapore to train and represent the country. It just so happened that I came here because my mum came here to work, and I proved myself worthy of my new citizenship.”
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Tao, who now runs her own swimming club, added that those criticisms affected her so much that she wondered if she could ever fit in, especially since she felt she had done her part to assimilate into Singapore society.
“The first thing I did was learn how to sing the national anthem. Singing it made me proud to be a Singaporean, especially after I found out what the lyrics in Malay meant. Of course, I learnt the pledge, too, and I learnt them both in a very short time because I had to do this every day in primary school.”
“Generally, Singaporeans felt that we were depriving other Singaporeans of a spot in the limelight,” said Tao, who was placed into the Primary 5 level when she arrived in Singapore as she had a very poor grasp of the English language.
Some of the criticism directed at Tao, perhaps, might have stemmed from her reluctance to conduct interviews in English, especially at the start of her career.
And it might have been unfortunate that she came from China – the same country where the bemedaled, yet oft-maligned, Singapore table tennis players were born. At their peak, the national table tennis women’s team were the only side on a par with their counterparts from China, and their detractors often referred to them as “China Team B”.
Tao, however, argued that the resentment towards foreign-born athletes is not limited to those from China.
“Badminton player Ronald Susilo came from Indonesia as a child, studied here, grew up here and went to the Olympics,” said Tao. But he, too, is regarded as a foreign talent, added Tao.
Susilo, like Tao, arrived in Singapore when he was 14. But while Tao was already a decent swimmer with potential, Susilo only took up badminton as a CCA in school. It was only at 19 that he was invited by the Singapore Badminton Associations to join its ranks.
Now 39 years old and the owner of a badminton academy, Susilo told The Pride that he took those criticisms in his stride.
“I didn’t really bother about what they thought of me as long as I did my own things and contributed to my country. That was my satisfaction.”
“They don’t know how much athletes struggle to achieve the glory and contribute to the country…They don’t know the struggles, such as dealing with injuries,” he said, adding that some Singaporeans cared only for the results.
“For me, even though I didn’t deliver a medal in the Olympics, I’ve done my best and I’m proud of myself. Those who are close to me know I’ve done the best I could.”
Among the achievements in his 14-year career was defeating badminton great Lin Dan in the 2004 Olympics en route to a top-eight finish, clinching the Japan Open, and winning a silver medal each in the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the 2007 SEA Games.
The 2005 Sportsman of the Year added that growing up with Singaporeans as a teen helped him integrate better. He went to Anglo Chinese School (Independent) where his teachers and friends helped him get over his initial homesickness and to quickly blend in with his environment.
What then, for Song, who came to Singapore at 18 to earn a living instead of studying? At 25, the South Korean footballer – who is highly-regarded, with some even saying he is the best player in the local league – still has his best years ahead of him.
Retired footballer Aleksandar Duric believes such athletes could play their way into Singaporeans’ hearts by showing a genuine interest in having a life here – not just on the pitch, but off it, too.
Duric is widely regarded as one of Singapore’s most successful sporting imports. His story is a unique one – he got his citizenship of his own accord only at 37, an age when most athletes are at the tail-end of their careers.
Despite that, he went on to represent Singapore 53 times from 2007 to 2012, scoring 27 times, and helping the Lions to the AFF Suzuki Cup title in 2012.
“I think that’s the difference between me and some of the sportsmen who came here as part of the government initiative to give them citizenship. It’s a big difference,” Duric, now 48, told The Pride.
“People find me more natural, like a guy who really wanted to be Singaporean. (The country) gave me my family, they gave me my kids. My kids grew up here, half of my life was spent here. Singaporeans have come up to me to shake my hand, which makes me feel like a real Singaporean, even though I was not born here.”
“I loved it from day one. The change came in the sense that I started feeling like I belong here even though I wasn’t born here. And after my daughter and son were born (here), I thought this was really my home as it was my longest spell in a country after I left my hometown in Bosnia.”
“In May, it will be 20 years since I came here,” reflected Duric, who now sits on the Singapore Kindness Movement council and is the Principal of the ActiveSG Football Academy.
Apart from that, Duric said another key factor was that he always remained humble, making himself approachable to his fellow Singaporeans. He felt that certain athletes, whom he declined to name, failed to mingle with Singaporeans enough because they wanted to portray themselves as superstars, and that did them more harm than good.
“A problem for most sportsmen is that they come here with the same mindset as where they came from, and they keep the same mindset. It will never work,” said Duric.
“I may say I’m old school (in this digitally savvy era), but I love to meet people, I want to learn from new people from the different backgrounds – those living in HDBs to those living in condos, from bankers down to doctors, surgeons, and even people who work in hawker centres.”
“It’s a process when it comes to integrating with people around you in a foreign land, sharing your good and bad moments in your life with Singaporeans, and to do that, you have to be open-minded and respectful.”
He has this piece of advice for foreign-born athletes trying to fit in: “If you keep to yourself, it will be very difficult and almost impossible. It’s not hard (to mix with Singaporeans), it just takes time and effort.”
And time is something that Song has on his side.
While Duric represented Singapore for only five years, Song, who is just 25, could serve Singapore for a lot longer than that.
His actions – from rejecting a lucrative contract in Indonesia so he could remain in Singapore and thus improve his chances at receiving citizenship, to learning the national anthem and picking up English – show just how much this country means to him.
He has also spent his entire professional career here, blossoming from a rookie into possibly the best footballer in Singapore right now.
And with his fondness for coffee shops and hawkers centres, you probably wouldn’t be able to tell that he wasn’t born in Singapore, even if he never becomes a Singaporean.