Singaporean shuttler Yeo Jia Min was the talk of the town after her exploits at the Badminton World Federation World Championships 2019 last month.
The 20-year-old not only became the first female Singaporean shuttler to make the quarter-finals of the championship, she also beat top-ranked female shuttler in the world, Japanese Akane Yamaguchi, in the second round.
Singaporeans were full of praise for the former Singapore Sports School student, and rightly so. After all, it’s not every day that we get to see a Singaporean athlete excel on the world stage. Yet, any athlete in Singapore will also tell you that when the chips are down, the tables could quickly turn on them.
It’s not uncommon to see scepticism and self-doubt among Singaporeans for their sporting countrymen. When the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) announced that they were targeting for the Singapore men’s national football squad to qualify for the 2034 World Cup, the cries of derision and ridicule, heard online or on the streets, included: “Singapore can’t make it”, or “Singapore has no talent”.
Sure, the Lions are currently ranked 162nd in the world and have never been close to making the World Cup, but the attitude that followed the FAS’ announcement reflected more accurately about Singaporeans’ view towards local athletes – regardless of the sport.
Former footballer Steven Tan, who represented Singapore for about a decade from the late eighties, told The Pride: “In Singapore, they only cheer the winning team… We don’t have a culture of support, where even when the team is losing, they are still showing their support. Ours are fair-weather fans.”
It wasn’t always this way.
Steven said he first became a footballer after being inspired by the support shown towards the Singapore team during the 1983 SEA Games. Then, as a 13-year-old teenager who volunteered as a ball-boy at the Games, he witnessed how the entire National Stadium roared their support for the likes of Malek Awab and Fandi Ahmad, which made him feel like he had to experience it himself on the Kallang pitch.
“Playing at the National Stadium, they (the fans in the stand) will give you all the motivation you need. They had the passion that you can never get now,” Steven, 48, recalled.
It has been a long time since he hung up his boots, but Tan understands the struggles that current athletes face as he is a coach at Sport Singapore’s Active SG football academy, which caters to kids from as young as five who harbour dreams of becoming a footballer. Apart from that, he is also father to a budding footballer.
His teenage son, Marc Ryan, is a member of the Young Lions squad that plays in the Singapore Premier League.
Marc never had the opportunity to watch his father don the Singapore jersey, and only found out by chance when he was 10 years old – via YouTube. That gave him more impetus to train harder and slowly, he grew to love the sport even more.
The 17-year-old is a promising player. Apart from representing Singapore in the age-group competitions in previous years, he was invited to train with top-tier English Premier League club West Ham United when he was 14.
But Marc points out that it isn’t easy to be an athlete in Singapore. He said: “It demoralises us (to read harsh comments on social media when we lose), especially when we were 14 or 15. It’s quite tough to take that, as a young athlete.
“Hopefully, the fans can also show more support instead of hate. Don’t just say things like, ‘Singapore football just won’t make it’. It’s about the support after the game. Even if we win or lose, always be positive, and that could go a long way in pushing us.”
Tan admitted that he, too, would have been affected if social media had existed during his time. Marc added that harsh and unnecessary criticisms can even harm a player mentally.
“When I was younger and I got the hate (after some poor performances), it affected me badly – I kept thinking to myself, ‘why am I still playing since I’m so bad?’,” he said. “It just repeats in your head and that wasn’t easy to deal with.”
Aside from that, the obsession with academic achievements in Singapore makes it hard for athletes, especially younger ones, to focus on their development in the sport. Some parents, or in Marc’s case, his grandparents, even discourage their kids from pursuing sports.
“We are always told to think of our studies so that we have something to fall back on if we fail to make the cut or something unfortunate happens, like injuries. But that becomes a barrier,” explained Marc, who is doing his Diploma in Hospitality and Tourism Management at Temasek Polytechnic.
“We worry that if training ends late, we won’t have enough time to complete our homework because we still have to wake up early for school the next day. It’s really distracting and we can’t focus well.”
Meanwhile, in Europe or the United States, promising athletes are readily offered scholarships to focus on their sport. But the reality is that similar opportunities are less common in Singapore, although the grants and funding provided by the government, as well as the establishment of the Singapore Sports School are certainly steps in the right direction.
And while we still have some way to go before we are churning out elite athletes by the dozens, establishing a thriving sporting culture that sets them up for success also means that we need to support anyone who dons Singapore’s colours, even when the chips are down, and even if they are still short of world-class.
Addressing the perception that local footballers aren’t good enough, Tan pointed out that it is unfair to compare local players with their counterparts who ply their trade in the big leagues of Europe.
There are lessons we can try to learn from other countries on how to build up the sport, though, as Steven said that more effort should be channelled towards enhancing the match-day experience for fans, so that they would feel more involved in the sport.
“(Currently), there’s nothing memorable or special when you go to a game here,” he lamented.
Beyond the sporting scene, another group of individuals who suffer from a lack of local support is local musicians.
Nigel Peh, a guitarist who plays in local band Zirconia, believes that Singaporean musicians and those in the performing arts are facing similar issues.
“There are bands like The Sam Willows that are pretty successful,” he stated, adding that he has often heard others commenting that there are no talented musicians in Singapore.
An alumnus of the Singapore Polytechnic’s Music and Audio Technology programme, the 25-year-old previously played with the band Victoria Street, which released a six-song EP. Yet, he is finding it hard to make a living in Singapore as a musician because of the lack of support.
“Fewer and fewer people are paying for music. There are fewer venues that take the full band setups, too. A lot of them just want to take the acoustics: One person, one guitar – that kind of thing,” Peh lamented.
That wasn’t the case in the past, though. Tony Goh, a music veteran and former singer in the 1970s band Tony & Terry With Spencer, told The Pride that in his heyday, musicians were paid as much as $20,000 a month in the ’80s.
“There was a lot of support. The Caucasians from the oil industry – which was booming in the late ’70s and ’80s – who came to work in Singapore spent money to listen to bands playing in bars and clubs,” said Goh, who now runs The Greenroomsuite in Circular Road. “We were all earning good money…They would come to the bar to drink because they could hear us sing.”
Goh added that musicians also made money from writing music, which included advertising jingles.
“Each jingle I wrote in those days, I could make at least $5,000 for a 30 seconds track. But now, even if I indicate my rates at $100 per hour, people will still say it is expensive. Can you imagine? $5,000 at that time, which was worth a lot, compared to just $100 now?”
Goh believes that the lack of support in the music industry is something that was created by the musicians themselves though – with attitude and technology playing a part.
Technology has allowed music to be produced and created digitally on laptops now, so anyone who does it now can call themselves a singer-songwriter, said Goh. Because they are able to do so, it creates a false perception that they are talented.
And because of the digital tools, they do not see the need to practice as much.
“Even in the clubs where the bands are playing, they are very reliant on their iPad… it’s very convenient for them, they just need to use their iPad and transpose. Only people who are half-drunk listening to them will think they aren’t that bad,” said Goh.
The truth, according to Goh, is that they are nowhere near the required standard, and the industry suffers for it. And without enough musicians around who meet that standard, how can one expect the support to follow, asked Goh.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Goh felt that with schools like Lasalle and the polytechnics now offering music programmes, there are opportunities for the younger generation. With social media platforms, too, it’s easier and cheaper for musicians to gain exposure and build a following. There are also events such as Baybeats and Rockestra which serve as platforms for local acts to showcase their talent.
However, more than just talent, it will take lots of resolve and determination to succeed. Goh cited Shun Ng, a guitarist and former Singapore Polytechnic student now based in Chicago, as an example. Ng is a five-time Boston Music Awards nominee.
“Talent only comes when you are hungry (to succeed). When you have that hunger, you will do whatever it takes to make sure that you are able to do well,” explained Goh.
Peh considered this good advice, adding: “Something must be done to bring up the standards… it makes me feel that I, as a young musician in Singapore, should make an effort to practice more even if I’m already in a band, and generally put more effort (into my career).”
While Peh attempts that, he feels that the Singaporean audience and media have a part to play, too.
“Without being too entitled, I’d say it would help if the media could provide us support in the form of airplay and coverage, and, hopefully, cast Singaporean performers in a better light,” said Peh. “And while we strive to become better musicians, better artistes, it would be enormously encouraging if our local audience could be more forgiving and more supportive of our endeavours.”
Indeed, Peh and his fellow Singapore musicians would benefit from more support from fellow Singaporeans, just as our footballers and even shuttler Yeo would.
After all, had we backed Yeo and cheered her on at the start of the tournament, her recent success would have tasted sweeter for the nation – and that would have been the true meaning of Singaporean pride.