I previously discussed about National Service being a stumbling block to male Singaporean athletes, and now feel it is worth exploring some related issues now that the Youth Olympic Games have come to a close and that we will be having some football academy (we already have a handful by the way).
I am also reminded of the news concerning the footballing kids of Fandi Ahmad, a footballing hero of Singapore, and the dilemma the family would face when his sons grow old enough to enlist to serve the nation.
It is very ironic that we hear news of another football academy being established in the island-nation, knowing that the most crucial parts of a footballer's professional career are spent doing National Service. Top athletes maintain a strict diet and training regime with ample amounts of rest, and if that were to be followed, they surely cannot perform any National Service duties.
Footballers have to train everyday. Time is not only spent on individual level training, like fitness and skills, but also tactical team training, friendlies and competitive games, among many others. You need rest and also a focused mind. That is the life of a professional athlete.
The Singaporean government can try all it wants to develop Singapore into a sporting hub, but its own infrastructure is its undoing. National Service robs many an athlete his dreams. It figures prominently in the vicious cycle that will cripple the country's (professional) sporting culture.
Because an athlete's life from age 18-21 are surrendered for the national cause, attention is often focused on sports in which young champions can be created. When attention is given to the particular sport, combined with the emergence of young champions, funding for the particular sport will all the more be justified.
As for sports deprived of the necessary national funding, they enter the vicious cycle of underachievement and never producing the champions the country want. Even if they do manage to nurture a teenager into a potential world-beater, National Service will ruin this continuity.
Deferment from National Service is result and goal-oriented. If a young athlete has not achieved enough in his fledgeling sporting career, he will have to stop everything and serve National Service. During National carrying out his National Service responsibilities, and that is not a desirable scenario for many a sportsman. He will never be able to turn professional as a result, and his sporting dream is lost.
Different sports have different life spans, and have different training methods and all, but they share common characteristics in training. To be a successful athlete, or rather, to be an athlete in a better position of achievement, you need to have physical, technical and mental training. We do not have the infrastructure to develop world class male athletes because National Service does not provide athletes with these types of training, and more over, the school system is changing too slowly to nurture young sporting talents.
Take tennis for example. While most tennis players around the world are entering the circuit at the ages 17-20, earning ranking points, and some money that would go back into their training and enrichment, Singaporean tennis players enter National Service and hopefully get to train with the tennis teams of the army, navy, air force, police force and civil defence. They are shortchanged.
Even the reality of National Service looming on the horizon on many a budding athlete's teenhood, can compel a boy to end his sporting career before he even begins it. To be fair, National Service cannot take full responsibility here, because we also have the school system and prevailing employment practices that overemphasise paper qualifications and frame achievement in terms of grades rather than progress, and even progress is measured by grades.
Still, National Service being a permanent fixture in many a Singaporean male's life, can become a mental stumbling block for budding athletes. Most probably rationalise that the sporting route is not the best for them, and either put in sufficient effort to see them through their teenhood and get a couple of school medals, or give up sports altogether.
A young athlete already has to make many sacrifices. These necessary sacrifices are for them to be in the physical and mental condition to be a winner. If the government truly wants to support these athletes, grant them the long National Service deferment they need.
The government fails to understand many things about sports:
1) That for many sports, the ages 16 to 20 are few of the most important years of an athlete's lives.
2) Some athletes bloom later, but require the training and competitive experience in their younger years. If they don't perform up to standards in their earlier years, they have less grounds for deferment.
3) That some athletes have to be based overseas and regularly travel for training and competition purposes. They need funding and they definitely need a long deferment.
It is very odd that as Singapore strives to be a serious sporting nation with promising and successful athletes, we have a counter-intuitive counter-balance entity that is National Service which throws many spanners in the works of the development of most male athletes.
I personally want to see male Singaporeans in the English Premier League or Spanish Primera Liga, in the tennis top 100, fighting in UFC, MMA tournaments, boxing, Muay Thai etc., because these are few of my sporting interests and it would be really great if I could see a fellow Singaporean doing something special in these domains.
The government is just putting the cart before the horse when it is doing all it can, pumping in shit-loads of money and setting up academies and what not, but failing to realise that National Service is the major stumbling block for many male athletes. Furthermore, its tiered funding for various sports, which is prioritised by level of importance, is too wonky and does not take into consider the problem that is National Service.
Speaking of level of importance, funding is probably contingent on sporting achievement and potential for achievement and growth. DUH?! All sports actually have the potential for achievement (creating champions) and growth, but consider the mental and professional sporting impact National Service poses to most male athletes.
In view of this, funding and attention, as mentioned, is usually directed at sports that have young champions (pre-National Service age). That is result is the rationality that more money should be directed at these particular sports, all the more improving the possibilities of creating more young champions, reinforcing that these sports are more viable in Singapore, at the expense of other sports that might require more "patience" and understanding.
At the same time, what kind of message do these decisions send to male budding athletes? That we want immediate success before you enter National Service?
If National Service is made optional or can be deferred for longer period of time, athletes and their parents will rationalise differently. Sporting associations will rationalise differently. We will have a slightly different attitude towards sports. To be fair again, we also need changes in the school system and other areas for a larger and more positive change in attitude.
The compulsoriness of National Service parallels the compulsoriness of religion, or the compulsoriness of gender binarism or heterosexuality. It is there and we do not question it. Since we do not question, we take it to be a given, and our lives are oriented around it, all the more legitimising it and therefore reinforcing its presence, relevance and institution.
It is not only male athletes, but also male musicians, artists and performers, male entrepreneurs and others who lose 2 value years of their youths. Remember, the Beatles spent 2 years in Hamburg. Roger Federer took 5 years as a professional tennis player to win his first major aged 22. Steve Jobs founded Apple aged 21.
I don't know about the true sentiments of male Singaporean athletes, but I feel many of them have been shortchanged by the system. I believe some even have the government turning its back on them.
If the government truly and genuinely wants to nurture athletes, why does Fandi Ahmad have some reservations pertaining to his sons' futures in Singapore and National Service? There can be a better case scenario.
Our male athletes deserve better. In the mean time, we can all just follow women's table tennis.