Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Vision 2030 - Tunnel, Double or No?

Major General (NS) Chan Chun Sing has welcomed public feedback and suggestions for Vision 2030, a masterplan-ish strategy to develop national sports in Singapore, with a view to improve nation-building. Members of the public are invited to share their insights with the Vision 2030 committee, comprising 23 members.

The latest unsurprising adoption of a consultative approach by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MYCS) is just one of many and definitely not the last of its kind, as the state seeks to symbolically involve the participation of Singaporeans in policy-making. Hey, how about equal rights for sexual minorities and legalising gay marriage in Singapore? You can seek my feedback and suggestion for that.

The Censorship Review Committee in 2009/10 similarly consulted the public too, although they could have been a little bit more diligent about their sampling. They should have done more cluster and stratified sampling to recruit survey and focus group participants, to appreciate the pluralism (and chaos) of diverse views and expectations.

This time, Vision2030 uses new media to engage Singaporeans. Unfortunately, while the web platform and its design allows for content creation by citizens (submitting suggestions) and voting, it somewhat limits the extent to which citizens can argue and convince others that there are fundamental policies and mindsets that will continue to underpin future failure in Singapore as a healthy sporting nation. The Singaporean government’s use of new media is similar to shoving a square peg into a round hole, but nobody’s better at shoving things into the orifice of the citizenry and very willing to believe they’re doing a good job or “what is right”.

Since we’re into metaphors, I liken the implementation of a comprehensive national sporting masterplan in a country with mightily imperfect social policies as putting lipstick on a pig – you can’t change the fact that it’s still a pig.

Seven predefined areas are identified for development and improvement.

They include:
1) Balance to the Rhythm of an Urban Lifestyle
2) Future Ready
3) Futurescape
4) Generation Z
5) Organising for Success
6) Silver Generation
7) Spirit of Singapore

Since there already exist predefined areas for development, I shall address them accordingly.

1) Balance to the Rhythm of an Urban Lifestyle. How may sports bring balance to our lives?
Here’s one fundamental problem. You get equilibrium when you successfully balance a 0.5g feather with another feather of similar weight. If you want to seek balance with a 1-tonne rock, you sure have to find another… wait a minute. Why is there a 1-tonne rock in the first place?

The urban lifestyle sounds swanky, but our lived daily realities are in an increasingly cosmopolitan, densely populated environment characterised by high cost of living and high stress levels caused directly and indirectly by a composite of trade, economic, educational, labour, housing and immigration policies. This is the 1-tonne rock with which I personally would not want consider finding a balance.

The improved standard of living suggestively invoked in the concept of “urban lifestyle” comes with the challenges and stresses of either the aspiration towards or the preservation of such a position – no easy feat for the majority of Singaporeans.

One fairly good move by the government to create this “balance” was to abolish the five and a half-day work week in favour of a five-day work week, although this caused many workers to work a disproportionately higher number of hours in 5 days than in 5.5 days a week.

Is there time for exercise for all? Or should we immerse ourselves in the “meritocratic” rhetoric and accuse those who can’t find time as merely lazy? What about families with children or elderly dependents? Are we going to go all douchebag on them and say taking care of these dependents constitutes an exercise (similar to the jerk-like equation of baby-making Singaporean women to national service)? In this case, can sport or exercise find a place in the lives of the said stakeholders?

I admit it is myopic to consider active sporting participation (or exercise) as an item contributing to “balance”, when being a spectator in a sporting event can provide that balance – cathartic or simply a good occasion for family and friends to get together. A sporting participant and a spectator both contribute to this country’s sporting culture.

A flaw in our infrastructure lies in our lack of sense of identity and belonging, which is in part a result of the policies previously mentioned. So sports and exercise are essentially isolated and exclusivised as the disenfranchised among the Singaporeans would prefer to do sports on their own or in their own groups. This does not affect people’s gravitation towards local events, races, group recreation games and other smaller scale sub-national events, activities and tournaments. The government can definitely look into these smaller scale events to foster growth that will develop Singapore as a sporting nation, and that is if they can critically reevaluate their tiered funding and inflexible funding policies. Right, Singapore Sports Council? Tier-ing your sports will result in the vicious cycle of deprioritisation, cutting of fundings and losing support for many sports here.

2) Future Ready – How may the value of sport help Singapore prepare for future challenges?
Sports are always good for authoritarian regimes, as they help foster solidarity, collective identity and allegiance to the national agenda.

The idea of healthy coordinated bodies dovetails with our economic imperative and the competence it continually demands, but you can always buy a foreign talent any way.

Leadership and teamwork are values and qualities we learn from participating in sports. But of course, it is a tall order to foster these qualities through sports in a country almost bereft of social capital.

I’m sure our political leaders will benefit most from the values of sport, such as sportsmanship and temperament. Surveillance of political opponents, detention without trial, suppression of freedom of speech, nanny state tactics – very sportsmanly, no?

3) Futurescape – How may we use space for sport in the future?

We are already using spaces for the integration of sports, rather than the using spaces exclusively for sports. So that is a good move by the government to use existing spaces such as parks, water catchment areas, commercial buildings and what-not for the inclusion of sports. No further comment.

4) Generation Z – How can sport do more for youth here?

What is more important than fostering a sporting culture among the young is the fostering of self-esteem and body confidence. One of the drawbacks of creating a sporting nation is the projection of desirable bodies onto people, including the young.

Instead of directly emphasising on health, we should emphasise on play, which is best explained by the one of the state’s slogans depicting Singapore as a place to “live, work, play”. However, it will be inevitable that certain desirable types of “healthy” bodies will be used as ambassadors of Vision 2030, just like the many posters of smiling lean and fit youths peppering McDonald’s restaurant walls.

Essentially, we should have a “sports for sports’ sake” approach, but in the case of Vision 2030 and many other state schemes and initiatives, it is all couched in the nation-building agenda. One of the qualities sports bring is the possible fostering of a sense of belonging to the sport and to the community, which the state sees as microcosmic to the sense of identity and belonging to the nation. Unfortunately, more work outside sporting infrastructure has to be done to make Singaporeans belong to the nation.

Don’t make sports carry the torch for this agenda. Sports only play a small role in fostering a national identity, but can do very little to unite a highly stratified and disenfranchised citizenry. Does Vision 2030 have its social, community and national economic counterparts, to make Singaporeans feel they belong? If not, we’ll just have healthy hearts that will see no reason to beat in rhythm with the nation’s.

Vision 2030 also has to take into consideration decades of over-rationalised education which has long placed great emphasis on academic success as an indicator of ability. This has come at the expense of sports and the value people see in it. Something needs to be done about this over-rationalised paper-chasing culture, which has impeded not only sports development but also the arts in Singapore.

5) Organising for Success – How may public, private and peoples sectors work together to deliver the Vision 2030 objectives?

First up, reevaluate national service. Allow young national athletes to defer national service until their late 20s to mid 30s, so they can be train professionally. If that doesn’t change, I think we will have a better shot cheering for female champions.

Of course, we can just focus on fostering a healthy community without champions, if the Vision can live with that.

There can be more corporate subsidies and rebates for their implementation of healthy lifestyle programmes or for the purchase of corporate memberships with gyms here.

As for the peoples sector, I think the People’s Association and Sports Council have been very active in organising inter-constituency and inter-club games. With respect to sports clubs, perhaps the costs of registration and other recurring costs can be subsidised by the state as a gesture of its support for a sporting nation at the grassroots level.

Introduce state dollar-for-dollar corporate sponsorship of local athletes, that is if we want to create and support champions in the first place.

Have more sports journalists and local sports news coverage in Singapore. A year prior to the Youth Olympic Games, I have observed that the Strait Times have been giving more exposure to our local athletes and sporting news, and that trend has thankfully continued till today. After all, for decades, the state’s approach to media control is that it assumes people are cultural dopes and can be shaped accordingly with the heavy hand that is “content management” (or at least until the last 4 years). With increased visibility of local sporting talents and personalities in the mainstream press, there is at least something for the public to get interested in.

As cynical as it may sound, gambling plays a huge role in generating interest in sports here. I believe part of the reason why football is popular here is the gambling undercurrent. In the case of football, I believe betting on teams reinforces the compulsion to actually watch them in action.

Why would there be discussions and pundits and predictions and odds all featured on television? It’s to cater to the gamblers among the sports “enthusiasts”. Perhaps we can liberalise gambling here and have more than one Singapore Pools?

6) Silver Generation – How sport may play a role in active ageing?
We should get our priorities right and look at what we are doing for healthcare as part of the multi-prong approach to active ageing.

The sports council already provides subsidies for senior citizens who participate in its courses. Perhaps the council can consider lowering the minimum age to 45, and cultivate active ageing at an “earlier” age. It is not about waiting for seniors to be old enough to implement active ageing initiatives, which defeats the purpose of implementing it in the first place.

More can be done for the communications and marketing of grassroots initiatives and exercise programmes targeting seniors.

While I support active ageing, I really wonder if active ageing is sustainable for seniors on the wrong end of the socio-economic divide. More importantly, “active ageing” should not be used by the state as a reason to say things like “if you’re old and sick, it’s your fault because we have provided all the infrastructure and facilities for you, so it is not our problem.” I hope not.

7) Spirit of Singapore – How sport may drive the Spirit of Singapore?
What spirit? Sports will never make Singaporeans feel a sense of belonging to Singapore. We must first acknowledge that the spirit of Singapore, if assumed to exist, has been shaped by policies independent of sport itself (same argument as in previous sections).

The Singaporeans who supported the Singapore football team during the Malaysian Cup days lived in times when they were made to feel they are part of the nation and building it. Do we live in those times now? Not quite. Singaporeans don’t even feel a strong sense of belonging to their own towns, which not only explains the poor S-League match attendances but also knowledge and involvement of their precinct/neighbourhood-related activities. They would have a better shot identifying with Manchester United.

We don’t have the policies and mindset that favour sports as a cultural and professional reality. We still remain trapped in an economic reality dictated by our government’s (or Lee Kuan Yew’s) brand of pragmatism, which is born out of post-independence industrialising Singapore.

The use of sports and creation of sporting culture do nothing for the political disempowerment of Singaporeans, and neither does it address the socio-economic realities faced by different strata of Singaporeans.

In fact, the invitation (or what appears to be an invitation) for Singaporeans to participate in Vision 2030 is just an illusory one which makes Singaporeans feel they are empowered to actually have a choice in decision and policy-making. The government’s “commitment” to a consultative approach in governance and policy-making is articulated in symbolic gestures such as the opening of platforms and avenues for people to have the belief they are actually participating, when in fact speaks more of the commitment to retaining political control through the calibrated yet reluctant use of new media platforms.

Digressing a little bit, the use of sports in nation-building is interestingly a characteristic of fascism. And the PAP logo happens to resemble the British Union of Fascists. Just an observation any way, but our economic and socio-cultural landscape is far from fascist. Relax.

The way forward for Vision 2030

The Vision 2030 committee should not have tunnel vision and be blinkered to the social, economic and political realities that affect the development of sports in Singapore. These are the limitations that have to be taken into account when implementing strategies to realise whatever vision the master plan sets out.

For Singapore to cultivate a healthy sporting culture, we need to address aspects of daily life and the policies that shape and limit it. Will Vision 2030 do this? Or is this merely a well decorated plan that is insensitive (bordering on ignorant) to the prevailing policies which have effected an anti-sporting culture mindset?

How are we going to improve the local media landscape to help facilitate the communication of sports here?

What are we going to do about National Service as an impediment to the nurturing of young male athletes?

How do we set about improving the mindsets of Singaporeans pertaining to sports (and also the arts)?

What can we do for Singaporean businesses, employers and employees to let them know that sports can be an integral part of Singaporean life?

These are few of the many questions outside the realm of sports that Vision 2030 has to first address.

All the best!

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