Joseph Schooling, foreign sports talent, and racism

By Zofia Reych

On August 13 in Rio de Janeiro, young swimmer Joseph Schooling made history. He surprised the world by beating Michael Phelps, 23-time Olympic gold medalist, in the 100m butterfly race. Schooling broke the Olympic record with a time of 50.39, but there’s even more to his victory: he took home the first Singaporean Olympic gold medal. However, some seem to question where Schooling’s home really is.

Who is the hero? 

Born and raised in Singapore, Joseph Schooling left the country for Florida, and later Texas, at the age of 14. He had already won several gold medals in local competitions, his first one at the tender age of 5. Moving to the States was Schooling’s one chance to develop his talent and train under the best coaches, and so he did.

At present, Schooling is attending The University of Texas in Austin, and competing internationally for Singapore.

After the triumph in Rio, Schooling returned to Singapore to celebrate his achievement. A parade in an open bus gathered thousands of fans, and Schooling was deemed by many a national hero. He was invited to Parliament, where he received a standing ovation, and then he got the Olympic rings tattooed on his right bicep. Everything was crammed into a one-day stopover in Singapore, before Schooling boarded a flight home, to Texas.

Schooling lives and trains in America, and some Singaporeans have been questioning his international successes as a Singaporean athlete. One of the online comments read: “Joseph schooling has Caucasian blood and doesn’t represent majority genetic ability [sic] here. His competitive training is not done locally. Nothing to shout about”.  

A multiracial nation

Positive responses to Schooling’s win prevailed, but this is not the first time the swimmer had to endure racist or nationalistic attitudes. In 2014 the Singapore-born athlete won an Asian Games gold, only to have his family background questioned. His father, Colin Schooling, was so saddened by his son being called a foreigner, that he released a video in response.

“My name is Colin Schooling, a true son of Singapore,” said in Malay the 68-year old businessman, whose grandfather was a British officer during the colonial era. His wife, May, is a Chinese Malaysian, and a permanent resident in Singapore. His son, Joseph Schooling, is third generation Singaporean.

In 1965, Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, pledged to build a multiracial nation, where all minorities have a constitutional right to equal treatment. “Everyone will have his place, equal: language, culture, religion,” promised Lee.

However, as the society becomes more affluent and wounds of the racist past are forgotten, people are increasingly likely to express dissatisfaction with other ethnic groups. As with the case of Schooling, their opinions get amplified by social networks, and a heated, sometimes racist discussion follows.

Studies indicate that the Singaporean government has still a big influence on both mainstream and alternative media (social media are an exception), and so it is the government that is “the author of nationalism”, and the “first major symbol of national identity”. In Singapore’s official nationalistic agenda, there is no place for racism, and the police is ready to step in, just as it was in the case of Amy Cheong.

However, Singapore’s marvelous economic growth has been achieved mostly through importing overseas talent, and now nearly 40% of the nation state’s inhabitants are foreign. Racism directed at members of mainstream Singaporean society, composed of various ethnic groups, is seen as unacceptable, yet it still happens. And there’s nothing to protect new immigrants from it.

Although most of the abuse is directed at the lowest-earning labourers, athletes are not exempt from it.

The foreign talent issue

Much of the race-related criticism levelled at Joseph Schooling resulted on the back of the discussion around the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, even though Schooling is not part of the programme. Many have criticised the scheme which offers Singaporean citizenship and funding to outstanding overseas athletes willing to represent the nation state.

Many would prefer to see the funds pumped into local talent. Others point to the irony of granting citizenship to foreigners, while residents born in Singapore, but to foreign parents, struggle to obtain it.

However, sheer numbers indicate that if Singapore wants to sustain its dreams of success at an international level, attracting foreign talent is key. The city-state built its economic success on welcoming highly specialised professionals from abroad, and why shouldn’t it be the same with athletics?

Aspiring to be a Global City, Singapore has to allow for cosmopolitan crowds to move freely through its borders, and the anti-racism policies need to be extended to all newcomers.

For now, whatever Singapore’s verdict on the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme may be, one thing is certain: Joseph Schooling is Singaporean, and in keeping with Lee Kuan Yew’s ideals, his skin colour has nothing to do with it.