Feng Tianwei and lessons on Singapore’s sporting retention and selection policies

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Feng Tianwei won many medals for Singapore but she was sacrificed to make way for a new generation of players. Singapore needs to rethink its sporting policies.

By Tan Zhi Xin

China-born Singaporean paddler, Feng Tianwei won her first International Table tennis Federation (ITTF) title since she parted ways with Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) last October. This win is Feng’s 10th career ITTF singles title.

The multiple Olympic medallist was axed from the national team in October 2016. It was an ugly episode with a lot of allegations and victimisation. Officially, the reason was that Feng did not fit into STTA’s plans for rejuvenation. Sources also revealed Feng might have been kicked out for reasons such as ill-discipline, misconduct and disrespect. Feng denied any wrongdoings and said she would play on despite not being on the national team. STTA also confirmed continued support for her career as an independent paddler.

Feng’s ability is evidential, is Singapore regretting its decision?

The past six months had been a ride for Feng. She beat Olympic champion Ding Ning in the China Table Tennis Super League match in last December. Feng also suffered some losses in ITTF Qatar Open and ITTF Doha Open. Nonetheless, her ranking jumped from world’s sixth best paddler to third.

She even joined the Singapore team for the Asian Table Tennis Championship in Wuxi, China in April. STTA explained that Feng was allowed to join the team because she met the qualifying criteria. If Feng continues to maintain her ranking, she will be able to represent Singapore in the Southeast Asian Games coming August.

“The best players should go. Feng Tianwei may not be in the national squad but she is still training and competing. When we get closer to the SEA Games and if she is still our best paddler, then she should go,” says Chris Chan, secretary-general of Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC).

First, Singapore wanted Feng out of the national team. Then, it wanted Feng by its side like a backup plan in case of the rainy day. By continuing to support Feng with minimal resources, it seems like Singapore is hoping that Feng will continue playing in Singapore – and occasionally representing Singapore with no strings attached. Is Singapore regretting its decision to let Feng go or is this an intentional plan to appease the frustrated population?

The public is frustrated at importing foreign talents  

Immediately after the fallout went public, many people wondered if the decision to not renew the contract with Feng was a response to the public frustration regarding importing of foreign talent under the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme (FTS). The FTS is a scheme that aims to boost local sporting standard by importing foreign expertise. Citizenship is also awarded to those who will live in Singapore and compete for the country.

Singaporeans are resistant to this policy. They believe that this scheme is inherently unfair to local talents. It deprives their opportunities to shine. There is also an element of patriotism and national pride. Singaporeans argue that the imported and naturalised talents are still not “true-blue” Singaporeans. In this area, Singaporeans do have an unreasonably strict standard to what constitutes “Singaporean-ness”.

The lack of local talents is also a self-fulfilling prophecy

The lack of local talents is one main driver for the continuation of FTS despite calls to put an end to it. This phenomenon is, unfortunately, a self-fulfilling prophecy. On one hand, we go online and criticise our table tennis players and swimmers for not being Singaporean. On the other hand, we tell our children that sport in Singapore is a career without a future.

Schooling left for the United States when he was fourteen to train professionally. His parents funded his swimming career from their own pocket. The government might or might not have helped groom Schooling, but that is not the point of contention. Rather, the issue is how many parents in Singapore are like Schoolings’ who are willing to take the leap of faith and encourage their child to pursue their dream? How can there be local talents when there are no candidates?

This gap needs to be filled by someone. And the solution is to import foreign expertise. It is a double-win solution although it is not well liked by the public. 

The goal is to groom new talent, not new local talent

Although STTA cited a go-local approach and emphasised on “youth development”, the crux of the issue is not about grooming local talents per se. It is established that there is a lack of local talents. Grooming local talent is an uphill task. It requires a lot of commitment and resources. Kids need to be identified when they are as young as six or seven, and would require at least ten years of training to be able to play professionally.

To successfully groom local talent, the entire youth development system needs to be changed. Given the current academic-driven mentality in Singapore, it is unlikely any concrete result can be produced in the near future. Thus, Feng’s episode is not aimed at grooming local talent.

Rather, it is a plan to make way for a new generation of sportsmen. We should not forget that Feng has passed the 30-year old mark. She will be 34 when the 2020 Tokyo Olympic takes place. Sportsmen typically reach their peak in their mid or late 20s and most retire before they reach 40s. Feng is at the age to consider about retirement. Moreover, the women’s team has always been filled with naturalised players. If Singapore had wanted to respond to the calls to put an end of the FTS, these foreign talents would also have suffered alongside Feng.

Currently, the focus is clearly on the younger athletes, regardless of country of origin. For men’s team, the spotlight is on 20-year old Clarence Chew and 22-year old Chen Feng. Whereas for women’s team, they are Zhou Yihan, Lin Ye and Zeng Jian.

This is not how we should treat older players

China is infamous for treating its retired athletes badly. Most retired athletes are abandoned by the state. Few make a successful career change. Are we not following this footstep by kicking Feng out of the national team?

Results can still remain a priority pursuit and pragmatism can still guide policymaking. However, there must be a red line that we should never cross. By telling the older players to leave and make way for the younger ones even when the former are still capable and skilled, we are sending a message to the public that it is all right to abandon whoever is no longer useful to us. This kind of mentality is ethically wrong.

Singapore needs to seriously rethink about its sporting policies and whether it is okay to continue putting result above all, including moral standards.