Singapore: Island of winners?

FEBRUARY 4 — From Kid to King: The Joseph Schooling Story is a new addition on my bookshelf. It’s not quite The Brothers Karamazov but I think it’s an important work as it celebrates local excellence.

To clarify, the tome in question tells i — n a few words and with some pretty illustrations — the story of local hero Joseph Schooling.

For those who have been hiding under rocks for the past few years (or simply non-Singaporeans) Joseph Schooling won Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold medal at the 2016 Games.

But not only did he win,  he won in style by beating the legendary US champion Michael Phelps in the highly competitive 100 metres butterfly event.

That a young man from a nation with, let’s face it — no real sporting pedigree — could win such a prominent medal was a real inspiration. This is why though not much more than a child himself, he deserves his own children’s book.

However, it must be said that Schooling is increasingly being joined by other Singaporeans at the height of achievement and excellence in various fields.  We saw Sonny Liew’s beautiful and dizzyingly intelligent The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye win multiple Eisner awards and just last week Sandi Tan won the Best Director award in the World Cinema Documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Singapore’s Joseph Schooling seen here in action at the 29th SEA Games in KL last year. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim
Singapore’s Joseph Schooling seen here in action at the 29th SEA Games in KL last year. — Picture by Mukhriz Hazim

In 2013, the delightful Ilo Ilo by Anthony Chen also won the Camera D’or at the Cannes Festival.

Of course Singapore has produced talented performers and athletes before but I dont think we’ve ever had such a crop (and there are more than I’ve managed to list) of world-class artists and athletes emerge at the same time.

Does this mean that years of investment in sports and the arts are paying off? Has the governments effort to correct the mismatch between our GDP (very high) and cultural impact (very low) borne fruit?

Well, it might be too early to tell but we are definitely off in a more promising direction.

On one hand, the government has invested far more in the arts over the past two decades. From the revamped National Gallery to the Esplanade -- Theatres on the Bay and investments in the LASALLE College of the Arts and the School of the Arts,

Singapore there have been programs and sponsorships that indicate a real and concerted effort to foster music, drama art and design.

The government also now offers a range of sports scholarships to encourage aspiring athletes.

On the other hand, there are still murmurs that overall investment in sports has remained inadequate, especially in athletics and even in the arts the processes and distribution of resources haven’t yet been optimised. 

A cautionary note is rung by the fact that all the above achievers, barring perhaps Anthony Chen, are outliers.

Sonny Liew has enjoyed patchy support from national art bodies and as a Malaysian citizen for most his life and a Cambridge graduate with lots of US experience, he can’t quite be called a product of the Singapore system.

Jospeh Schooling too had to leave Singapore for training and facilities in the United States to reach a global level of excellence while Sandi Tan was also (partly) trained in the US and is now a US citizen.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that all these successes remain Singaporean — made by people who are Singaporean and deeply connected to the island.

Sonny Liew, Sandi Tan, Anthoy Chen — they all come back to Singapore again and again and Schooling, you know he won that medal for the Lion City!

However, if you’re a little circumspect you might argue that we still aren’t at the point where home-grown talent is competing globally -- they are being raised to a point -- then finding that last bit of growth overseas.

Of course given this is a small nation, that’s somewhat inevitable. However, these trailblazers should also be a beacon both for aspiring achievers and for policy makers who must ask themselves how they can tweak the existing systems to push more Singaporeans to points of international excellence.

We’ve now got our foot onto the world stage but there are plenty more prizes and accolades up for grabs: World Cups, the Oscars,  the Nobel Prize, etc. All of these could use a Singaporean winner... or two.

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