Is the inability to relate to foreign-born athletes considered xenophobic?

Do we want to be able to relate to our athletes or do we want medals?

Jonathan Lim | July 30, 2014 @ 02:46 pm

Singapore’s men’s and women’s table tennis team brought the nation two gold medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. 8 out of 10 of the paddlers are foreign-born athletes who took up Singapore citizenship.

Comments online can be largely categorised into two camps – one that rejects the team as a truly Singaporean one; and the other camp which celebrates the victory as a national triumph.

So is the rejection of victory considered a xenophobic response?

Look at the top comments when PM Lee Hsien Loong shared a photograph of the winning team:

Comments on table tennis winners

These comments reflected sentiments from Singaporeans who could not relate to the victory. The question to ask – are the comments xenophobic?


What is Xenophobia?

Dictionary definitions of xenophobia include: deep-rooted, irrational hatred towards foreigners (Oxford English Dictionary; OED), unreasonable fear or hatred of the unfamiliar (Webster’s).

Many of the definitions found online include elements of fear and hatred for a social ‘outgroup’, i.e. a group foreign from the perceived majority.

In other words, you are being xenophobic if you are hateful and discriminating towards foreigners. Some of the online comments that criticised the victory are indeed xenophobic.

If a Singaporean cannot relate to the victory of our table tennis team, is he/she xenophobic? Is there any hate or fear involved? Some of these Singaporeans’ sentiments towards our table tennis team resemble watching in awe of  the German victory at the World Cup or Usain Bolt’s record-breaking sprints but without brimming with national pride.

Sure the paddlers are Singapore citizens. But if I can’t tell if they are Singaporeans if I see them in a crowd overseas, does that make me xenophobic?


Are these medals meaningful?

Let’s not take away the immense effort and countless hours of training put in by our foreign-born talents. They brought Singapore many medals, including Olympic silvers and a bronze. That’s no walk in the park.

The question to ask is – are these medals meaningful? Do they serve a bigger, national purpose?

Sports has traditionally been a means for a country to rally its people, boost national morale and pride.

Does this still apply if you cannot identify with and relate to the athletes competing for your country?

When an athlete wins something for their nation, the common response is for the nation to celebrate with the athlete. But in Singapore’s case, you see how some people are unable to relate. You see how some people are downright racist and xenophobic making cruel comments about the athletes.

Medals are suppose to unite, but in Singapore’s case it divides. You can’t change this situation by rapping Singaporeans for being xenophobic. If they feel they cannot relate on the visceral level, no amount of medals can change that.


Are medals the be-all end-all that warrants importing of talent?

For the Singaporeans who are supportive of importing foreign-born athletes so long as they take up Singapore citizenship, can I say that they will be more than happy if our entire football team were made up of the German team albeit with Singapore passports?

How about Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic representing us in tennis? A track and field team consisting a mix of ex-Jamaicans and ex-Americans?

The point is, the world is vast and there will always be better talent elsewhere. Genetically speaking, our Asian frames are disadvantaged for certain sporting events such as sprinting, swimming, and athletics.

If we are all for the medals, there is no point in investing in Singapore-born athletes. Attract foreign-born talents will be efficient and more cost-effective. We will win medals that way.

At this year’s Commonwealth Games, our locally developed paddlers had very little ‘air-time’ in the gold medal-winning performance. Both Isabelle Li and Clarence Chew are considered elite student-athletes of the Singapore Sports School. So when will they be deemed gold medal-ready?

Is the reality that Team Singapore be one day made up of the crème de la crème of foreign scouted talent the way to go? So long as they take up citizenship. Integration taken into consideration, of course.

Relatability be damned if medals are all that we want.


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About Jonathan Lim

Jon is thankful that Singapore is interesting enough to keep a website like Mothership.sg up and running.

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