Criticise Feng Tianwei? But what makes a Singaporean?

Feng Tianwei’s Olympic bronze medal has, once again, attracted criticism. The reason? She is not a “true” Singaporean. Another criticism is that in bringing in and giving those like Feng citizenship we are “buying” medals. (Lets not forget that Feng – and those like her, including our own native Singaporean sportsmen and sportswomen, have to train very hard to have any chance of winning anything in the sports arena.)

The criticisms flow fast and furious, and they are repeated ad nauseum each time someone who is seen as “not a true Singaporean” wins some accolades. While these sentiments are understandable because of our immigration policy, and others like the Foreign Talent Scheme (under which, incidentally, Feng was brought in), perhaps it would be best if we could move beyond launching diatribes against her and her colleagues, and ask ourselves a deeper, more meaningful question: what, really, makes a Singaporean?

Those who have tried to answer this question have given many suggestions on what makes one Singaporean. They range from the ability to speak English to being able to appreciate our local cuisine, from being able to sing the National Anthem to reciting the National Pledge. The suggestions are many and varied.

However, somehow, I feel these are too superficial. It would be sad if being a Singaporean means nothing more than that we appreciate our food, or that we are able to sing a song, albeit our National Anthem.

Being a Singaporean must mean something deeper than these things, surely.

What do I think being a Singaporean is?

I do not know, to be honest. I have given this some thought and I am not able to put my finger on it. The best I can say perhaps is that a Singaporean is someone who is able to see how the world evolves and someone who has the ability to see beyond the superficial and has the courage to embrace the necessary.

And one of these things which we must have the courage to embrace is the changing face of Singapore. It has changed, is changing and will change. The Government’s immigration policy, fundamentally, is not wrong. And this is not only because it is a counter-weight to the declining birth rate but also that bringing in foreigners give us a different sheen to our society.

The world is changing too and lets not kid ourselves that we do not have to change. We will be stuck as a has-been if we stand still.

Of course, this does not mean we open the flood gates, like we have done. I do not agree with the way the Government has gone about trying to imbibe foreigners – there are too many, and also many of these foreigners do not really bring any significant value-add to us.

But that aside (and it is a serious problem which the Government should address), welcoming foreigners is a necessity. It is the same anywhere else. The movement of people in this era is unprecedented in human history and we should not try and swim against the tide.

Instead of getting stuck in blind nationalism, perhaps we should imagine what Singapore can be, going forward. As the title of the 2009 National Day song asks, “What do you see?”

I see diversity, a melting-pot of different people who are able to work together, who believe in and treasure the ideals which we collectively share. One where our children and grandchildren are much different from the Singaporeans we now are. They would have wider world-views, be able to understand and flow with the tides the world bring, and have the courage to step into the unknown and take leaps of faith to lead not only Singapore but the world too.

And we, the “native Singaporeans”, must too have the courage to embrace this, to take that leap of faith and enable our children to have  that opportunity to carve out a different world.

But it starts with us setting out the path, beating out the road less travelled.

While we criticise the Government and those like Feng for various problems we now face, lets also ask ourselves what is it that makes us Singaporeans so special. What makes a Singaporean?

If we are able to answer this question, perhaps then we will be in a better position to effect changes to current policies, for how are we to argue for changes if we ourselves, Singaporeans, do not know or understand what makes us, us – but we should realise and accept that we will need to also accept that the face of Singapore will change. That’s how the world is moving and it is folly for us to try and hold off that change.

Singapore is at the threshold of change, one which, as I see it, will either be a giant leap to greater things, or it will hold us back and stagnate and become a has-been.

The Government too has a great opportunity to reassess its policies, and improve them. If it is successful in doing so, there is no doubt in my mind that Singaporeans will eventually understand and accept that having foreigners here, and giving them citizenship, is necessary and beneficial.

For the moment, though, as the reaction to Feng’s Olympic victory shows, the Government has not articulated well enough its vision, or the reasons underlying its immigration policies.

Singaporeans, in their visceral reaction to Feng’s victory, has also shown that they are disinterested in any explanation.

So, the place to start is to reduce the number of foreigners, and further tighten criterias for citizenship, and hopefully, once Singaporeans have accepted these, we can all then move on to the more important questions – how Singapore will change, and what makes a Singaporean in the brave new world.

It is not all doom and gloom. We just need to move beyond the anger and be able to talk to each other about the important issues.

I hope that day is not too far off.

What do I think of Feng’s bronze medal? It is a brilliant achievement. I mean, it is an Olympic medal, you know? And for a sportsperson, there is no greater honour. So, I congratulate her on this amazing achievement, even if it’s a bronze medal. It is still no mean feat.

What do I think of her representing Singapore? I would say cut her some slack. She played for Singapore, wore our flag, and she has been here since 2007. If we are to criticise her for this, then we need to ask ourselves the question which I mentioned:

What then makes a Singaporean?

How well do we know ourselves?


  1. Till today. I cannot accept the fact that Singapore had won that gold medal. We have instant trees, instant culture, instant citizens, instant medals. we have the form but not the substance. Singapore will not stop at table tennis. I believe. It is a matter of time when Singapore emerge top in Olympics in Judo, Tae Kwon Do, Swimming, Gymnastics, Fencing, etc. … with bought medals. I reject that china girl, if not for the $250K dangling infront of her, I doubt if she will been keen to even bother about that bronze medal. After all, that bronze medal represents money to her and for her to buy some land and property in her native homeland for investment and retirement.. Better still try for a gold medal in future… that would be $1,000,000.00

  2. I am not one of those who criticize Feng. I congratulate her on her efforts and dedication to her sport and i congratulate her on her win. But I will never support the pay-for-foreign-sporting-talent program. Sporting excellence is about striving to realize one’s potential and sportsmanship is about honesty. At the national level it translates into nurturing your people to achieve their full potential. If Singapore’s environment is inconducive to achieving international sporting excellence, we do not deserve to stand on that Olympic podium until we address the issues. Instead of doing that, we take the easy way out and buy that “excellence”. It’s taking short cuts; it’s sweeping the issues under the carpet; it’s putting on artificial gloss to hide the hard truth. What glory is there in that? What sportsmanship? It’s dishonest. 

    And Singaporeans are not alone in having such (may I say principled) sentiments. 

    “To come in late in the day with imported talent and claim they are British success stories isn’t about being open to migrants. It’s just cheating. Nobody watching will be fooled. If they get medals, we’ll feel a little embarrassed. Whether it’s swimming or anything else, let’s have a sporting culture strong enough for us to know, when we win, that it’s a real, homegrown achievement, not a fiddle. Otherwise, frankly, I’d rather we lost.” –  Jackie Ashley , The Guardian, ‘Importing Olympic athletes isn’t going to fool anybody’

    The above was written by a British journalist when the British sports councils were considering importing athletes to boost its medal winning hopes in the 2012 Olympics. She concluded that there was “no alternative to serious investments” in home grown sporting talents.

    Why do we so desperately need to win an Olympics medal? To validate us as a first-world country, or for the officials at the Olympics to bask in reflected glory? I for one couldn’t care less if Singapore never ever wins an Olympic medal until we do the right things to support our aspiring athletes.  As Lucky Tan says, “the pride in winning an Olympic medal does not come from the winning alone but what the win represents”

    On the subject of inspiration, let me say that importing foreigners to win one or two medals ain’t gonna “inspire” our locals to suddenly win medals cos nothing in our environment would’ve changed for the local athlete. He’s not given the support to focus 100% on achieving sporting excellence, unlike these foreign imports; he has to juggle job/study and – National Service!

    But nurture our own people? That’s just unthinkable. Even at the school level we are no longer developing our students.
    We expect parents to spend money on coaching for their children and, only when they have become good enough to potentially win medals will they be allowed to join the schools’ sports club. 

    Our systems (sports, education, labour) no longer nurture our citizens, we merely use them or shove them aside. 

    Another perfect example is population that you mention. The TFR is low because of a myriad of societal pressures including lack of job security, employer abuse resulting in lack of work-life balance, high costs of living, even higher costs of housing, pressure-cooker educational environment, reduced educational opportunities due either to financial circumstances or government quotas, unfair competition from foreign workers, etc etc. Instead of taking the requisite tough actions to right years of misguided policy (no lesser authorities have spoken on these than Ngiam Tong Dow  and Yeoh Lam Keong, we again take the easy way out by sweeping the issues under the carpet and (guess what?) import to “solve” the problem!!

    Please Andrew, you’re having conversations with our elites? Do they read what their betters (not just me or any other daft citizens) have to say?

    I don’t need the fake (manufactured, bought, imported) glory of Olympic medals to make me feel good as a Singaporean. What I need to feel good about being Singaporean is a society that cares for its people, starting with the people who are paid to do so. 
    [URL link removed by Andrew]

    It is not about the foreigners. It’s about how sick we have become as a society, as the people who put themselves out to be serving us have gone about damaging us 
    – financially (compromised our livelihoods and our wages not only thru opening the flood gates but also thru allowing unfair hiring practices),
    – emotionally (being told constantly we’re not good enough, that’s why we need foreigners, who then use that message to taunt us), 
    – spiritually (by focusing relentlessly on materialism, even paying school children for being virtuous!), 
    – socially (allowing exploitative employers to disrupt family life) and
    – economically (reducing opportunities for our University entrants, allowing foreigners to buy public housing). 

    As for what it means to be a Singaporean lets start the conversation with some founding principles, for others to add on
    -multi-culturalism, ie we are not a Chinese society
    – English as the common language
    – we do not practice any caste system here. Brahmins who want to lord it over the Sudras and the Untouchables should be charged under laws similar to those prohibiting religious and racial intolerance
    – we believe (believed?) in equal opportunity, ie even the children of labourers should have equal access to education; ie if they can’t afford it the state shall pay! No quotas on Singaporeans for the benefit of foreigners
    – we believe (believed?) in equal treatment for all, ie no white horse bullshit, deferment rules to be spelt out loud and clear, Mervyn the concert artiste to be treated like any other deserter instead of being feted

    • Hi Csmechtler,

      I am familiar with the litany of “wrongs” which the Government is accused of. However, I don’t think I want to get into that here. It will be an extremely long discussion if we did, probably having to go through each and every one of these “wrongs”.

      I do not think the Government set out to destroy our society, or to make Singaporeans feel small, or to even needlessly be pro-foreigners. I do not see the rationale for them doing any of these.

      I do, however, feel that the Government has legitimate and genuine concerns. Unfortunately, these get lost in emotions and/or because of poor communication. Some policies too are badly thought through before implementation.

      But coming back to this matter of “buying” foreign athletes, what then is a Singaporean? We seem unable to articulate this in any concrete terms. Are we then being angry for the sake of being angry? Are those like Feng just convenient targets for our frustrations in other areas?

      I hope we can go beyond this and see what we want for Singapore. I am not interested in political partisanship. I think that clouds the issues. I am more interested in looking at problems and see what can be done.

    • Totally agree! I believed most Singaporeans are not xenophobic as we are brought up in a multi-cultural society. Singaporeans are just fed up of the unfair treatments (at work) or same privileges (housing) given to the foreigners vs Singaporeans and some are not even value added like what the writer had said! And I wonder how many employers do validify the qualifications and work experiences of these foreign talents? And such foreign talents are employed mostly because they are cheaper, not because they are good! Then I worry for our future generations because no matter how hard they study for that well-recognise degree, they will still lose out to foreign talents simply because they are more expensive to hire?!
      Even for sports, if countries can ‘buy’ foreign talents to win games, nobody will want to invest in training athletes since at the end of the day, nobody can guarantee a win! But we should not forget sportmanship is not just about winning, we have to be proud of the process that helps us win (it’s ok even if we don’t win). In short, we are not proud if we won by buying medals.
      My question is what future do Singaporeans have if we are promoting a short-cut culture now? We are solving all problems, be it low child birth rate to winning games by importing foreigners? I will never send my children for any sports training program knowing that he has to compete with foreigners first before he/she can represent his/her country. And isn’t it weird to see that most table tennis players are China born Chinese? Well, that does look weird to me.

  3. We talk about a global economy, about interconnectedness.

    We also talk about competition, between economies, between nations. What is a nation?
    In today’s world, its definition is vague. It merges with economics and as such when we compete, its between companies, and comparison of GDP.

    The talent, the skills in all this is bought. Who pays, higher stand a better chance to win.

    Its not about nationalities anymore. Its about winning.The nationality is a convenient category to slot players and competitors.
    The premise that the sport or for that matter, the Olympics is about who is fastest, better, stronger.

    Its competition between sportsmen and women. Not among nations.

    If we accept that, then Ms Teng, Phelps, Farid are all to be congratulated for their achievements.
    That is the first & only reaction.

    Nationality is irrelevant.

  4. I am happy for Feng and congratulate her for her winning, but as a true-blue Singaporean, do I feel proud and happy over her winning a bronze medal FOR SINGAPORE ? NO… and I believe I am not alone here, my family members, my relatives and friends, those I spoke to either said they don’t feel anything at all as the medal is ‘bought’, some even said they actually hoped she lost so that Singapore could save hundreds of thousands and such monies can be put to better use. I really hope the Government stop importing these ‘fake Singaporeans’ and instead, train and groom our very own sportsmen/women.

    • Before the Singapore Government will spend the millions it takes to nurture a world beating sportsman, perhaps Singapore parents can change their mindsets?

      The fact is, world beating sportsmen are a heavy investment from childhood onwards, with supportive parents risking their children’s future. You think life and pressures are awful in Singapore? Guess you’ve never been to China where you have double degree holders vying in the thousands for a dozen night soil collector jobs.

      Before Singapore can talent spot any potential world beaters, first that spark has to show in the kid and two sets of circumstances can produce those. Either a kid has nothing to loose and spends his days playing the sport over and over again, or his parents first pour in their hundreds of thousands to get that spark that will capture the eye of talent scouts. Would parents risk their children not making it in the end? Not all with the spark can rise above the chaff to become the few who play on the big stage.

      Mediocre performance in sports is a sad existance.

  5. When a fool sees his doom and yet rejoices each step he’s brought closer to it, one really cannot find enough compassion to match the outrage at his stupidity.

    You do realize this seals the excuse for the FT policy? And this means more FT imports, fewer jobs, lower wages, high housing prices in the future? Let’s all make sure our kids learn useful skills in life, like dish washing, floor cleaning, toilet scrubbing. Real skills to fall back on when they loose their jobs to that foreign talent their bosses will hire at half their wages. On second thoughts, we should start learning these skills now, because its already happening and we should also forget about having kids we can’t afford.

    Xenophobia you say? Hell yeah, it’s called privileges of citizenship.

    Free and fair competition you say? Sure. That really means us looking forward to an improvement in quality of life only when China/India catches up with us in development which should in theory make their wages on par.

  6. Isn’t it a little elitist, however, to say that a Singaporean “is someone who is able to see how the world evolves and someone who has the ability to see beyond the superficial and has the courage to embrace the necessary”? Are the short-sighted and xenophobic not Singaporeans as well? What rhetorical aims do we achieve if we brand Singaporeans with unpalatable opinions ‘not Singaporean’?

    I recognise that your definition of Singaporean is probably more aspirational than descriptive, but frankly, there are going to be bigots, ignorant people, and selfish people in any citizenry. To fashion an ideal of ‘Singaporean’ as somehow above these uglier sides of human nature is just unrealistic.

    • passerby, I don’t think it is elitist. Sure, there are other definitions. I was just giving mine. And necessarily, any definition will leave out certain groups of people. But that doesn’t mean we disregard them. If you will, such definition are necessarily general in nature.

      • Thanks for your reply. And fair enough, perhaps ‘elitist’ was the wrong word. I also agree that definitions are general in nature. But I just think that it might be more helpful to acknowledge that the ‘ugly Singaporean’ can and does exist, instead of defining ‘Singaporean’ in such a way that it excludes these less desirable attributes (and thus allows us to avoid confronting them).

  7. Back in the 1970s, when we didn’t have the MRT and we decided to build it, did we say, this is an important national project, let ‘true-blue’ Singaporean engineers trial and error and see what they can build? Of course not, we imported foreigners who knew how to plan and build train systems to do it for us. In time, Singaporeans learnt a lot of the skills and knowledge and took over many of the key functions. It’s the same with many of the other things, manufacturing, finance, urban planning, defence etc. Once the infrastructure was in place, Singaporeans could have hands-on experience in these industries, and acquired real knowledge and expertise, so much so that we are now the foreign talent that other countries hire to train their people (UAE, Vietnam, China etc).

    It is the same with sports. We import the sportsmen and the coaches, who help set up our training infrastructure and systems, and let Singaporeans experience what it is like to be training under international standards, under coaches who have competed at that level. What is the alternative? Let ‘true-blue’ Singaporeans who have never competed or won internationally do trial-and-error and guess-and-check?

    If we want Singaporean parents to allow their kids to pursue their dream to be sportsmen and women, we should invest in the best infrastructure that our money can buy, and give their kids a real chance of excellence. Or else, how are we going to persuade parents? Do we want to tell parnets “please let your kids devote their lives to table tennis, and oh yah, our coach was Singapore Table Tennis Champion but he never won anything internationally, but you know, he’s our best, so don’t worry, your kids will do well under him”? Or do we says “Parents, your kids love table-tennis? Let him train with us and devote his life to table tennis, don’t worry, we have Feng Tianwei as our head coach”?

    • No-one objects to hiring foreign coaches. We object to buying foreign players with citizenship. Yes, winning medals takes a lot of investment in infrastructure and in nurturing your citizenry. And if you don’t have the will to invest in your people, then you just don’t deserve to win.

      • Yes, that is a common complain – that we aren’t investing enough in our own people. But perhaps this opinion is borne out of not knowing what actually have been done? For example, there is the Sports School, and the upcoming Sports Hub, the improvement in facilities across the island – from community clubs to schools, etc. So, I would like to go deeper than to merely say that there is not enough done for sports. Personally, I think while more can be done, I do not agree that not much has been done.

    • Thanks, Realist. You have put it succinctly. The transfer of knowledge and skills is what is happening all over the world, and in all areas of life. Unfortunately, they also take time and this is what is grating to Singaporeans. It is perceived as “buying acclaim” – and they are not entirely wrong in that perception.

      I take your point and agree with you, generally, about the transfer of skills and knowledge. 😉

  8. Let’s face it. No matter what happens, we always lose. I am a ‘true blue’ Singaporean professional sports person. Speaking from experience, when a Singaporean is in the lead or wins, it’s always ‘aiyah, lucky lah… cannot sustain lah… flash in the pan lah….. one hit wonder lah….’. It is never a “WELL DONE” or “KEEP IT UP” or “GOOD FOR YOU”. We always have something negative to say about one of our fellow Singaporeans winning or doing well. Just look at the Straits Times. That is indicative of our general sentiment as a nation. Whenever a Singaporean doesn’t do that great, which is part and parcel of Sport, and dare I say, life, its “So and so trips up…”, “So and so collapses in final round…”. It is always so negative. We just can’t stand seeing our own people do something good! We always have to be negative, almost as if we just do not want to see someone have what we cannot. It’s pathetic and disgusting. With the kind of moral support that we give our own people who are working so hard to do their best in Sport, and anything else for that matter, good luck to anyone succeeding. Why can’t we rally behind our own people for once and give them that moral boost that is so badly needed? Why must we be so harsh when someone does not succeed? And so harsh when someone does???? Not succeeding does not mean failure, and not succeeding from time to time is part of the learning process toward success anyway. Let us wake up our proverbial idea and give our boys and girls some support. Maybe in the next 10, 15 or 20 years, whatever it takes, there will be more and more people who do us proud.

  9. I was sadden by the fact that hypocrites criticise Feng Tianwei yet when asked to send their own children to excel in aesthetics or sports, are reluctant to do so.

    Our government has spent a lot of money encouraging people to take up sports as a leisure and has set up numerous sports schools to nurture the future local talent.
    According to
    A total of $138.9 million has been allocated to support sports initiatives. In that $63.7million has been given to raise home-grown talent. This amount disproves many xenophobic Singaporean’s claim that Singapore government prefers buying talents to producing talents.

    In the recent years, you can see the slight shift in focus from academic to all rounded excellence. From the bidding of YOG to create a sporting scene in Singapore to setting up scholarships for talented sportsman.To paraphrase Former MM Lee’s statement, his wish for Singapore is to allow each person to unleash the hidden potential within and Singapore can provide a platform for them to shine in their areas of excellence.

    Surely WE are heading towards the direction for homegrown talents to be proficient in their sporting arena yet this has to be done in small steps to ensure stability. However, we are still a greenhorn in sports and certainly need Foreign talents to bring in uncountable professional experiences to the local sportsmen in the meantime. I certainly do not want to see everybody rushing to become the future gold medalist just because the government has started to place emphasis on sports.

    Let us, instead of condemning FTs, embrace the fact that they are here to help us shorten our time taken to develop our own homegrown talents to reach the pinnacle in their niche areas of excellence.

    • Everything takes 2 hands to clap. The government can tweak the system to focus on all rounded excellence, but if the citizens refuse to heed the direction, it will be useless. Many people comment that our educational system is very stressful. But did it ever strike them that its they themselves who are the culprit. While MOE is trying to do away with exams at P1 and P2, Kiasu parents are doing the opposite; they are loading their kids with more tuitions, train them for gifted programme, go to 2 kindergartens etc. When the children in the class get bored with the curriculum because they have already mastered it, we can’t blame the teacher for teaching more difficult stuff to spur their interest. And as a result of this, parents start to think the curriculum are getting difficult and thus start to load their children with even more stuff. And this goes on and on…….

  10. I think before we crticise the government for its immigration policy, we should think deeper as to why we need such a large number of foreigners. I believe many of us acknowledged the fact that we do indeed need foreigners due to falling birth rate; what pissed many off is the pace and amount that we allow in. However, my question to those who crticise, including Mr Andrew, is: how many of these foreigners do you think actually stayed on to become Singaporeans and anchor their roots here?

    We got to accept the fact that we are not Canada, Australia or even Monaco. We are a little red dot that live in the midst of not so friendly neighbours. We have to be constantly on our guard and stand up on our own despite being a little red dot. We also have to accept the fact that we wil be on our own during crisis. As such, who will actually want to settle down in such a place? I would say not many. While Australia and Canada can pick and choose who they want to accept as citizens, I have to say we have more limited ability to do so. In fact, I noticed that many foreigners who married Singaporean tend not to give up their citizenship, especially the Malaysians, as a it provides a kind of ‘backup’ for their family; in case anything happen in Singapore, they can still re-locate their family back to their own country. Therefore, given such a situation where only a small % will stay to be true blue Singaporeans, we really have no choice but to import a large number of them so that the absolute number is sustainable. Many social media and netizens also blamed LKY stop at 2 policy during the 1970s. But can’t you all see that our problem here is not the number of Singaporeans we have now but rather the declining population growth rate. The current growth rate has nothing to do with policies in the 1970s! Even if there is no such policy back then and we have 5 millions native Singapores, a birth rate that is not self-replacing will only mean this problem will be back to haunt us a generation later. By then we still need to ‘import’ foreigners to have a sustainable population growth. Sometimes I do wonder whether more education actually make us think more or merely crticise more without thinking.

  11. Being A Singaporean is basically a human robot who is very confused politically, stressed, overworked, in debt by credit card bills, mortgage and a car loan. Sometimes racists towards foreignors and are selfish and very very self centered. Angry but unable to voice out properly. Very pampered by Airconditioning and abused freebies.

  12. you ask: what makes a singaporean?

    i ask: what makes a family member?

    those who have been through a significant part of their lives together and have built a bond or love that is of time and quality that an outsider simply cannot appreciate or identify with.

  13. After I originally commented I appear to have clicked the -Notify me when
    new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I recieve
    4 emails with the same comment. Is there an easy method you can remove me from that service?

  14. I tend not to create a leave a response, but after reading a few of the responses on
    Criticise Feng Tianwei? But what makes a Singaporean?
    | Andrew Loh. I do have 2 questions for you if it’s okay. Is it simply me or does it look like a few of these remarks look like they are coming from brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting at other places, I would like to keep up with everything new you have to post. Would you make a list of all of all your shared sites like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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