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Addressing the gaps in Singapore's sports participation framework

Parliamentary response to adjournment motion on sports participation

Motion for Adjournment

Dr Benedict Tan (Nominated Member): Mdm Speaker, I would like to declare my interests as President of the Singapore Sailing Federation and Sports Patron of the Singapore Disability Sports Council.

In my clinic each day, I see lots of students from both our local and international schools, with their parents in tow. At some point during the consultation, the Singaporean parent will ask, “Dr Tan, it’s quite hard for my son to continue with PE. Can you write him an MC to excuse him from PE and sports? At the same time, can you also ask the school to allow him to use the lift?” You’ll see a similar dialogue with pre-enlistees or their parents requesting for excuse letters or permanent downgrades. Many doctors will tell you that these are common scenarios. 

I see students from our international schools as well, such as the United World College and the Singapore American School. No, it’s not the MC that they are after. Rather, they want me to sort out their injuries so that they can continue and finish the baseball season and be fully fit before the swimming season begins! It is very common for students from the international schools to do multiple sports - with full support from their parents. 

When I see such contrasting attitudes, it worries me. I am worried because this is just one manifestation of a systemic disease in Singapore’s sports participation framework.

Singaporeans are pragmatic – we are goal oriented and we monitor closely our key performance indicators (KPIs). We pay close attention to what is tangible and measureable, i.e. medals and grades. Without fail, before each Major Games, the media will ask me, as President of SingaporeSailing, what is our medal target and whether we are on track. Do they ever ask me whether our sailors truly enjoy sailing, whether they are familiar with Singapore’s rich maritime history, whether our sailors see sailing as a lifelong pursuit, whether they are inculcated with the desired values, or whether we have sailors who sail for reasons other than medals? I wish they did, because those are the pertinent questions that matter much more than the medals. I would say that the SNOC, MCCY, and Sport Singapore have done a thorough job of reviewing our High Performance Systems over the years – from the Sports Excellence (SPEX) Programme in the ‘90s, to the Committee on Sporting Singapore (CoSS), Project 08/12 Go For Gold, and the Olympic Pathway Programme, to the current High Performance Sports (HPS) Programme. Through such comprehensive initiatives, our elite athletes have progressed to the point where we are winning Olympic medals, and last year our sailors won two unprecedented YOG Golds. On the academic KPI, we have done exceedingly well, topping the IB exams for the fourth consecutive year and achieving the best showing at the O levels in 20 years.

What we need to do now is to pay more attention to mass participation, where the results and benefits are less tangible. Yes, we had Sports for All in the ‘90s, and the current Vision2030 master plan, which adopts a more holistic outlook, has introduced ActiveSG. Nevertheless, there appears to be worrying trends emerging in our local sports culture. I will highlight ten of them:

  1. Singaporeans are not exercising enough. The 2011 National Sports Participation Survey revealed that only 42% of Singaporeans exercised at least once a week, down from 50% in 2005. Compare this with Finland’s enviable 76% in 2005. Participation levels fell amongst Singaporeans below 60 years of age, particularly those in their teens, which fell by 16% to 68%. This does not bode well for the future. On top of that, blue collared workers recorded a larger decline in sports participation compared to professionals, managers, executives and businessmen (PMEBs).
  2. Too many of our young are not enjoying sports. When I ask my patients from the local schools if they look forward to their school’s Sports Day, I get a cynical look. When I asked a patient from United World College the same question, she said, “We all love it – it’s so much fun!” She continues effusively, “Sports Day is run over three whole days and everybody participates and gets to try multiple sports. There’s aquatics, games, and athletics. We are rotated from one station to another, and end up trying a lot of things. You don’t need to be good, and it is do-able for everyone!” When young Singaporeans have a pleasant introduction to sports and physical activity, the exercise habit is likely to continue into adulthood and beyond. We need to review how we approach physical activity promotion across various groups, especially the young. We may have the best-laid policies and plans, but let’s see how we can do better in bringing these into fruition.
  3. Our motivation for being physically active is questionable. Do we do it because it is simply the natural thing to do, or because it is part of our culture and tradition? Or do we participate in sports to accumulate co-curricular activities (CCA) points or notch a higher level of attainment under the Leadership, Enrichment, Achievement, Participation and Service (LEAPS) 2.0 framework; for direct school admission (DSA); or for a shorter basic military training (BMT)? In our international schools, the norm is to participate in at least one sport. Many participate or compete in multiple sports despite the fact that the international schools do not award CCA points. In fact, do we really treat sports (and other non academic school activities) as truly ‘co’-curricular? In January 2000, MOE acknowledged the integral role of co-curricular activities in achieving the desired outcomes of education by replacing the term extra-curricular with co-curricular. It is work in progress, and I look forward to more and more Singaporean parents – and consequently their children - adopting the right mentality, participating in CCAs for the right reasons.
  4. There are not enough opportunities to learn sports. Again, citing the our international schools as an example, there are ample opportunities for their students – for each sport on the comprehensive menu of sports that they offer, there are teams of various levels, including beginners. Another one of my patients from an international school wasn’t much of a basketballer when he joined the school, so he simply joined the novice team. As he got better, he progressed to team C then B and eventually ended up in team A. Contrast that with our local schools where parents have told me that if you are not good enough for the school team, you are not offered to a chance to participate in that sport at all. Take sailing for example. In the past – there were multiple entry-points into sailing. It didn’t matter if you didn’t start sailing in primary school – you still had another chance to try out sailing in secondary school, and if you missed that, there’s still the junior college and polytechnic. Now, apart from the international schools, hardly any local school in Singapore will offer to teach sailing – they accept only ready-made sailors. I find this disappointing because a significant number of national sailors did a credible job of representing Singapore even though they started sailing relatively late. Stanley Tan and Stanley Chan got introduced to sailing through their junior college. Stanley Tan went on to represent Singapore at two Olympic Games while and Stanley Chan is a multiple Asian and SEA Games representative and medalist. If our schools do not undertake to accept new entrants to various sports, there will be no future Stanley Tans or Stanley Chans. An FAS survey of 100 primary schools earlier this year found that nearly one in two children wanted to play football, but only 5.9% of boys and 1.6% of girls were given a chance to.
  5. Are our schools too focused on winning medals, at the expense of sports participation? Even school teams face the threat of being scrapped simply because they can’t achieve a podium finish. The 14 Dec 2014 issue of The Sunday Times cited a veteran football coach who said, “My principal said the football team will be scrapped if we don’t reach the nationals tournament.” Is winning the only thing that matters to our schools? While policies have shifted, how can we help the policy implementers put it right?
  6. Singaporeans are struggling with their fitness levels. A lecturer at one of our polytechnics estimates that 70% of poly students fail their NAPFA test. Another lecturer at a different polytechnic cited a failure rate of 60-70%. Pre-enlistees struggle to get fit for national service and many NSmen struggle with their Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) as well. MINDEF’s recent simplification of the IPPT format and increased flexibility in the IPPT Preparatory Training (IPT) are a step in the right direction, as keeping the status quo will not yield better results.
  7. Reduced fitness levels in turn lead to increased obesity rates and a heavier burden of chronic diseases. Singapore’s prevalence of obesity rose from 6.9% in 2004 to 10.8% in 2010 while diabetes rose from 8.2% in 2004 to 11.3% in 2010.
  8. Our sports events can be more veteran-friendly. One is never too old to participate in sport and there is ample medical evidence that one can benefit from exercise even if one starts late. What message are we sending when Singapore’s biggest marathon offers older runners only one age category, i.e. the above-40 masters category. Lumping a 60 year-old runner together with a 40 year-old in the same competitive category can only discourage the 60 year-old even before the race has started. When I was at the International Sailing Federation meeting last November, there was naturally and understandably a lot of emphasis on youth sailing and how to attract young people to the sport. Hence I was impressed with the insight of a windsurfing official who reminded the meeting that, in fact, the biggest market for windsurfing is actually the older person.
  9. The physically challenged are still facing significant barriers to sports participation. For the disabled, sport offers a beacon of hope and is an important avenue for reintegrating into society. Desmond Tong lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 1999. After the accident, his life went into a tailspin – he dropped out of university, was ostracized by his friends, and became depressed and suicidal. Through sports, he has since picked himself up and has been training diligently to do Singapore proud in the archery event of the ASEAN Para Games to be held in Singapore this December. His main obstacle now is not his missing leg, but the fact that he does not have a 70m range to practice after he finishes work on weekdays. Jason Chee, who lost both legs and his left arm while serving on a Navy ship in 2012, now represents Singapore in table tennis. Together with his doubles partner Darren Chua, he won a bronze medal for Singapore at the ASEAN Para Games last year. Jason is now training hard for the upcoming ASEAN Para Games in Singapore. What is his number one obstacle? “Transport to and from my training venue,” says Jason. Dr William Tan, a long-time advocate for challenged athletes, added that apart from permanent training venues and transportation, another major obstacle faced is funding. Dr Tan shared, “The financial support from the existing carding system is meagre for challenged athletes – any financial support received goes mostly to transportation costs.”
  10. The struggle for recreational space, especially for sports, is escalating. Agencies like NParks, URA, PUB, SLA have been very progressive in optimizing our shared spaces – as a result, we witness water sports in the heart of our CBD in Marina Bay itself, beautiful running tracks along our waterways, recreational activities on various reservoirs, and ciclovia (the closing of a section of Orchard Road to cars one evening a month in favour of pedestrians). In a highly urbanized Singapore, there will always be challenges when it comes to sharing spaces. Take, for example, the constant struggle between cyclists and other road users or pedestrians. Last November, Mr Eric Khoo, the organizer of the HolyCrit cycling race in Tanglin Halt explained that he did not seek permits from the authorities primarily because an estimated $25,000 to $30,000 in compliance costs would be required. The sailing community could not continue its proud tradition of the popular Round Island Race because permits would not be granted. Maritime security and safety are certainly valid concerns, but we need to push the boundaries and take a leaf from others – if other countries were as conservative as us, there would be no Sydney Hobart Race or boating activities in the busy Sydney Harbour or San Francisco Bay. 

Each of these points represents a major obstacle to Singaporeans inculcating a positive sports and exercise culture. Collectively, they form a formidable barrier to sports participation. Each of these issues fall under the purview of a few agencies – this is reminiscent of the fishball stick anecdote that PM Lee shared at the last National Day Rally. I hope we won’t need a sports equivalent of the Municipal Services Office to systematically address these multifaceted challenges. But at the same time, let us not wait till our obesity levels catch up with the west, or for our healthcare costs to creep further up, or for the pipelines to our national teams to run dry before we strengthen our resolve to address these emerging gaps in Singapore’s sports participation.


  1. Minister Lawrence Wong: Deputy Speaker Sir, I thank Dr Tan for his observations and suggestions to improve sport participation in Singapore.
  2. Dr Tan spoke of several emerging gaps in sport participation and trends of concern in our sport culture. These were in fact surfaced in the extensive conversations we did our Vision 2030 Master Plan. That was the master plan for sports which we undertook in 2011.
  3. I should highlight that the consultations also revealed many positive things. One of the things that struck me when we had those conversations was that Singaporeans do continue to have a strong interest in sport. It is not just the people who have experiences in the past and reminisce about the good old days. Young Singaporeans still continue to have an interest in Sports. There is nothing like sports that continue to excite us, stir our passions, and bring our community together. And you can certainly see and feel that among the participants at the various sporting events and activities. There are many in our calendar. They are well attended, and you can feel the excitement among the participants at all of these events, be it a football game, or when we won at the recent Asian Championships for netball in the new Singapore Sports Hub. The crowd was cheering for Team Singapore and the excitement was palpable.
  4. So I believe that many Singaporeans, young and old, continue to enjoy sports, and they want to get involved in sports. What they need is perhaps more opportunities to participate and to experience the joy of sports together.
  5. This is why we launched ActiveSG last year as a national movement for sport. Through ActiveSG, we are bringing a wider range of sports programmes to the community, relevant for different skill levels and age groups.
  6. For example, ActiveSG partnered the Singapore Athletics Association to introduce the Kids Athletics Programme that uses modified equipment such as lower hurdles, and foam javelins to develop their motor skills.
  7. For seniors, we have weekly gym orientation programmes where we invite seniors to come to our gym and work out and we give them tips on how to work out with our gym equipment. 
  8. I agree with Dr Tan that we must continue to find more opportunities for older Singaporeans, active seniors to engage in sports and stay healthy. So when ActiveSG organised the Singapore National Games (SNG) last year, we made a special effort to reach out and to encourage many active agers to take part in the Masters category of the Games.
  9. One of them is Mr Mike Ang, 60 years old, whom I met at the closing ceremony of the Games. He and his teammates participated in Futsal. They are alumni of St Michael’s School, where they had been crazy about football since the ‘60s. So they participated in football, and said that this is a good opportunity for them to relive their football days. They made it all the way to the quarterfinals before they got kicked out. But even so, he joked that if the match duration were longer, his team might have won. So clearly the competitive spirit was there, and I am sure he will be back again for the next National Games. 
  10. There also many ActiveSG programmes that we are running to encourage busy Singaporeans to maintain an active lifestyle. For example, we have something called “urban trekking” – it is basically walking, but you use walking poles, like ski poles, so it is like Nordic walking techniques for a full body aerobic workout. We introduced this at 5 sports centres, and the response has been very good.
  11. We are also organising more outdoor activities. That’s why we launched the Sundays @ the Park, to bring sports programmes out of the gym studios into the neighbourhood green spaces, where they are convenient and accessible to the public, especially the seniors. We started off with just four parks, and have now gone into twelve. The programme is so popular at Choa Chu Kang Park that participation very quickly increased from 50 in the first session to about 250 residents now.
  12. These are some examples of what we have been doing, particularly after Vision 2030 – the exercise we conducted in 2011. How do we know that all our efforts, including the ActiveSG programmes, are making an impact? I will share with you some indicators. 
  13. First, ActiveSG has grown quickly and steadily in its membership. Less than a year after its launch, it already has more than 670,000 members today. These are not passive members, but people who are actively using our sport centres and facilities, and participating in the diverse range of ActiveSG events, from learn-to-play sessions to sports camps and workshops. 
  14. For example, over the recent December holidays, ActiveSG organised an Inline Skating Competition at the Pasir Ris Sports Centre. This was a competitive event, but the parents we spoke to were less concerned about winning than being able to bond with their children. One parent, Mr Ang Jong Hiong, was grateful for this opportunity to bond with his son because they took part together in the father-son category, and requested for more of such family-friendly sport activities in the future. We see many of such parents and children groupings coming together to participate in our programmes. They are doing it not for the medals or the points, but they are doing it because they enjoy the game, and have the opportunity to spend quality time with their families. So this is one indicator of success.
  15. Another indicator is that we see a change in the numbers and the profile of people coming to our swimming complexes.
  16. In the past, the swimming pools were left very much to the more serious swimmers to do their regular training and laps. Now, we have more fun and innovative programmes in the pool, including aqua basketball, aqua spinning – which is cycling in the water which has less impact on the knees and are popular with the elderly. We also have flippa ball, a modified form of water polo. It is a junior version, so it is good for the kids.
  17. With all these programmes, we are seeing an increase in the number of people coming to the swimming pools, and also a change in the profile – more families spending their weekends at our swimming complexes.
  18. This reminds me of what one of our sports pioneers, Mr C Kunalan told me when I launched ActiveSG last April. He said that he hoped ActiveSG would kick-start a new trend of families having a sporty life instead of just spending weekends at the shopping centres. Now I don’t want to cause more problems for the retail market, but I do believe we are making progress in shifting mindsets and if we continue in these efforts, we can shape new and positive habits towards sports participation.
  19. Third indicator, we know from our surveys that the overall sports participation rate is, in fact, on the rise.
  20. Dr Tan cited the National Sport Participation Survey in 2011 where the proportion of Singaporeans who exercised at least once a week dropped to 42% (from 50% in 2005). 
  21. The NSPS is done once every 5 years, and so the next one is due in 2016.  But in the years in between, we’ve done some annual surveys to get more updated data on sports participation. And our latest surveys for 2013 and 2014, show that the overall participation levels have gone up to above 60%. We are not quite at Finland which is 70-something percent, but we are making progress. I think we should continue to make progress.
  22. This is also consistent with anecdotal feedback, not just the surveys. In recent years, there have been many more sporting events. The calendar is filled with sporting events, for example, the running events has been on the rise. Apart from the serious marathons for the fitness buffs, you have many fun community runs, all of which are very well subscribed. 
  23. Cycling is another sport that is quickly gaining popularity, with the number of participants in the OCBC Cycle Singapore doubling from the 5,400 cyclists in its inaugural year to 11,500 cyclists last year. 
  24. These are several efforts of what we are doing to provide more programming opportunities for Singaporeans to participate in sports, and we are seeing some results. 

    Sport Facilities

  25. Besides providing these programming activities through ActiveSG, we are also doing more to ensure there are sufficient spaces and facilities for sports to be carried out, particularly given our constraint of land.  

    a. Regional Sports Centres mapped out for this master plan.  Work has started on the Tampines Centre, and we’ve started planning for the one in Punggol. At the town level, we’ve also adding new facilities – we are planning for a new sports and recreation centre in Sembawang.

    b. We are progressively improving our existing facilities, like the Ang Mo Kio Swimming Complex.

    c. On the local level, we are creating more sporting spaces in neighbourhood precincts. We have started work on our first Sports-in-Precinct (SIP) projects at Boon Lay, Jurong Spring and Tampines, and we will gradually increase the number of such projects across Singapore in tandem with the implementation of Neighbourhood Renewal Programme (NRP), which is under MND.

    d. To make the most of our limited land space, we are also working with MOE to open up the sporting facilities in schools for the public’s use during after-school hours. We have seen very good response to these Dual-Use Scheme (DUS) facilities, so we’re working with MOE to open more such facilities. For new schools, we are making sure that the facilities are built and designed with dual use in mind. For existing schools, close to half of them already have dual-use, operating on a dual-use model. Our aim is to eventually open up all school sport facilities for dual use, so that the sports facilities can be open up for the public. This year, we are making progress by putting 15 more indoor sports halls and 10 more school fields.

    Sport Participation in Schools
  26. Dr Ben Tan raised several observations about the role of schools in promoting sport participation. I do not intend to go into the details here, since some of these are probably more relevant to address at the school level. But I want to assure the member that MCCY and MOE are working closely, together with SportSG, to address the concerns raised by Dr Tan. I would like to share three broad areas where shifts have been made, particularly to address this issue of mindset and culture.
  27. First, we want to actively expose our students to sports through a quality and rigorous PE curriculum. Lesson time set aside for PE has been increased to at least two hours per week. The MOE has revised its PE & Sports Development Framework in the past year, to emphasise holistic development and encourage lifelong participation in physical activities, so the idea is to give students can have opportunities to acquire fundamental motor skills, gain exposure to a variety of sporting experiences and to participate recreationally in physical activities.
  28. Second, MOE has replaced the CCA points system with a revised co-curricular recognition system that places more emphasis on participation. The new system recognises participation in sports activities outside school, such as those organised by Community Clubs and National Sports Associations. So under this new system, students who engage in recreational sports can also aspire to achieve good CCA records. Again, an important shift because this addresses some of the concerns that the member raised.

    Sporting Opportunities for the Disabled 
  29. These things that MOE are doing, we can share more separately with the member. I will go straight to sporting opportunities for the disabled. We want sports to be inclusive, and we want to provide opportunities for all members of public to participate in sports.
  30. We want to provide more support for para sports, for our athletes with special needs. In fact, we have enhanced our high-performance sport system to provide more support for all athletes, including para athletes. In our system, we provide equal support to both able-bodied and para athletes. For example, an athlete like Laurentia Tan, our paralympian who now receives about $90,000 of funding support a year in the form of stipends and grants to support  coaching, competition and equipment. So we are providing more support, not just financial support, but support in many areas.
  31. For para athlete like Nurul, who plays boccia. She has spinal muscular atrophy, so she sits on a wheelchair and takes a ramp to let the ball roll down to play boccia. We are working with Nanyang Polytechnic to research on the design of the ramp, so that we can improve the design and make it better for her.
  32. This year presents us with wonderful opportunity to inspire Singaporeans to sports participation, because we will host SEA Games in June and ASEAN Para Games for the first time, in December. We are working very hard to make sure we organise a good game for our friends from the region, but we also want to make sure that we leave behind a lasting legacy for the Games, for Singaporeans. This legacy must be one that we get more Singaporeans on to our journey of sports, participating in sports, supporting our Team Singapore athletes and ultimately, Live Better through Sport.
Last updated on 22 March 2019