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Holistic support for national athletes to succeed in their respective sports

Response to parliamentary questions on how the Government supports athletes in their sporting development and rallies the corporate and public to get behind Team Singapore.

1. I thank the Members for their interest in how we support our Team Singapore athletes. With Mr Speaker’s permission, I would like to take both questions together.

Strategies to develop elite athletes

2. The Government has established a comprehensive approach to identify, nurture and develop Team Singapore athletes. There are two key overarching strategies in this approach.

a. The first is to provide broad-based, accessible programming and continually enhance sporting infrastructure to give every Singaporean the opportunity to pursue their sporting interests and hone and develop their skills.

b. The second is to provide holistic, but individualised and personalised support to talented athletes so that they can maximise their potential and represent Singapore at elite competitions like the Major Games.

3. Sir, please allow me to elaborate on these strategies.

Make sports accessible to all

4. To make sports accessible to all Singaporeans, the Government devotes significant resources on mass participation programmes and courses. This includes Sport Singapore (or SportSG)’s ActiveSG Academies and Clubs, which offer a more structured way for our Singaporeans to pursue their sporting interests and develop their skills.

5. MCCY and SportSG also work closely with the MOE schools, the People’s Association and the private sport academies to develop, to coordinate and also implement, across the board, sport programmes that allow young Singaporeans to experience sports and hone their skills and talents. This itself also helps to grow the base of available talent. The National Sports Associations (NSAs) also play a key role in providing exposure and training opportunities to young Singaporeans.

6. Our efforts extend beyond mass programming. It is also essential that there is quality infrastructure to enable Singaporeans to engage meaningfully in sports. Over the last three years, we have invested an average of almost $90 million each year to develop and operate stadiums, running tracks, sports halls, pools, and other venues that are accessible to the general public.

7. This strategy not only allows us to foster a strong and broad-based sporting culture in Singapore, but also provides opportunities to spot young talents who can be offered pathways to develop their skills, and potentially represent our country as national athletes, as Member Xie Yao Quan had asked about. 

Nurturing future champions in an athlete-centric way

8. Sir, over the years, the Government has developed the High-Performance Sport (or HPS) system which is designed to nurture each high performance athlete, maximising his or her own potential.  The HPS is administered by the Singapore Sport Institute (or SSI) and the National Youth Sport Institute (or NYSI).

9. The HPS system provides athletes with end-to-end support and development.

10. The system assists each athlete in a holistic and personalised way as I have mentioned. We are able to go down to specific physical attributes, strengths and potential of each individual athlete, as well as determine the demands and requirements of their own respective sport, to maximise performance outcomes.

11. Central to this approach is the development of a Daily Training Environment for each athlete, under which they are given a range of support and guidance in areas such as sport science and sport medicine, coaching, and counselling. All of this are part of the HPS system.

a. For example, the SSI and NYSI employ leading-edge technology to test, monitor and track performance, setting achievement milestones, relevant to the individual, to challenge each athlete to meet his or her full potential.

12. Let me illustrate how the HPS system has supported champion para-swimmer Yip Pin Xiu. Sir, I will use examples in the course of this answer, to explain some of the points I make, but these serve as illustrations because no two sports, and indeed, no two athletes are similar, and the HPS system is curated to bring the best out of each individual athlete.

a. In Pin Xiu’s case, sport biomechanists at the SSI record and analyse her swim timings and performances rigorously.

b. They also work closely with her coach and performance director to make fine adjustments and optimise her strokes.

c. Pin Xiu’s SSI sport physiologist performed regular tests to monitor her body conditions and provided feedback to her coach on calibrating the volume, frequency, and also intensity of her training.

d. At the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games, for instance, the SSI sport physiologist employed various forms of heat retention to regulate Pin Xiu’s body temperature while she was in the holding room waiting for her events, and this helped her to maximise her performance outcomes at the races.

e. Taken together, SSI’s support for Pin Xiu — and many other athletes — have helped boost their competition performances.

13. The HPS system supports all our elite athletes by recognising each athlete as a unique individual with specific gifts and abilities. The Government invests in the system, and continually enhances it so that our athletes will be supported and best developed in a way that addresses their own individual needs and maximises their potential. The focus is on enabling each athlete to be at their best, do their best, and succeed against the best, in their chosen sport.

Coaching is a critical component of the HPS system

14. Integral to this system is the provision of excellent coaching for our elite athletes, a point which Member Poh Li San asked about. The Government extends substantial grants to the NSAs to enable them to hire selected coaches to train our elite athletes. Additionally, SSI’s sport scientists, specialists and experts work closely with many of these coaches to better integrate them into each athlete’s Daily Training Environment. We endeavour to identify and hire the best coaches for our athletes – foreign or local, and sometimes a blend, so that our coaching environment can also benefit from foreign expertise.

a. For instance, one of Team Singapore’s fencing coaches is Joseph Davin Engert, who was a former top German national youth fencer and a two-time World Cup Junior champion. Together with our own local coach Henry Koh, who was a double bronze medallist at the 2003 SEA Games, they recently led two of our fencers, Amita Berthier and Kiria Tikanah, to their maiden Olympic Games in Tokyo.

b. There is also local coach Pang Qing Liang, who guided national para-archer Syahidah Alim to her first World Championship title in 2019, an unprecedented feat for a Singaporean. Syahidah has also maintained her top three world ranking to date. For his efforts, Qing Liang won a Singapore Disability Sports Award for best high-performance coach in 2020.

15. Sir, top coaches are in demand all over the world, and many talented expatriate coaches rarely remain with one team or in one country for long. Therefore, in hiring top foreign coaches for our athletes, we also want them to transfer their know-how, skills, and expertise to Singapore coaches, so that we can grow our pool of talented local coaches.

a. For example, Mulyo Handoyo had coached several international badminton champions including former Olympic Champion Taufik Hidayat as well as guided our very own Ronald Susilo to a career-high world ranking of sixth. While he will step down soon as our national badminton singles head coach after a successful four-year stint to spend more time with his family after being away for an extended period due to the Covid-19 pandemic, he would leave behind a mentoring legacy, which impacts not just our players, but also our own local coaching pool.

b. One of them is badminton coach Kelvin Ho. Kelvin himself is a former national athlete who won a bronze at the 2009 SEA Games before retiring from competition a year later. He has since honed his coaching skills, using his own experience as a top class shuttler, and also benefitting from the experience of coach Mulyo. Many members in this House would have been familiar with the role which Kelvin played in guiding Loh Kean Yew and other shuttlers to their recent successes on the court.

16. There are many notable local coaches like Qing Liang and Kelvin within the Team Singapore fraternity.

a. Recently, ex-national swimmer Gary Tan was named the national swimming coach, replacing Australian Stephan Widmer. Gary learnt his craft under Widmer and his predecessor, Sergio Lopez. I am confident that Gary will continue in the fine traditions of our Singapore swimming sporting culture.

Substantial Government funding for elite athletes

17. Sir, in total, the Government invests about $70 million in the HPS system each and every year. Over the last five years, these investments have paid for many of the initiatives and efforts I have just described. These include:

a. purchasing and operating new technological systems to support the SSI’s sport science facilities,

b. funding the cost of coaches and training programmes both locally and overseas,

c. providing world-class facilities to allow elite athletes to train in the most optimal conditions possible, and

d. undertaking research and development to offer new and innovative forms of support to our athletes.

18. Let me share two recent examples of this initiatives.

a. Several years ago, the SSI established an environmental chamber in which factors such as temperature, humidity, wind, and altitude can be closely controlled and calibrated. This chamber allows SSI’s sport scientists to monitor the effects of these variables on the performance of each athlete and calibrate their training accordingly. This in turn allows our athletes to acclimatise, and to get used to factors such as altitude and temperature, in their training environment for competitions.

b. Second example, when the Badminton World Federation announced that it would be switching to synthetic feathered shuttlecocks for environmental reasons, the SSI’s sport biomechanics team conducted an intensive comparative study of the flight and projection characteristics of the new shuttlecocks and how each of our individual Team Singapore badminton players perform with them. The study resulted in valuable customised guidance to each player on how he or she can modify his or her movements to adapt to the speed and flight of the new shuttlecocks.  These are some of the examples of the intrinsic support which we provide to Team Singapore athletes, through the HPS system.

19. In the coming years, we will continue to commit a high level of funding to the HPS system, because we believe this will enable us to continue enhancing the system, especially in areas that will maximise the individual performance of our elite athletes.

20. Sir, besides funding HPS at a broad infrastructural systems level, a significant portion of funding also goes to supporting our athletes directly. For example, there is the spexScholarship, which is offered to the most promising athletes to allow them to excel at the Major Games, and who can then serve as role models for young Singaporeans.

a. The scholarship provides a monthly stipend that allows athletes to take care of their daily expenses. There is also funding to help offset their coaching costs, participate in local and overseas training and competitions, purchase equipment, and obtain additional sport medicine and sport science support if they require it. There is, of course, a range in the amount of the financial support available, with our top athletes who can excel at the highest level of their sport supported at several thousand dollars per month.

b. The spexScholarship has been given to 168 able-bodied and para-athletes since its establishment in 2013. There are currently, at this point in time, 76 scholarship holders, from a diverse cross section of sports. Several of them have won medals at the Major Games and at the world championship level. A handful, like Pin Xiu and Kean Yew, are household names among Singaporeans.

The Sport Excellence (spex) framework

21. But Sir, the Government’s support for our elite athletes is not just a matter of dollars and cents. It is not just financial support, and not only about the technical or sport science support. It also extends to many other aspects of our athletes’ lives and enables them to compete in sports while excelling as students, as professionals, and as exemplary members of society. We recognise that each athlete will face different sets of challenges outside of the sporting arena in their own lives. 

22. The Sport Excellence (or spex) framework addresses these needs. It comprises several schemes to help athletes at various stages and across various facets of their lives, so that they can thrive in both sporting and non-sporting environments. Let me briefly describe some of these initiatives.

a. The spexEducation scheme was set up in 2013 to    help athletes meet the demands of juggling both sports and education. I think that is a question many athletes ask themselves, “How do we do both well at the same time?”. The scheme assists student-athletes to balance their sporting and academic pursuits by supporting them with school admissions, scholarships and scheduling their classes around their training sessions and competitions.

b. This scheme has been made possible through agreements between SportSG and 16 partner Institutions of Higher Learning, including the ITEs, polytechnics, NUS and SMU.

c. More than 500 student-athletes have benefited from this scheme.

d. One of them is national shooter Martina Veloso, who has won two Commonwealth Games gold medals, and a gold at the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in 2014. Martina, a graduate of Nanyang Polytechnic, is a beneficiary of the spexEducation scheme.

e. The polytechnic itself, is a strong supporter and partner of the scheme. It proactively assisted Martina in managing her class and examination schedules, granted her extensions for the submission of assignments, offered her a customised path of study that accommodated her own training, travel, and competition commitments.

23. There is also the spexBusiness network to help athletes who are stepping into the workforce secure jobs and pursue meaningful careers whilst at the same time balancing their own sporting commitments. The scheme also provides support to those who are retiring from active competition and training, in their transition to full-time work.

a. The network currently comprises more than 60 companies and organisations across more than 25 industries. These provide a wide array of career opportunities to Team Singapore athletes. They include Deloitte, Adidas, the Building and Construction Authority, and OCBC Bank, just to name a few.

b. Since 2013, 330 former and current athletes have been assisted through this scheme.

c. Take Sophie Soon, for example, our national para-swimmer. She is one such beneficiary. Sophie started her internship at Toyota Motors Asia Pacific, a spexBusiness partner, in 2019. The company supported Sophie’s rigorous preparations for the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games by offering her a flexible work schedule. Sophie has proven herself as both a top athlete and a model working professional. She finished fourth in her breaststroke final at the Games and was hired as a full-time staff with Toyota after she graduated from polytechnic.

d. Besides Sophie, other athletes who have benefited from the spexBusiness scheme include badminton player, Jaslyn Hooi, taekwondo exponent, Chelsea Sim, wushu exponent, Ho Lin Ying, and synchronised swimmer, Miya Yong. These programmes help them to train and balance their commitments of working professional life, allowing them to do both meaningfully. 

24. Next, the spex framework also offers direct monetary grants.

a. These include spexGLOW, or Grant for Loss of Wages, which offsets any lost wages sustained from missing work either through preparation or competition at the Major Games.

b. There is also spexTAG, or Training Assistance Grant, which helps to defrays athletes’ training costs.

c. In the last five years, some 4,000 athletes have used these grants to pursue their sporting ambitions.

Non-monetary forms of support

25. Apart from the spex schemes which I have just outlined, the SSI and NYSI commit time, effort and attention to promote the well-being of each athlete through his or her own sporting journey.

a. Under their Athlete Life Management framework, the SSI and NYSI focus on integrating sports performance with interventions to promote mental well-being and stress management.

b. Since 2020, Sport Singapore has also engaged athletes to identify possible symptoms of psychological and mental distress, including eating and sleeping disorders.

26. The HPS system recognises that athletic performance at the elite level can experience unpredictable peaks and troughs, and progression is rarely linear or predictable. The competitive sport environment is one that can exert immense stress and pressure on even the most resilient of our athletes.

27. So Mr Speaker, beyond just having the best training methods, employing cutting edge sport science and giving financial support, the one other key success factor for us has been our people talent, the team behind Team Singapore.

28. We have officers at the SSI and NYSI who are prepared to and often go beyond the call of duty. And they become friends, counsellors, mentors, and a source of personal support for our athletes. This personal, dedicated approach is a key feature of the care given to each athlete in the HPS system.

29. One excellent example of this is Muhammad Hidayat Osman, a strength and conditioning specialist at the NYSI.

a. Hidayat works with our young wrestlers on areas such as their strength, explosiveness and flexibility.

b. Hidayat is a former wrestler himself, and he noticed that there were limited wrestling opportunities for athletes to improve their skills. He therefore volunteered his own time to be a sparring partner for the young wrestlers so that they would have more avenues and opportunities to train.

c. He also embarked on a coaching course in wrestling, so that he can better understand the needs of wrestlers through the combined lenses of sport science, strength development and skills training, to do more, further and wider, to help the athletes under his care.

The Government supports athletes holistically

30. Sir, the Government’s support for our national athletes is therefore holistic and comprehensive, rendered in an all-round approach. We invest in both the system and our individual athletes.

31. Additionally, we directly support athletes from the moment they are identified as a budding talent, through their development and growth as an elite athlete and in many cases, even as they transition away from active competition.

Stakeholders play an important role

32. We also work with key stakeholders in the sporting ecosystem.  For instance, the National Sports Associations play a key role in this environment.

a. They not only help to identify future champions, but also support and coordinate their training and competition schedules.

b. 
Some actively seek sponsorships and endorsements to finance the career and aspirations of their athletes. Others provide performance-based incentives to them.

c. The Government enjoys a collaborative and constructive relationship with many of the associations and will continue to work with them, and support them, as they seek to achieve the best outcomes for our athletes.

33. There is also the Singapore Sports School (or SSP), which I would like to mention. This was established in 2004 to offer an integrated sports and academic programme for secondary and post-secondary students.

a. The Sports School offers its students comprehensive training in a variety of sports in an environment that also allows them to excel at their academic pursuits.

b. 
The school has produced Team Singapore Olympians like Kean Yew, sprinter Calvin Kang and swimmer Tao Li.

c. Earlier this month, the school announced its students’ results in last year’s ‘O’ and ‘N’ Level, and International Baccalaureate examinations. I was pleased to learn that the students did very well and congratulate the school for its fine work in nurturing student-athletes.  It shows that we have a system that can deliver outstanding athletes with a fine academic record as well.

34. An example of a sportsman who has benefited from this multi-stakeholder, multi-faceted approach to supporting and developing athletes is Izaac Quek. He is currently one of the world’s top-ranked youth table-tennis players.

a. Izaac was first identified by the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) at age seven when he was in STTA’s Bishan Zone Training Centre.

b. 
He then enrolled at the Sports School, and joined the national Junior Development Squad and Youth Training Squad, training under head coach Jing Junhong.

c. 
Today, Izaac competes regularly on the world stage while pursuing his Sports School studies at the same time, achieving excellent results in both of them.  


35. 
Apart from these organisations, corporations and fellow Singaporeans can also play a role in supporting our national athletes.

a. In 2017, the Government recognised this and launched the One Team Singapore Fund, which is a matching grant framework, to catalyse and encourage the support of corporations and members of the public for our national athletes.

b. 
Donations to the One Team Singapore Fund are directed towards supporting athletes in areas such as enhancing their training environment and increasing their own competition opportunities.

c. They benefit all athletes regardless of whether they win at competitions or not. The support is consistent, and the framework ensures this. This provides athletes with certainty that they will be given support to achieve their best, regardless of the outcomes, and not just have to rely on prize money.

d. 
To date, the Government has matched more than $15 million of donations from the public since 2017, of which, half that period, as members will know, is the COVID pandemic period. All of these fund go directly to benefit the sporting infrastructure and our athletes.

Sports inspire and unite people

 

36. Mr Speaker, as I conclude, we know that Singaporeans cheered and celebrated our athletes’ achievements as a community of enthusiastic spectators, passionate sports fans and proud Singaporeans.

37. There are very few things that can motivate, galvanise and inspire in the way sports can. Singaporeans were top of the podium on the world stage several times last year. Each occasion was an inspiration, bringing our community together, fostering such a deep sense of national pride. By the same token, even in defeat, as our football Lions have shown us at the recent Suzuki Cup, sport can also inspire. We all rallied behind our team, who fought hard, played with pride, and even though they lost that match, they won our hearts. This is what sports can do. Each moment of sporting success is special, uplifting and uniting us all.

38. The Government will therefore remain committed to sports in Singapore. We will

a. keep our sports facilities, programmes and activities open and accessible to every Singaporean to promote a strong sporting culture and develop a pipeline of strong sporting talent.

b. We will support every one of our national athletes with the assistance and resources they need to excel at the elite level and emerge as national champions and world beaters on the best arenas, and the world stages.

Last updated on 12 January 2022