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How Heroes Wither

Photo: Today and AFP

Joseph Schooling, the young man who won our first ever gold medal at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 has failed to defend his Olympic crown. Mr. Schooling finished last in the 100-meter butterfly heats and did not even qualify for the finals. Mr. Schooling has received a few nasty comments online but he’s also received words of encouragement from everybody from our president downwards.

While it may seem a little mean-spirited to talk about Mr. Schoolings failure, it’s worth analysing. Mr. Schooling’s life story provides plenty of guidelines for anyone in Singapore has aspirations beyond working in the conventional or government mandated paths. One of the better comments on Mr. Schooling’s recent ventures is the commentary written by the former sports correspondent for the Today Newspaper, Mr. Ian De Cotta. His commentary can be found at: [LINK]

What makes Mr. De Cotta’s commentary particularly interesting is that he mentions that he highlight’s the role of leaving Singapore in Mr. Schooling’s success and the role of returning to Singapore in his subsequent decline.

There is a funny parallel in Mr. Schooling’s story with the few who have made their name beyond Singapore’s shores. Writer Kevin Kwan (of Crazy Rich Asians Fame) and pianist Melvyn Tan, found space to develop their talents outside of Singapore. Both Singapore-born men are no longer Singaporean and thanks to our national service laws, neither is likely to ever set foot in Singapore. Both men continue to find success in their respective fields.

A more interesting and prominent example is Mr. Sim Woo Hong, founder and CEO of Creative Technologies, which was the sexy home-grown innovative technology company long before the government decided that Singapore needed to produce hot innovative technology companies. Like Mr. Schooling, Mr. Sim had to leave Singapore in order to get his technology off the ground. Like Mr. Schooling, Mr. Sim seems to have vanished off the radar upon coming back.

You can argue that we shouldn’t begrudge Mr. Schooling or Mr. Sim anything. In one moment, they’ve done more for the nation than many of us have in a lifetime. So, what, if Mr. Schooling never sets foot in a pool again, he’s won an Olympic Gold (which involved beating the world’s greatest swimmer ever), which only of few in the world can claim to have done (I’m happy I survive my nightly walks). Sure, Creative Zen has gone the way of Sony’s Betamax videos, but how many of us can claim to have invented and brought an “industry-disrupting” product to market?

Both Mr. Schooling and Mr. Sim succeeded in spite of Singapore. Hence, the glory of their success if for them to share with us as they see fit and the pain of their failures are theirs to learn from.

However, for the people who are now desperate to design eco-system to find the next sports champion and the next ground breaking start-up, the question remains, what is it about the Singapore system that brings world class people down. Singapore is a major financial centre, so there’s plenty of money floating around. We have “world-class” universities producing lots of clever people. So, it can’t be a lack of brain power. So, why is it that our “world-class” products have thus far been one hit wonders? In many cases, the taste of glory should be a spring board into better things but that hasn’t been the case for Mr. Schooling or Mr. Sim.

In his commentary, Mr. De Cotta alludes to the fact that Mr. Schooling stopped facing competition once he came back to Singapore. This is probably a major factor in the Singapore system. There’s plenty of competition climbing to the top but once you reach a certain level, you are effectively spared the need to compete or to be on your toes ever again.

How many world class companies has Singapore produced? There is only SIA, which is in an industry where being protected in the home market is pointless (I never knew domestic flights existed until I left Singapore) and since SIA has to compete is everyone else’s market as an outsider, it has to do things like evolve and innovate in order to stay competitive. Every other big home-grown company does not need to compete to survive. The banks, for example don’t need to fear competition from FinTech, because the regulators have made it such that FinTech can only exist to serve the banks.

In any other eco-system, everybody tries to challenge the champion. The champion needs to be on his or her toes all the time. Look at Apple, which had to compete with the PC makers, then the music industry and then the telco giants. Sure, Apple as a stock market capitalization larger than the GDP of all but the top six largest economies in the world, but it still faces intense competition. In the last two decades, Apple has given us the iPod, iMac, iPad, iPhone and iWatch. What has Creative Technologies brought to the world since Zen?

Hopefully, Mr. Schooling makes a comeback after the disappointment of the Tokyo Games. However, the powers that be need to ask how was it such that a talent had to leave Singapore to find success and then withered once he returned to the Singapore system? I believe that Mr. De Cotta got it right when he argued that the system needs to allow hungry competitors to constantly snap at the heels of the proverbial top dog. The question remains is whether the powers that be might actually choose to allow a situation that leads to constant innovation and dynamism even if it makes those at the top of their respective fields a little less comfortable.

 

Tang Li

*Although I’ve been based mainly in Singapore for nearly two decades, I’ve had the privilege of being able meet people who have crossed borders and cultures. I’ve befriended ministers and ambassadors and worked on projects involving a former head of state. Yet, at the same time, I’ve had the privilege of befriending migrant labourers and former convicts. All of them have a story to tell. All of them add to the fabric of life. I hope to express the stories that inspire us to create life as it should be.

 

 

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READER COMMENTS BELOW

14 Responses to “How Heroes Wither”

  • Gerrard:

    GIVE Him A Break lah. After all he was a Champion before. His parents paid the bulk of his expenses!
    Let Him Go NS, if he willing & keen, go OCS learn something there.
    Today’s training during Covid period, half of the trainees can’t even clear SOC.
    Mr Tang Li, if you have not served NS, don’t come TOC TC !
    Wake Up Your Idea and Knock It Down Twenty

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  • Oro:

    1 gold not enough?how many one wants?

    Can go jewelry shop buy.less stress.

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  • Smart Nation:

    I hope the current Minister for MCCY will stay around until the next Olympics to see the SGTeam “bounce back” and not be rotated out to another Ministry.

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  • ah chik:

    His swimming lessons till he achieved THE ONLY SG OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL(besides paralympics) were paid by his parents.
    At that time,they flown the Sg flag,not the Schooling Ancestral flag?

    Ministers were on hand at the airport?

    Btw,table-tennis never won a Gold at Olympics
    Yet,the players are lavished with good incomes and state-funded coaching?

    LEAVE JOE N HIS Parents alone.
    What they have done to do Sg proud,tbey have done so at own expense!
    His Gold medal price is a state award for any gold medalist,even you and i,if we are capable at all?

    Stop bothering him.
    Let him decide what he wants to do.

    I bet with anyone that Joe’s Olympic Gold win will be the FIRST AND LADT for Sg for a long time to come.
    Any takers?

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  • Geronimo:

    After Joseph Schooling won a Gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics, the aura of victory started to fade after a year! We do not hear of him for a long time until the recent Tokyo Olympics. Either the main media did not want to report any news for reasons best known to them or that they were too timid to report because words could have got out that he wasn’t really performing as expected. What is puzzling is why wasn’t any reports coming out on his preparation for the defence of his title and for that matter, his career development and what he intends to do after completing his education?

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  • MarBowling:

    ah chik:
    August 8, 2021 at 12:40 am (Quote)
    His swimming lessons till he achieved THE ONLY SG OLYMPIC GOLD MEDAL(besides paralympics) were paid by his parents.
    At that time,they flown the Sg flag,not the Schooling Ancestral flag?

    Ministers were on hand at the airport?

    Btw,table-tennis never won a Gold at Olympics
    Yet,the players are lavished with good incomes and state-funded coaching?

    LEAVE JOE N HIS Parents alone.
    What they have done to do Sg proud,tbey have done so at own expense!
    His Gold medal price is a state award for any gold medalist,even you and i,if we are capable at all?

    Stop bothering him.
    Let him decide what he wants to do.

    I bet with anyone that Joe’s Olympic Gold win will be the FIRST AND LADT for Sg for a long time to come.
    Any takers?

    Response: Well said. Hat off and salute Joe Schooling and his Parent.

    On a side note: we SinKaporean should be too DISAPPOINTED. We STILL have the HIGHEST PAY PEEM ON PLANET EARTH AND ALSO A BUNCH OF WORLD CLASS MINISTERS! DON’T THINK ANY COUNTRY, NOT EVEN USA, COULD ACHIEVE THESE FEAT FOR A LOONG LOONG TIME!

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  • MarBowling:

    Oops correction…,,, shouldn’t be too DISAPPOINTED…

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Tangfastic…ever heard of a boy name Hector Yee?…Cornell scholarship was given a post grad by Cornell but was compelled by stoopid G to return n perform NS…defaulted n stayed to do his NS…Today? A brilliant inventer in IT…but diam2 by G…big loss n big embarressment 2…I know the boy n his father a SIA pilot n trainer when his dad tutor [email protected] home while having a whisky with his Kaki

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Temusik Patriot:
    Tangfastic…ever heard of a boy name Hector Yee?…Cornell scholarship was given a post grad by Cornell but was compelled by stoopid G to return n perform NS…defaulted n stayed to do his NS…Today? A brilliant inventer in IT…but diam2 by G…big loss n big embarressment 2…I know the boy n his father a SIA pilot n trainer when his dad tutor [email protected] home while having a whisky with his Kaki

    Correction:Defaulted and stayed in US to do his post graduate scholsrship offered by Connel Uni…google Hector Yee n KNOW what we lost

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  • Expectation:

    The schooling result was expected. Need to Face Reality.Expect another miracle ?
    The eco system need to be here to support consistent high performance and the same level of high commitment from the athletic to be world champion.
    Look at Phelps and you will understand why he can perform consistently over a long period of time.
    No easy path.

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  • #06-195 Ah Lee Baba me 3:

    To the author:

    Do you find that you run/walk lot slower as you age? Even NS will say bye bye to regulars over 40. Oh my, 4 years old and they ask you to retire. Schooling won some years ago. Do you expect his body to be in the same condition as before?

    Truth as the Spore system is not nurturing of talent. Why the quick fix to buy foreign players?

    And why ex Sporeans can make it overseas? Eg Spore only have 3 uni. If you go abroad, many unis to choose from. I’ve had frens with dismal A level results. They go to an average uni abroad and do very well. Still can get good jobs here. Is the foreign U a better learning environment?

    Is there a lack of opportunities here? Or people won’t give you a break? Is the system too harsh, stifling, too demanding and unrealistic? If you are freah grad, they say you got no experience. If you are mid career, they say you have no relevant experience or way too experienced. And I’m wondering why empployers cannot find people.

    Employers sgould ask themselves. Would they work for the salaries they are offering? Ha!

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  • HK vs Singapore medal tally:

    HK 1-2-3 vs SG 0-0-0. How much money spent by SG in sports? Vs HK?

    Its a shame SG can’t event win a bronze.

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  • More Questions:

    Would you be “hungry” if you have half to a million dollar in your bank? Or if you receive $8.000 every month? How many hours of training in the pool/gym a day? A new graduate do not get paid that much and has to work a few years to reach that salary. Do all national athletes receive the same?

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  • WHO IS THE TRUE OLYMPIAN?:

    Hi everyone,

    Do you remember A SHAMELESS TANCHO OLD MAN who stood beside the Olympian and asked THE OLYMPIAN if he could see his medal?

    When the OLYMPIAN handed his GOLD medal to the SHAMELESS TANCHO OLD MAN,
    he happily, without permission, wore the Olympian’s Gold medal and gleefully posed for a picture.

    Truly SHAMELESS AND THICK SKINNED….TANCHO MAN!!!

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