Rivary and Respect

It’s now official, tennis fans around the world will no longer have the chance to watch Roger Federer play again. The Swiss Maestro, who was the most dominant player on the men’s circuit for the better part of the 2000s and 2010s, played his last match and retired from the game at the ripe old age of 41.

Mr. Federer has been called “Greatest of All Time,” even though his record hall of 20-Grand Slam wins has been surpassed by his two biggest rivals, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Given that both men are considerably younger, its likely that they will surpass more of Mr. Federer’s records. However, on the night of his last match, the world got to see why Mr. Federer is considered the “Greatest Ever” tennis player – the obvious outpouring of emotion from everyone of his rivals at the thought of his exit showed the world that Mr. Federer had transcended his sport. Like Mohammad Ali in boxing, Mr. Federer had become bigger than the sport. A list of tributes to Mr. Federer can be found in the following link.

Furthermore, the one person who seemed particularly distressed by Mr. Federer’s retirement, was Rafael Nadal, possibly Mr. Federer’s greatest rival:

What makes all these scenes at the retirement of a 41-year-old tennis player so powerful is the fact that they are a reminder that basic human decency and friendship can exist in the heart of intense competition and rivalry and respect are not mutually exclusive.

This message has become particularly important in a day and age where you have to be in one camp or another. The most famous example comes from US politics, where you had former President, George W Bush talking about “You are with us or against us.” This was then brought to an extreme under former President Trump, where you were either foaming in the mouth or drooling at the very thought of his existence.

As with any global trend, America merely provides the most visible examples. It’s not the only place where this happens. Singapore, has become increasingly like this, especially when it comes to politics and the expression of politics – the media. Singapore used to be very simple. There was one political party, expressing one political view, expressed through one newspaper. However, in recent years, you’ve seen the proliferation of political parties and the growth of “online” media. Unfortunately, instead of having a proliferation of views, you get two. As PN Balji, former editorial director of MediaCorp (and for the record, my former boss at BANG PR and main contractor on the Susan Lim and Ku De Ta litigation cases), says, “According to the mainstream media, everything the government does is right and according to the Online media, everything the government does is wrong.”

I take my own experiences as an example. I have been “branded” as “anti-establishment” by a few senior corporate figures but at the same time I also get accused of being a “foreign talent,” by some of the online crowd.

The reality is that I agree with certain people on certain occasions and I disagree with them on others. For example, I believe Donald Trump’s handling of Covid-19 bordered on criminal incompetence but I give him credit for “operation warp-speed,” which got the vaccine out in record time.

If I were to move closer to home, my main issue with the Singapore system is that it’s branded itself as perfect and any criticism is considered an act of blasphemy and this attitude does get mirrored by the other side.

I actually think Singapore is on the whole, fairly well run. However, it is not utopia and active citizenry has to voice that fact out on a regular enough basis. It is essentially the one thing that an ordinary person can do to make sure the guys in power don’t develop “God Syndrome.” One also needs to make the point that the price of being in power and being paid by the public (in Singapore, its lavish pay), is that you’re going to bear the brunt of public criticism. We don’t criticize the opposition the way we criticize the government is because the opposition isn’t in power and not responsible for getting things done.

Sure, extremism sells. Who wants to read a longish piece that gives you both sides when you can spend ten second on a piece that gets you drooling or foaming? However, the problem with living in a “cult” is that you end up living in an enclosed world where you don’t get exposed to “best practices,” and you end up stagnating. As an ethnic Chinese, I am well aware of a history where China assumed it was the best at everything and ended up being humiliated in every sense of the world by countries it thumbed its nose at.

Rivalries and competition should bring out the best in parties. Look at the car market, where the Detroit Big Three had to make better cars that were more fuel efficient because the Japanese manufacturers had entered the market. The existence of a “rival” that you need to respect makes you look at they may be doing right and change what you may doing wrong.

In boxing, we had Ali-vs-Frazier. Brutal fights and for a while they didn’t get along but, in the end, they resected each other and understood the other was essential for their greatness. Top level male tennis players before Mr. Federer either won Wimbledon or the French open. When Matts Wilander won three grand slams in 1988, it was the biggest fete since Jimmy Connors in 1974. Then came Mr. Federer who proved that you could win on grass and clay and suddenly you had Mr. Nadal and Djokovic doing the same.

Mr. Federer will be missed from tennis. As he bows out of the public stage, we should also miss him for reminding us that greatness is not a solo act but an act of inspiration for others to aspire to greatness. He was the living example that you could have rivals who respected you and that life is not an extreme of this cult or that. Mr. Federer symbolized the better things that seem to have vanished from the modern world.


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.




6 Responses to “Rivary and Respect”

  • Temusik Patriot:

    Unlike Ali or Cassius…The Fedral Express has made his last Delivery all vehicles Air & Land GROUNDED!

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  • xoxo:

    Who cares?!
    Sgs have more important national issues.
    This is a waste of time!

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    If you think of yourself as belonging to the elite group, you are already separated from the citizens. In Singapore, to justify a $3m. salary, GCT successfully sold the tale to citizens that those from Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard were the cream of the crop and he needed $3m to pay each Minister to get the best into the cabinet. Almost none of these scholars had worked in the private sector or had working experience. The “super” team has been renewed by new members and the DNA of the PAP is that they are the very Best. The lie has been continuously repeated by the MSM for over 5 decades. Now it has become the “truth”. So how can the PAP accept criticism from lesser beings?

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  • Larry:

    I’ve got no beef with this writer and actually agree with a lot of what he says. My only one observation about him is he consistently regales in long and winding articles. He has no capacity to cut to the chase as he believes in more is better. In other words, he doesn’t understand the genius of simplicity and brevity. Cheers

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Tangfastic…try to STICK to subjects more for locals than to show your prowesses on world affair

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  • Hollow:

    Don’t be angry Mr writer.
    don’t understand what you write(most time)! No hard feelings.

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