Unlike the Soccer or Rugby Union World Cups, the Olympic Games have had a way of reflecting the geopolitical situation of the world. While countries like Brazil and New Zealand may rule in the World Cups, the countries that top the medal tables are the superpowers of the world. For many years, the Olympic Games was a duel between the USA and the USSR and then when the USSR vanished, the USA ruled the roost. Now, in Beijing, it's quite clear that China will take home the most gold medals, though the USA will probably come ahead in total medals won (which I am sure, the Americans in their insecurity will harp on about being the 'REAL' deal - though one notes they never made noise when they were ahead in gold medals).
Here in tinny little Singapore, we're just happy that our women's table tennis team managed to take home the silver medal. Despite all its achievements, Singapore has been rather lacking on the sporting field and I guess its wonderful that after 48-years of being without a medal, we finally have a medal on the world's most important sporting stage. Sure, history tends to remember only the winners, but for our tinny nation, being able to say we came second in the world at something is pretty pleasing.
You'd imagine that Singaporeans would be overjoyed at winning something on a stage where we've been rather lacklusture. You would imagine that the medal winning team would be greeted with the same fashion that the 1998 World Cup Winning French Soccer Team or the 2007 Iraqi Asian Cup winning team was.
But that's not been the case. Just read through the internet forums - instead of finding postings cheering on the efforts of the medal winning team, you'll find the grumbles about how we bought the China B team instead of the China A team. It makes one wonder if Singaporeans are just a grumpy lot who just need to find something to grumble about - even when we're doing something good?
I'm inclined to see things that way. Seriously, who cares if the team members were born in Mainland China rather than Singapore? So what if they prefer to speak Mandarin instead of English - they're no different from a good 70 plus percent of the Singapore population. Can't we just concentrate on the fact that we finally won something on the world stage? They may have been born in Mainland China but it was our flag that got raised in front of the world's media and for once this had nothing to do with a visiting politician.
But to dismiss the grumblings about the team as merely the rantings of ungreatful brats would be wrong too. I'm inclined to think that the lack of joy at winning a medal after 48-years is a sign that there a gulf of communication between the governed and the governing classes. You can almost sense the frustration of the Prime Minister of this gulf in communication between the classes in his National Day Rally speech. The government, through the media, reels of a range of statistics to show how much its done for the citizens and how good life is for the citizens. In return the citizens go to the internet and grumble about the unfairness of life in Singapore.
I think the reality is somewhere in between. Life is exceedingly good and comfortable in Singapore but the system is highly unfair against individual Singaporeans. You can do pretty much what you want here but if you even disagree with the apparatus of power, you get crushed. When some people earn higher salaries its called attracting talent but when others (namely the poor) get higher wages, it's a potential to stroke inflation which harms the poor. On the other hand, the government is not mean in all its actions. When the economy is doing well, we get money as part of the budget surplus - a case of sharing in the good times. When the economy is doing badly, we get money that is meant to help us out. Government subsidies do exist but not to the extent of disincentivising work.
No where is this dichotomy clearer than in the issue of foreign talent. Singapore needs forigners but it also loaths them. Just look at the table tennis team. Local Singaporeans don't have certain skills to take the jobs being produced by its economy just as we don't have atheletic talent to compete on the world stage. So what do we do .... we import the talent from the rest of the world. It's not a bad idea - every Singaporean was a forigner at one time or another. Not only do 'forign talents' bring in skills and capital but even poor and uneducated forigners provide an energy, a hunger that the local population lacks. Look at Hong Kong, the city ticks over because you get a free flow of educated professionals with capital but you also get plenty of hungry people from the Mainland to keep the local population on its toes.
Unfortunately, you don't get a free flow of people in Singapore. I suppose you get the benefits of 'stability,' no clashes between bitter locals and disgruntled forigners. However, Singapore's obsession with 'stability' has killed the ability of its local borns to think beyond its own square borders and people who don't fit into the square borders are resented. Look at the way Singaporeans resent the 'illegal' curry puff sellers from Batam - These guys are obviously not a threat to the social system but you wouldn't realise that reading some of the letters to the media - "How dare these uneducated people find a way to make a living....they didn't go to school like us...they're supposed to starve and die..."
Can local Singaporeans be world class atheletes, musicians, artist etc? Why haven't we developed the talent.....Well to be fair, these vocations were never seen as valuable until recently. They were more for airy fairy liberals from private property land. It's only recently where the government has decided that such people had value in society. Before the 1990s, you could only succeed in these vocations if you went overseas. Fandhi Ahmad, often hailed as a 'millionaire soccer player,' was only such because he played in Holland. Other than that, no self-respecting parent would allow their kids to pursue such 'passions' - "Ai Yeo, you want to play football like Malay Boy ah," (I can imagine your typical middle class Chinese mother making these remarks).
So, we got to import the talent from elsewhere, while we try to develop it domestically. Unfortunately, developing talent takes patience and persistence - not exactly virtues in a civil service mashinary. So, its easier to buy it. You need table tennis players - go to China. You need people who can write code for the finance industry - go to India. You want beggars with no money but can tell stories - go to the USA or Australia (I think they're a bit cheaper).
To a certain extent, this works brilliantly. Look at our table tennis stars - thanks to them, we got our medal. But are we going all out to get forign talent without sharing things with the local population. You talk to enough Singaporeans, and you'll find that plenty of them suspect that, if they don't work for the government, will naturally be subordinate to some White Man (easy to swallow) or these days, an Indian or Chinese (nearly impossible to swallow).
Sure, some of our 'forign talents' may actually have talent. But if you look at the way the Singapore government goes out to woo forign talent - you'll understand why a locally born Singaporean who has served national service is getting the message - "Me Clever, You Stupid, You better sacrifice for me clever people." May not be true but this is the impression given. Given the disregard that Singaporeans have for people with spines....they're quite delighted to shrink into a corner and beg for more punishment.
Compare that to Hong Kong. There are plenty of expatriate workers but I don't get the sense that they're resented the way they are in Singapore. I suspect, its because the locals have a better understanding of why the 'foreign talents' are necessary. I also suspect that its easier for local business people to hire talent and integrate them into the culture than it is for a government. Li Ka Shing hires people from different races out of his own pocket - it's assumed he really takes care that they're good and have something the locals don't have. By contrast, when Lee Kuan Yew hires, it's assumed he's doing it at the tax payers expense - does he really care if he gets it right or does he want people he can control more easily? Clearly, this is something that Singapore's Mr Lee needs to explain to the public.