Building a bridge from Sports School to university
MCCY Minister Tong advocating pathways where student-athletes can earn degree as they train
While many elite athletes across the world prioritise sport over studies to reach the highest echelons of their chosen fields, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) Edwin Tong believes Singapore must accept the pragmatic nature of its citizens and minimise the trade-off between sport and education.
He said that for the nation to achieve sporting success, parents of student-athletes must be convinced that higher education and sporting excellence can coexist.
Mr Tong mused that one way of facilitating this could be by reviewing the Singapore Sports School (SSP) model and calibrating it so that the pathway extends to universities, both locally and overseas.
He told The New Paper: "In sporting development for young talent, parents play a very big part. They must therefore see the value of having their children in sports.
"At the same time, we are also a very practical people. If I'm a Singaporean parent, with our first-class education system, the opportunity cost of being a professional sportsman is possibly a university degree or higher learning which could give my child a baseline advantage in life.
"So it's a big decision for many parents and we have to take this into account when considering how to approach the development of young talent in sports.
"How do we support the child through the rigours of sports, while continuing to give them a baseline education at the same time."
The MCCY Minister, who was formerly the vice-president of the Football Association of Singapore from 2013 to last year, opined that this could potentially be achieved with "a model of a Sports School beyond 18, going into university".
He suggested this could come in the form of an "extended programme" or "tie-ups with universities in the United States" with renowned sporting programmes.
Mr Tong said: "Can we, as a country, possibly do something to organise all this, to put it together, in a way which is special?"
He cited the examples of Olympic-bound swimmers Joseph Schooling, 25, and Quah Zheng Wen, 24.
Olympic champion Schooling graduated from the University of Texas, Austin while Quah is currently a student at the University of California, Berkeley.
Both universities compete in Division 1 of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in swimming. Schooling once described NCAA meets as more intense than the Olympics.
Schooling trained under former US men's head coach Eddie Reese, while Quah's coach David Durden will lead the US men's team at the Tokyo Games.
Both, however, are not SSP alumni, having previously studied at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent). Schooling relocated to the US at 13 to train and study, while Quah moved over when he was 20.
SSP does not currently have any tie-ups with any local or foreign universities.
Students typically enter the school at secondary level and can choose to take the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or opt for a route which leads them to a Diploma in Business Studies from Ngee Ann Polytechnic or Diploma in Business from Republic Polytechnic.
On how prospective tie-ups with US universities could work, Mr Tong said: "You train full-time, you compete, travel, but you also have a basic degree.
"One which would be good enough to see you through perhaps a sports career, say nutrition, physiotherapy, sport science, (sports management and administration).
"So we have to think in terms of how we can develop something that is coherent with our own needs and the options which a young developing sportsman or woman have."
Despite the difficulties in persuading Singaporean parents to support their children's sporting pursuits and issues such as the disruptive impact of national service on male athletes, Mr Tong is adamant that the nation can still produce top-class athletes.
He said: "In some sports, it is possible. We have done well in swimming. Some other sports like badminton, table tennis, bowling - we have had a good track record.
"Whilst it is not easy, I believe the basic infrastructure for sporting success is present in our system, to allow us to make that a reality.
"And we also need the different stakeholders to come together, it's not just about what Government can do, what funding we can put in, whether we can put more facilities there...
"If you ask me whether we have the basic ingredients there, I think we do. It's a question of organising it, gathering it, curating it, pushing it."