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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Singapore’s Olympics: bought and paid for

Singapore’s Olympics: bought and paid for

If you remember Cyndi Lauper or Daryl Hannah or Mary Lou Retton, then you’ll probably also remember Zola Budd.

She was the barefooted South African distance runner who broke world records in 1984 and then was secretly offered £100,000 by The Daily Mail to move to the United Kingdom.

The British authorities co-conspired in this skulduggery because they wanted the teenager to run in that summer’s Los Angeles Olympic Games and win a gold medal for them.

So they fast-tracked her immigration entry, and unlike most poor sods who have to wait years, she was given British citizenship in only 17 days.

Promptly included in the Olympic squad, she jetted off to LA where, in an infamous incident, she and the American world champion, Mary Decker, collided in the 3,000-metres final and Decker fell to the ground.

Budd was so mortified at causing her idol to crash out of the race that she deliberately slowed down and finished out of the medals.

Most Brits and many others thought it was poetic justice and there were teeth-gnashing stories in the press lambasting the government over this sordid affair.

Curiously, a very similar sequence of events has happened over the past fortnight in relation to the Chinese table tennis players who have just won medals for Singapore at the London Olympics.

The three young women, Feng Tianwei, Li Jiawei and Wang Yuegu, were all born in China and were spotted by Singaporean scouts and enticed to emigrate under the country’s Foreign Sports Talent Scheme.

Feng, the most gifted of the trio, was persuaded to move in March 2007, and in an eerie echo of Budd, was chosen to represent Singapore only three months later.

Then, along with her China-born compatriots Li and Wang, who had also been given fast-track Singapore citizenship, she won silver in the team event at the 2008 Olympics.

Last week, the trio had to settle for bronze in the same event, while Feng also won bronze in the women’s singles – the first individual table tennis medal any “Singaporean” has ever won.

All well and good, except that a media storm has erupted in the island state, not only because the girls became citizens virtually overnight, but because of all the dosh they were paid.

You see, a second scheme, the Multi-Million Dollar Awards Programme, was used to lure them to give up their own nationality and become instant mock Singaporeans.

Under this program, if they won an individual Olympic gold medal they’d get one million Singapore dollars (US$803,665). A silver would get them half a million and a bronze S$250,000; a team event bronze gets S$375,000.

Thus far, 25-year-old Feng’s payout from the Singapore government amounts to S$625,000 – plus, of course, a new passport.

But hey, what’s the problem? The girl worked hard and deserves every cent she’s reaped. So why are all these Singaporean couch potatoes bitching?

Well, among other things, they’re angry that Feng was Singapore’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in London – surely, they lament, a native-born citizen could have been given that honour.

It is pathetic and, frankly, racist.

If they dislike the government’s policy of paying talented foreigners, nearly all Chinese, to become Singaporeans, then they know what to do at the next election. Meanwhile, shut up.

But no, not only do they whine that the lucre-induced influx of foreign athletic opportunists carries a sour Budd-like taste, but they also claim it stunts the development of native-born talent.

They are probably right, but this is cold Singapore efficiency. Why spend years grooming local athletes when you can let another country do all the work, then buy them over at their peak?

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this month: “We welcome foreigners so they can strengthen our team and we can reduce our constraints.”

It’s clinical, dispassionate, and it brilliantly self-mocks the nauseating and over-hyped nationalistic fervour that plagues many countries.

Contact our regional insider Roger at



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