Rajaratnam’s ideals show the way

Posted on July 31, 2011

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‘Regardless of race, language or religion’. The ideals of the late S. Rajaratnam, Singapore’s first Foreign Minister and chief ideologue of a Singaporean identity, live on in our national pledge. In 1977, Rajaratnam was the guest of honour when Singapore hosted Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand and Indonesia in the World Cup qualifiers. Some 34 years on, what would he make of our poly-ethnic, multiple origin national team?

Rajaratnam may have been born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, but a prouder son of Singapore there never was. One can easily imagine a wry smile on Raja’s face at the thought of a Lions side comprising players born in Singapore, Serbia, Bosnia, China and England bringing together Singaporeans, the way only a fighting football team can. But Rajaratnam always worried about Singapore fragmenting under the weight of established ethnic bonds. He would have been the first to recognise that the Foreign Sports Talent scheme has the potential to divide as well as unite.

This past week the Lions left Malaysia at the altar of the World Cup qualifiers, with all six of Singapore’s goals over two legs coming from foreign-born players. Few results taste sweeter to Singapore fans than one over Malaysia, but the presence of five foreign-born players in the Lions’ lineup has handed critics a convenient stick to beat the team with. And while the carping of foreign fans and media means nothing, divisions in the local football community over this issue are an altogether different affair.

There’s no question that the Football Association of Singapore’s use of the Foreign Sports Talent (FST) scheme has left many fans cold. Their objections are valid: where the scheme should be used as a fine surgical implement, the FAS wields it like a blunt instrument. The FST scheme has become the FAS’ tongkat ali – a crutch, a replacement for talent development.

It’s possible though to be opposed to the way the scheme is being used by vision-free administrators, and yet stand together with the likes of Aleksandar Duric, Mustafic Fahrudin and Shi Jiayi. Singapore fans may be a fickle lot, but they know when a team is fighting for them. That’s why they took the U16s and U15s to their hearts during the Youth Olympic Games last year and the Lion City Cup this year. That’s why they love the way Duric continues to battle against men nearly two decades younger than him for Singapore, why they loved the way Mustafic and Qiu Li celebrated with them at Jalan Besar, showing their unadulterated passion.

Obviously, not every foreign-born Lion showed the same heart when pulling on a Singapore jersey. Some were casual and unwilling to put their bodies on the line, others did their time and returned to their real homes. These guys give the FST scheme a whiff of the mercenary, and the FAS clearly deserves criticism for devaluing the national jersey by drafting them in. By a happy set of circumstances though, we are now left with five foreign-born Lions who will defend the flag wholeheartedly. They must be the template for which any future recruitment is done.

Aleksandar Duric

Aleksandar Duric

The fans know that Farra, Aleks, Jiayi, Daniel and Qiu Li show more heart in a Lions jersey than a number of Singapore-born players from recent memory (you know who they are, and if they’re honest with themselves, they know it too). For Rajaratnam, the location of your birth was a matter of chance. Your nationality on the other hand is an active choice. Simply put, a Singaporean is one who fights for Singapore.

Along these lines, the national jersey is not a birthright. It is a privilege for those who will defend our flag with honour and pride. In the words of Rajaratnam: “We believe in the virtue of hard work and that those who work harder in society should be given greater rewards…we believe that the world does not owe us a living and that we have to earn our keep.”

The foreign-born players should serve as role models and spur every Singaporean player on to greater heights. That’s why it was heartening to hear a member of the national U16 team speak of his admiration for Duric after the veteran’s two-goal show in the first leg against Malaysia. These kids don’t gripe about how foreign-born players block their path into the national team – they know that they can earn their place with heart and a willingness to keep working at their game. The FAS needs to do all they can to instill this attitude within the boys at the National Football Academy and maintain a culture of fair competition in the national set-up.

The national team sits at a juncture where the foreign-born players can do a lot to aid the development of the likes of Hariss Harun, Safuwan Baharudin and Khairul Nizam. Hariss and Safuwan are shaping up to be Singapore’s brightest young talents, and playing alongside Mustafic and Daniel Bennett respectively can only help them. Nizam, Singapore’s next number nine, can learn so much from Duric.

For the long term, the FAS bears the responsibility of using the Foreign Sports Talent scheme judiciously. The association should know that the fans will not accept foreign-born players who do not see Singapore as their home, or treat the national jersey as a route to material gains. Equally, they will not allow the FAS to neglect development of young players and use the FST scheme as a permanent stopgap.

In the meantime – ‘he’s only 41, he’s better than Zidane’. Play on Aleks, play on.

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