And so it appears that despite all that talk about inclusiveness and eradicating the emphasis on results, we are, once again, back at square one.
Because what MINDEF’s reply to a certain talented footballer implies is that athletes in team sports will likely never be granted deferment regardless of how talented they are. Because it is simply impossible for one athlete to single-handedly carry his team to a medal-winning performance on the world stage.
Ask Lionel Messi. He knows.
Can a society be truly inclusive if the protocols in place encourage aspiring sportsmen to pick only individual sports that they can excel in despite their love for football or basketball or volleyball or curling or ice hockey?
Can a society be truly serious about doing away with the emphasis on grades if it tells aspiring sportsmen that they are ultimately still judged by their potential to deliver a medal?
Yes, I love football. No, I was never a sportsman. But I don’t need to be a professional athlete to know how the system messes with our lives.
I started playing football when I was around six years old. I liked playing with those 20-cent plastic balls that we’d take turns to buy from the mama shop. The larger leather balls frightened me – they were the size of my head. And getting hit by them hurt.
Back then, we’d determine our teams using the Apple-Orange method. Sometimes we used the Ti-Ti-Ti method. Sometimes the best players were made the captains and they picked their teammates. Nobody wanted to be picked last. It was just damn malu. The older boys supported the Serie A teams and we often divided ourselves into AC Milan and Inter Milan. Sometimes Parma was mentioned. I hadn’t heard of these teams, but I preferred AC Milan, because it shared the same initials as my name. It was only a few years later that I started watching the English Premier League, and that was when I fell in love with Liverpool.
Unlike today where most people play in caged AstroTurf or futsal arenas, we played football wherever there was a surface that was large and flat enough. The location didn’t really matter. We just wanted to play.
Sometimes we played at the void deck. The skinny rectangular pillars were great defenders. Sometimes it was the basketball court. It was more challenging to score here because the goal was really narrow. Sometimes it was on the slightly undulating field that was filled with weeds. I once made a bad tackle here and fractured my friend’s ankle. I’m not sure he ever forgave me for that.
I was never any good at the sport. But I loved it anyway. Because it transported me to a fantasy realm where I was the star of my own team. For a period of time, I loved pretending to be Steve McManaman. I tried to dribble like him, but rarely succeeded. But I continued trying anyway.
It’s somewhat amazing how I can still remember many of the goals I scored. My best ones were from volleys. I also remember the sliding tackles I’ve made. I once sent my friend flying because of it. But I got the ball. It was fair play. It felt really good.
When I was in secondary school, I was faced with the dilemma of choosing between trying out for the football team or the table tennis squad. Everyone told me to pick the latter because I stood a better chance of making the school team. Because being in the school team meant getting vital ECA points that could help lift my O Level results.
Because studies were more important than everything else.
I did what everyone told me to do. And you know what? I had a good time. I represented the school every year. I beamed with pride whenever I had to leave in the middle of a class for a tournament. I won medals. My teammates and I got praised by the principal in front of the entire school.
But table tennis was never my passion.
Sometimes I wonder if I could’ve become a better paddler if I did not spend most of my training sessions thinking of the football game that would take place after. Some of my teammates and other students would often gather to play football on the netball court after training. On days when we didn’t have enough players to form two teams, I’d head home and call my neighbours to ask if they were playing in evening. There were times when I was so desperate to play I’d simply take free-kicks on the grassy patch downstairs. By myself.
I started thinking about my future when I was 15. The first thing that came to mind wasn’t being a doctor, or a lawyer, or an astronaut, or a banker.
I wanted to be a professional footballer.
But just like before when I had to decide between football and table tennis, I chose pragmatism.
I continued to play football when I was studying in Sydney. I continued to play football when I returned to Singapore. I continued to play football after moving to Shanghai. I’ve never stopped trying to emulate my favourite players. I’ve never stopped performing sliding tackles.
Those calling for Ben Davis to “just suck it up and complete his two years in NS then carry on with his life” do not seem to fully comprehend the magnitude of the situation.
Yes, the system cannot simply accede to the wishes of every Tom, Dick and Harry who claims he wishes to “chase the dream”. But Ben Davis is no Tom, Dick or Harry.
He is, mind you, the first ever Singaporean to sign a professional contract with an English Premier League club.
Some are concerned that granting him deferment would lead to a “slippery slope” situation. But we can address this. Terrace the slope with terms and conditions. Determine what constitutes a worthy cause.
Yes, Fulham is no Real Madrid or Bayern Munich or Juventus. But it is still a football club that will in the upcoming season play in one of the top leagues in, not just Europe, but the world.
Yes, he might not make the first team and go up against superstars like Mo Salah, Sergio Aguero or Harry Kane, but he would nevertheless have the priceless opportunity to train with bigger, faster and more skillful foreign peers. Ben Davis is only 17. He is at a point in his life where his development is crucial to his sporting future. There is an element of urgency to this matter. He cannot wait two years.
He needs to do this now.
Besides, if PSC scholars can be granted deferment, why is an athlete, one who has clearly demonstrated his talent to play at the highest levels, not allowed to?
Singapore has nothing to lose from letting this young, talented boy pursue his dream. Sure, he could eventually become so darn good that he decides never to return or play for another country. But that would be a PR disaster on his part, not Singapore’s.
This was the chance for the powers that be to show that they truly mean every word they said about inclusiveness, about becoming a sporting nation, and about focusing on the learning journey instead of the result.
This was the chance for them to show that they do indeed care for the dreams and aspirations of their residents, that the people are indeed citizens and not merely employees of Singapore Inc.
Instead, they have gone with the safe option. The utterly pragmatic one. The one that would thwart one boy’s clearest chance of becoming a top footballer.
But what I find to be the most maddening of all is the barely subtle declaration to all Singaporeans that sometimes it is just pointless to pursue certain ambitions in life.
And it is incidents like these that insidiously convince people to shatter their dreams before they can even begin to chase them.
I know. Because I was one such person.
What we need is for every child lacing up his boots, or tuning his racket, or putting on his goggles, to head out into the arena believing that he is there for a purpose, that every drop of sweat and blood he sheds is meaningful and part of the arduous but attainable journey to achieving his dream of becoming a top athlete.
Because what is a life without purpose, without dreams, without hope?