Sport in Singapore still struggles with racial diversity

Why can't there be more non-Chinese swimmers and non-Malay footballers?

Dexter Lin

Published: 11 February 2019, 12:11 AM

Sports have always been a unifier across races, even in countries where racial relations are tense.

From France’s diverse World Cup squad to New Zealand’s All Blacks, sports provide the common ground where people of different backgrounds can strive together for a greater goal.

However, it seems that in Singapore, certain sports tend to be dominated by a single race.

Even at a glance, it is obvious. 19 of the 23-man squad for the Singapore national football team are ethnic Malays, and all but one (Joseph Schooling) of the 25 swimmers that represented Singapore at the 2018 Asian games are Chinese.

Why do some sports look like they are divided along racial lines and what are some ways in which this issue is being addressed?

The racial heritage of certain sports in Singapore

Some of today’s racial imbalance in certain sports can be traced back to colonial times, when Asian immigrants flooding into Singapore were unable to join the clubs set up by the British.

The first swimming club open to Asians in Singapore was the Chinese Swimming Club. Prior to 1952, only Caucasians could join Singapore Swimming Club. Naturally, this could have led to what we are seeing now – a stronger swimming tradition among Chinese than other races.

Singapore swimming has been heralded as a bright spot in our country’s sporting history – but it is mostly dominated by Chinese swimmers. PHOTO CREDIT: NUR DIYANA JOHAH

Likewise, Malays formed the Malay Football Club in 1910 to foster stronger bonds within their community.

Izz Haziq bin Izan, 19, who played for Geylang International FC’s youth squad in 2013 and 2016, felt one reason for Malay domination in football is because the sport is part of Malay culture.

He said: “My father and uncles played and watched football. It’s only natural that I followed in their footsteps.

“It’s a Singaporean Malay’s primary sport, while Chinese players usually play basketball or other sports too. So we direct a lot of energy to playing just football.”

“The love of the sport is more important than any language or cultural barrier,” says Izz, who once played for the St. Stephen’s Primary school team where he was one of the few Malays. PHOTO CREDIT: IZZ HAZIQ BIN IZAN

Language and culture can become a barrier to entry

Racial domination in a sport can prevent someone of another race from joining or fitting in.

Adrian Teh, 18, a Eurasian of Dutch and Chinese descent who used to swim for the team based at Keppel Club, struggled to bond with his teammates, all of whom were Chinese.

He said: “I always felt a little out of place. They had their own clique and I was the odd one out.”

“Being half-white meant I was ‘Joseph Schooling’ to my opponents. I basically went around with a target on my back. Everyone was out to beat ‘Joseph Schooling’,” said Adrian, who was often the only Eurasian at competitions. PHOTO CREDIT: ADRIAN TEH

Basketballer Lavin Raj, 18, who dons the red and white for Singapore on the hardwood floor, said: “It’s a cycle. Indians and Malays don’t want to join because they think it’s a Chinese sport, and it’s a Chinese sport because Indians and Malays don’t want to join.”

The 2m tall center, dubbed the ‘Singapore Shaq’ due to his height and physique, towers over his teammates and has participated in competitions like the SEA Games and the FIBA 2021 Asian Cup qualifiers.

He stands out for another reason too: he is the only Indian on the national basketball roster.

Lavin Raj picked up basketball after his Primary 3 physical education teacher noticed his height. PHOTO CREDIT: ONVISA THEWPHAINGARM

But Lavin, who has been playing since he was in Primary 3, has gelled well with his Chinese teammates.

“I understand Chinese now,” he chuckled, remembering one time he had to translate Chinese instructions into English for a new Malay teammate as everyone spoke mostly in Mandarin.

“If I see another Indian guy coming up to the national team, I will feel proud,” said Lavin before we parted.

Track and field bucks the trend 

Thankfully, this trend does not extend across all sports. Track and field has a diverse set of sprinters representing the nation, from Khairyll Amri and Muhd Syazani Abdul Wahid to Timothee Yap and Dinesh Hulbert.

This diversity extends even to the school teams – Tia Rozario, Diane Pragasam, Palada Tang and Ismi Zakiah of Singapore Sports School broke the girl’s A division 4×100 metre relay race record last year.

Hariz Darajiit (front centre) edged out his opponents Rodney Manega (far left), of African descent, and Daryl Liew (third from right), an ethnic Chinese, to win the gold at the 2017 POL-ITE competition. PHOTO CREDIT: JOELLE CHAN MING TONG

Syazani, 20, feels that individuality may be one of the reasons track and field is so diverse, compared to team sports.

He said: “If you’re fast, you’re fast. Track is pure athleticism and technique so it really doesn’t matter what race you are, which culture you’re from, or what language you speak.”

Syazani (right) has represented Singapore at the national level. PHOTO CREDIT: JOELLE CHAN MING TONG

There are also efforts to make sports traditionally associated with one race more inclusive to a larger demographic.

For example, sport academies are trying to get coaches who can speak English to address the language barriers faced by minority races in the sport.

Izz, who also coaches at L’s Football Academy, recalled: “I remember being tested for my English when I applied to be a coach. I think this is a good thing.”

The dream of integrating races through sports is still alive 

The silver lining is seen in some schools reporting better racial mixing in sports. With schools and coaches admitting that many sports are still dominated by a single race, we’ve taken the first steps toward addressing the issue.

But the journey is far from over. Instead of just hoping for more Lavin Rajs and Adrian Tehs, we need to actively work towards making the sporting community in Singapore more inclusive, empowering more youths to pursue their sports dreams regardless of race.

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