I've said it before & I will say it again: Being a Singaporean should be more than how much one is paid for one's services, no matter what those services may be - whether it be sporting ability, intelligence, scientific knowledge or artistic talent.
This fiasco has cheapened this country's citizenship. Obviously, these athletes were in it for the money & not for love of this country. Why the Singapore Athletics Association went along with it is beyond me.
Imports 'failed', but locals will take up baton: Athletics chief
HE ONCE memorably said that if medals were what Singapore was after, then he could simply "hire" athletes from China to deliver.
Under the country's Foreign Sports Talent Scheme, Mr Loh Lin Kok eventually recruited China-born shot put specialists Du Xianhui, Zhang Guirong and Dong Enxin.
The two women received their Singapore citizenship in October 2003, while Dong got his in May 2001.
Another shot putter, Luan Wei, and hammer thrower E Xiaoxu, touted as possible graduates of the scheme, were brought to Singapore in 1999.
But today, Mr Loh, who is president of the Singapore Athletic Association (SAA), brands his association's efforts a "failure".
Du and Zhang are back in China after disagreements over training and salary issues; Luan is currently embroiled in a court case with the SAA over unfair dismissal; E Xiaoxu dropped a similar action due to financial constraints; while Dong has failed to live up to his billing thus far.
"The foreign talent scheme has failed miserably," Mr Loh admitted in an interview with this newspaper.
"The characters were, quite simply, unreliable. Two have abandoned us and another two have charged us in court. As a medal prospect, Dong is unreliable, too.
"When I brought the China-born athletes over in 1998, I wanted the sport to be more professional, to have full-time athletes training professionally. But they've abused my generosity."
Does that mean the SAA has lost faith entirely in the foreign talent scheme, launched in the 1990s?
"No, we are not going to abandon it," said the SAA chief. "It's just that the previous failures have taught us a bitter lesson. From now on, we will have to tread even more cautiously and look at each case with a microscope before making any decision."
The closer scrutiny of foreign-born athletes augurs well for the local athletics fraternity, for the SAA can concentrate on grooming the home-grown talent coming through the Singapore Sports School and other institutions under the Ministry of Education.
Eight of the Republic's best youngsters qualified for July's World Youth Championships in Ostrava, the Czech Republic (see box), and Mr Loh is counting on this pool of juniors to kick-start a new era in track and field.
"There's a new generation taking us out of the rut. Right now, we might have to suffer a bit," he said. "But believe me, when it bears fruits, they are going to be bountiful and they are going to be beautiful fruits."
Even though the decision may mean that for the first time since 1989 Singapore would almost certainly not win a track and field gold medal at the South-east Asia Games in Korat, Thailand, from Dec 6 to 15, the SAA supremo remains upbeat for the future.
"We are in transition," he said. "Instead of relying on foreign talent, we are putting our faith in a bunch of really promising youngsters, all born in Singapore."
The athletics chief is also looking for a radical change in the local club scene to pump-prime the sport. From Wings Athletics Club to Swift, there are some 20 such organisations affiliated to the SAA – but with some pulling in different directions, with what Mr Loh describes as an "I don't trust you, you don't trust me" attitude.
He believes such rivalry is "unhealthy" and is looking to adopt the school-based American system, with schools here taking over the grooming of young athletes.
Said the 59-year-old lawyer: "Right now, the Singapore Sports School is leading the way towards an American tertiary format. Its manufacturing process is good.
"Of course, it's not easy to manage schoolwork with athletics, but times are different now -- it pays to be in sport these days … We have insisted that the athletes are not put under too much pressure at a young age. American athletes complete their degrees in eight years, and we can adopt that."
Mr Loh was SAA president from 1982 to 2004 before making way for his handpicked successor Tang Weng Fei, a businessman and former hurdler. But Mr Loh was never far from the scene and two years later, he was back in the hot seat when Mr Tang stepped down.
Said Mr Loh: "People may call me autocratic, but running an association of this nature needs tough measures.
"Some clubs seem to exist for the sake of bickering, others just want to chase that elusive title of 'best club'. But there's a bigger picture here. The duty of the athletes is to perform, not get involved with club politics."
Copyright ©2005 MediaCorp Press Ltd