The Youth Olympics has become a popular hate object, and it’s mostly because of the Singapore government too.
This is nothing new. Many facets of life in Singapore, e.g. public transport, display this paradox. The engineering and project management is good, including the marshalling of human resources needed, but winning hearts and minds is an elusive holy grail.
As Lee Kuan Yew fades from the scene, and the generation that held him in unparalleled esteem pass on, the affective divide between the government (now under Lee Hsien Loong) and the people has only grown. The utter lack of charisma among the current ministers has hardly helped.
Citizens pounce on anything readily available, from inconvenience to administrative error or budget blow-outs to vent their frustrations or hiss their ridicule. At times, I have done likewise. The Youth Olympics is just the latest, and will not be the last.
The problem is that amidst disaffection, the government only knows one way of getting things done. Arrogance accompanies the entire process from beginning to end. Taking this event as an example:
1. Believing that only they know what’s best, there was no public consultation before the decision was taken to bid for the Youth Olympics.
2. Believing that only they themselves have the talent to organise something of this scale and anyway unable to trust people they do not control, they kept the organising in-house; the idea that a non-government body should handle the project seemed never to have occurred to them.
3. Knowing that citizens tend to be critical (which they should be), they did most of the planning and preparation in secret; there was next to no community engagement. This especially as efficiency is very highly rated, whereas public-buy-in is too fuzzy and iffy an issue, and entails frictional drag, the resolution of which calls for soft skills which they don’t have.
4. The ever-present economic reductionism seemed to have warped priorities; the project is less a sporting event than waging economic war by other means, so even as domestic apathy became palpable, the priority remained that of image-building to the world at large.
5. Yet, creating a good image requires popular domestic enthusiasm, and at the last minute, it must have hit them that there was little of it — how could it be otherwise, when the project had been conducted in secret with no community participation? Instinctively, high-handed measures were resorted to to ensure a good turn-out and a facade of excitement.
It never quite occurred to our government that their involvement may be toxic. However well they carry it off, the vocal ones among Singaporeans will pick on what they can as proxy for their dislike of the government. The undertow of disaffection drags projects like this into a vicious circle: The more enthusiasm has to be manufactured, the more authoritarian solutions have to be used, which further increases resistance. On another front, the more desperate the last-minute publicity campaigns, the more infantile they tend to be and the more they are ridiculed.
An organising body less intricately bound to the government and the People’s Action Party might have had a better chance of adopting good marketing and public relations skills, and would not have started off with the handicap of political repulsiveness. But such an idea would have been a non-starter even if there had been anyone bold enough to suggest it at the beginning.
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Yet, precisely because the Singapore government took charge of the show, it ran like clockwork.
A redundantly large number of scanners were in place to check bags before we were allowed to enter Bishan Sports Hall where the Finals of the Men’s Artistic Gymnastics were held (18 August 2010). The security checks were smooth-flowing with hardly any backing up, even though turn-out was good with the hall (capacity 1,900) about 90 percent full.
The competition started on time at 6 p.m. and ran so smoothly, it finished (at 8:30 p.m.) more than an hour earlier than the program indicated.
If you check the Singapore government at the door and see the event as sports, it’s actually enjoyable. You feel for the boys as they do well, or make mistakes. One of them missed his grip and fell off the horizontal bar midway through his routine, landing flat on his chest and stomach. Ouch! The sympathetic crowd applauded to encourage him to get back on the apparatus, and when he finally finished his routine, they cheered even more loudly.
There were 18 finalists, all from different countries, i.e. no country had more than one contestant. Some came from really small countries such as Armenia, Cyprus, Hungary and Cuba. The Chinese and Japanese gymnasts had the loudest spectators supporting them.
There were six rotations, with competitors having to go through floor exercises, vault, pommel horse, rings, parallel bars and the high horizontal bar.
About three in four of the spectators looked like they were Singaporeans — mostly schoolkids. It was difficult to tell if the rest were foreigners resident in Singapore, or came here specially to watch the Games.
And finally, here they are — the medallists:
- Gold: Kamoto Yuya, Japan
- Silver: Oleg Stepko, Ukraine
- Bronze: Zhu Xiaodong, China