Alexis Hooi

Giving talent room to grow ... and win

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-06-05 08:34
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Last Sunday in Moscow, three Singaporean women did the unthinkable in the international table tennis arena - they beat the Chinese team to take home their country's first World Team Table Tennis Championships title.

The Chinese paddlers' failure to defend the team title marked a seismic shift in China's stranglehold on the sport. At the Beijing Olympics two years ago, China won the men's and women's team events as well as provided all three medalists for the singles matches. Its loss on Sunday ended a 17-year domination of the world title.

In the past few days, Singaporeans have been justifiably basking in the afterglow of their paddlers' win. The city-state's Feng Tianwei, Wang Yuegu and Sun Beibei have become national heroines.

But amid the national jubilation, an old criticism has surfaced over the nature of the Singaporeans' win - that all their three women champs are China-born paddlers and so is the chief coach.

Two years ago, in the run-up to the Beijing Games, I wrote about a move by the International Table Tennis Federation to restrict Chinese-born paddlers from playing for other countries at international events. The restriction was aimed at giving promising, local paddlers at junior levels a chance to make it to national teams, which seemed to select those leaving China instead.

Back then, China-born table tennis players and coaches already formed a formidable arm of many national teams such as those of Singapore and several European nations. They also featured high on the sport's major rankings.

The latest rumblings about the origins of the Singaporean women paddlers have once again brought a major concern of many Singapore citizens to the fore - the issue of foreign talent.

As a country with few natural resources, a significant portion of Singapore's 5-million-strong population is made up of foreigners. Authorities have made it a point to import talented professionals. The policy seems to be working as the country is regularly placed high in globalization and competitiveness rankings.

Similarly, China has realized the importance of attracting talent from abroad if it is to survive in an increasingly globalized world. The "Thousand Talents" program, a government project to attract talented professionals, was launched in 2008 and is aimed at top academics and entrepreneurs. More than 600 people have already signed up for the program, with many placed in leading positions at top research institutes, laboratories and enterprises. A few participants have also started their own businesses.

As such, any blatant opposition to overseas talent is doomed to fail. The latest victory by the Singaporean players prove that genuine talent transcends national and racial boundaries to raise standards.

Many say that Feng, Wang and Sun would probably not have made it to the top leagues if they had remained in their country of birth. Singapore gave them the opportunity and platform to develop their potential.

That is why any attempt to draw top talent will have to include constant efforts to retain it and provide it with the space to grow.

As with any endeavor that deals with human development, mechanisms will also have to be in place to identify potential effectively and to separate the wheat from the chaff regularly.

In the global race for success, anything less will be costly.