12 August 2012

Sport and Music

A letter published in the Straits Times on Saturday claimed that “most Singaporeans rank academic success above sporting prowess”.  Although stated as an unequivocal fact, I suspect it is based on purely anecdotal evidence; it is one of those statements which assumes credibility simply by being made. 

Nevertheless I imagine many reading the letter (from a Christopher Ong) will think for a while and then agree.  Clearly Singapore lacks the manically jingoistic ecstatic response to native sporting success that is the norm in other countries (including the one across the Causeway).  Leaving a United Kingdom still basking in the white heat of improbable Olympic success, I was taken aback by the very low key response Singapore gave to its own Olympic medal winners.  On that evidence alone it seems that Mr Ong has a point.  As if to support this contention, Singapore’s Sunday Times ran a short piece on Singaporean medal hopes at the Olympics and justified one athlete’s failure to do anything worthwhile with the comment that she had been so busy with academic studies that she had only been able to train for six weeks, and quoted another athlete who had been eliminated at the first heat as being worried that it might affect his chances of being admitted to college.  When it comes to the print media, sport certainly seems to sit a little further down the apparent priorities of Singaporeans than academic prowess;  Sunday’s paper also led one of its multitudinous supplements with an article about the cost of ordinary university degrees against medical ones, while it turned to sport only several pages into the same supplement. 
Television, though, paints a very different picture. The obsession broadcasters the world over have for promoting sport would seem to imply that there is a vast appetite for it which, when set against the almost non-existent coverage of more erudite, academically-minded matters, points to a widespread preference for sport over learning.  But let’s not forget broadcasters prefer to dictate rather than reflect public tastes.  Who, apart from a gaggle of fat, beer-swilling blokes in a pub, knew anything about darts or snooker until colour television came along and decided it was an easy and cheap way of filling air-time?  This swamping the public with sports they neither understand nor appreciate has come to its head with the gargantuan gorge of the Olympic Games.  Suddenly everyone is deeply intrigued with coxless pairs, canoe slalom, dressage and that peculiar spectacle of two cyclists trying to stay on their machines at the slowest possible speed.  It was beautifully summed up by a cartoon in the Daily Telegraph in London earlier in the week.  It showed an elderly man, smoking a pipe and shouting at his television from the depth of a well-worn arm-chair; “Come on! Come on whoever you are doing whatever it is you are doing!”  An even better example came from the couple with whom I was staying in England.  The wife, loyally glued to the Olympic coverage on the BBC, let out a shriek of excitement as the commentator’s voice rose in a remarkable crescendo of excitement.  Apparently a British competitor had kept on the mat, or jumped off it, knocked the ball over the net, or over the line – whatever they were supposed to be doing in whatever sport it was.  From another part of the house the husband called out in a deeply resigned voice; “Shut up, please!  You’ve no idea what’s going on”. 

Likewise, do many Singaporeans have any idea what academic success is?  If we take it to mean the furtherance of knowledge in pursuit of the betterment of mankind, then I very much doubt that they prefer it to sport.  I have a strong suspicion that most regard academic success as a sport in itself – let’s pass lots of exams very quickly and ahead of our friends – and this is certainly the case with music, where Singaporeans seem obsessed with their children getting the top marks in as many different exams as they can.  The idea that music may have some value to society as a whole totally escapes them.

Sport and music differ in that the first encourages the individual to strive against his fellow man for the superficial entertainment of society, while the latter encourages the individual to collaborate in order to enrich the lives of the mass of humanity.  Both, of course, must take second place to true academic success, but simply to transfer the attitudes of those that follow sport into other fields does not indicate a preference for one against the other, merely a failure to understand the value of both.    

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