Table tennis set for watershed election

The Straits Times by DAVID LEE,LIM SAY HENG

National sports agency Sport Singapore (SportSG) and the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) have urged the leadership of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) to improve its governance of the sport.

This follows concerns over the composition of the STTA's voting membership raised by Toh Kian Lam, who is challenging incumbent Ellen Lee for the presidency at its biennial election on Saturday.

It will be the first time in at least 10 years that the leadership of the sport will be contested.

In the lead-up to the election, former national youth player Toh has cast the spotlight on which clubs get to vote.

According to the 52-year-old, about two-thirds of the 41 clubs that have a vote each are "not actively involved" in local table tennis activities.

In an e-mail to The Straits Times, Toh also claimed that the STTA "is not sufficiently engaging the bona fide table tennis members who are active in the local scene and harnessing their strengths, to enable a ground-up sustainable support for the real development of the sport".

Over the last week, ST reached out to the 41 clubs - 27 of them grassroots organisations (GROs) - for comment about Toh's claims, by phone and e-mail, but with little success.

When ST asked SportSG about the matter and whether it had any guidelines with regard to the composition and activity level of voting members of national sports associations, a spokesman said that it is "aware of the circumstances surrounding the composition and constitution of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA)".

He added that SportSG and SNOC had "expressed our concerns to the management of the STTA and have asked them to take steps to address these with the aim of improving governance and proper stewardship of the development of the sport in Singapore".

STTA president Ellen Lee did not reply to a request for an interview and an STTA spokesman said that the association would issue a media statement only after the election.

But Lee did defend the make-up of its membership last month, telling ST that "there are many ways of promoting sports" when Toh's claims were posed to her following a press conference he held on Aug 11. Then, she noted that participating in competitions was just one component and that some of its full members also contributed in other areas such as event organisation and fund-raising.

Another issue that has been raised ahead of the polls is the steady decline of the nation's top paddlers' results.

At the recent Asian Games in Jakarta, they failed to return home with a women's team medal for the first time since 1998. It was the latest in a series of declining performances at all major events. At the Olympics, they won a silver in 2008, which faded to bronze in 2012, and then nothing in 2016.

From the high of beating China for the 2010 World Team Table Tennis Championship title, they were knocked out by Ukraine in the round of 16 this year.

The pattern was repeated at the SEA Games and Commonwealth Games, with the team winning fewer and fewer gold medals.

The plan to raise the standard of local-born paddlers to world-class standards via the employment of foreign talent has also failed to materialise as none have so far cracked and maintained a top-100 ranking.

Former STTA deputy president Edwin Lee, who is president of the Chinese Swimming Club (CSC), one of the STTA's members, lamented: "Together with (former STTA presidents) Lee Yiok Seng and Choo Wee Khiang, I helped to build up table tennis here, to the point where we had such a good working relationship with China that we could go there to train and spar.

"But that relationship was destroyed in recent years and it was not rebuilt, and we are going back to the dark ages now."

When asked if there were concerns about the sport's declining standards and whether this could potentially affect its level of funding, the SportSG spokesman would only say: "SportSG will be monitoring developments in the weeks ahead. We believe our investment in any sport in Singapore is only purposeful if it serves to bring communities together and inspire pride."

Besides the issues of the voter make-up and national team's declining standards, ST also asked clubs if there were other issues of concern.

Wah Lim Association's Chia Chong Boon highlighted the larger challenge of getting youth to play the sport full-time, while Hwa Chong Alumni Association's Mo Zhe Sern lamented the lack of communication between the STTA and his organisation.

Mo said in Mandarin: "Every year, we would hold our own competitions and activities, and the STTA used to contribute a bit in the form of prize money, as well as having their council members give away the prizes.

"Both have stopped in recent years and, while the prize money is a small issue, there has been a lack of interaction between the STTA and my club for at least five years."

Said former national player Chia, who is stepping down from the STTA management committee at the election: "Both teams want to groom local players, but parents still want their children to focus on studies first and go to the so-called good schools instead of training full-time.

"If you want to reach the world standards, you must train full-time, but parents don't want that."

Edwin Lee added: "It is heartbreaking to see that the sport is in shambles now, and the voting members should vote with their conscience this Saturday."