Uniting Singapore: Joseph Schooling’s gold medal effort is breaking down barriers in the city state

The 21-year-old’s victory in the 100 metres butterfly has fostered unity, with people even calling for a review of strict national service laws

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 August, 2016, 7:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 15 August, 2016, 5:02am

Singapore’s multiracial society can at times be overly complicated. Joseph Isaac Schooling has helped to simplify it with one incredible swim.

The 21-year-old old claimed the island nation’s first-ever Olympic gold medal by not only winning the men’s 100 metres butterfly in Rio but also by beating one of the greatest Olympians of all time, American Michael Phelps, and setting an Olympic record of 50.39 seconds.

WATCH: Schooling wins Singapore's first-ever Olympic gold medal

Schooling, who grew up idolising Phelps, is classed as a Eurasian in Singapore – among the smallest ethnic groups in a population of around six million in which Chinese make up the majority followed by indigenous Malays and Indians.

Race is a sensitive issue in Singapore and in everyday life the topic is mostly relegated to that of one that should not be discussed, except at times when it fosters national unity. And Schooling’s Olympian effort is the epitome of those times.

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Such is the national fervour generated by his victory that the Singapore government is being urged to rethink its strict national service laws, for which Schooling was allowed deferment in order to prepare for the Rio Games. Singaporeans are also asking for another deferment so he can defend his title in Tokyo.

“Joseph Schooling’s race was one that had practically the whole of Singapore rooting for him, and celebrating once he clinched the gold,” said Gerard Wong, sports editor of Singapore’s Today newspaper.

Singapore’s Joseph Schooling stuns great Michael Phelps to win Lion City’s first ever gold

“People began writing to our political leaders to ask for the 21-year-old to be permanently deferred from compulsory national military service/conscription so that he can continue training uninterrupted for the next few years.

“Many even expressed the sentiment that Schooling has already done his national service by winning the gold and uniting the nation.

“It could see the government becoming more willing to allow more promising young talent to defer their compulsory national service obligations so that they can realise their full sporting potential.”

Singapore laws call for all capable men to undergo two and-a-half years of national service after they complete high school.

Schooling’s power to unite is abundantly more effective than Singapore’s silver medal won in the women’s table tennis team event in 2008, the bronze in the same event in 2012 and Feng Tianwei’s singles bronze, also in London.

First, Schooling has won gold in a “pure” Olympic sport in one of its main disciplines and beat a major name in Phelps. Second – and more significantly – Schooling is Singapore through and through.

“The achievements of the women’s table tennis team over the past two Olympics have generated a lot of mixed feelings among Singaporeans,” said Wong. “There is a significant number of Singaporeans who find it hard to accept and embrace these achievements because the women’s table tennis team is made up of naturalised citizens from China.

Party time in Lion City: Singapore rejoices over first Olympic Games gold for Joseph Schooling

“Joseph, on the other hand, is a locally born and bred Singaporean, so there are many people going around saying that this is a truly Singaporean achievement.”

The outpouring of national pride is unprecedented because of Schooling-mania. The number 5039 – referring to Schooling’s Olympic record time – was sold out within 30 minutes as punters rushed to buy what they thought was an auspicious 4-Digit number. 4D is a popular number betting game run by the national lottery operator three times a week.

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Singaporeans in their tens of thousands have been going online to lap up as much news stories and information about their new hero as possible. Along with people around the world, they are falling for Schooling’s fairy-tale story.

One of the popular images doing the rounds in social media is that of Schooling, significantly shorter, standing next to Phelps when the American visited Singapore in 2008 ahead of his record-breaking eight-gold haul at the Beijing Olympics.

“Joseph is an immensely likeable young man and his parents’ story, of doing everything they can to help their son realise his Olympic dream, even to the point of sending him to the US at the age of 13 to study and train at the Bolles School in Florida, has touched many people,” said Wong.

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“The Schoolings had long been told by experts that their boy not only has the potential to grow as tall as 1.90m (he is 1.84m) but is also an exceptional talent in swimming. And so they went all out to help their son to realise his full potential.

“For years, before Schooling went to the University of Texas last year, his folks would take turns flying up to Florida to look after him for several months, much like a baton relay. That’s sacrifice for you.”

Schooling’s breakthrough gold will see him earn S$1 million (HK$5.76 million) and Wong said it would help to effect change in a studies-oriented society, in which sport is an afterthought and inspire kids to pursue their sporting dreams.

“Singapore society is gradually undergoing a transformation,” said Wong. “People are no longer so fixated on ensuring that their kids focus only on their studies and nothing else. More and more parents are allowing their kids to choose different educational pathways, to purse their interests and talent and take a longer time to complete their studies.

“In just 50.39 seconds, Joseph has become a trailblazer for Singapore sports, a source of inspiration and pride, and has effectively shown the power of sport to unite a country. That’s the massive multifaceted impact of his achievement at the Olympics.”