Mon, Aug 17, 2009
The New Paper
Man, are they BIG

THEY thrashed their opponents 19-1 to claim their 14th straight softball title in the National Inter-schools B Division competition.

But it was not just the size of the winning margin that had both parents and teachers talking.

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Last Thursday, MacPherson Primary School's win over Maris Stella High School (Primary) got some parents upset that some of its foreign players - which make up the bulk of the team - appeared too old for the age limit of 13 set by the Co-Curricular Activities Branch (CCAB).

Said Madam Alice Ng, whose son is a Maris Stella player: 'There is a huge disparity in the sizes of the players on both sides, and we could be wrong about them not looking their age, but it's always been a concern for the past few years.'

The 42-year-old housewife added that it was hard not to question the ages of the MacPherson players especially when 'some of them have had moustaches'.

When The New Paper was there for last Thursday's game, the players appeared shaven.

MacPherson's coach and former national softball captain, Mr Sunny Sultan, told The New Paper that only two of his boys are 13, and the rest are from Primary 3 to 5.

MacPherson Primary said it had submitted the required documents of all its players for age verification and they had all been approved by CCAB.

But another Maris Stella parent, Madam Peggy Tan, 41, brought up the difficulty in investigating age claims, referring to a similar dispute that had shrouded the Chinese gymnasts who won gold in last year's Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese had been accused of faking the ages of their gymnasts so that those under the Olympics minimum age of 16 could compete.

Madam Tan questioned whether the ages in the students' documents could have been altered.

'The fact that this is not something easily verified is very frustrating,' she said.

Sore loser?

But is this more a case of sore losers?

After all, according to Madam Ng, Maris Stella has come in second for at least the last four years.

But age was not the only dispute surrounding MacPherson's win.

The school's use of international students has also fallen under scrutiny in a country where there's a growing presence of foreign talent in schools.

Seven of the nine players fielded in the finals from the MacPherson boys' team were foreigners - a Filipino, an Indonesian, a Cambodian and four Nepalese.

In its girls' team are eight Nepalese and one Filipino. The MacPherson girls have only managed to win 'on and off' and have not ruffled as many feathers as their male counterparts.

MacPherson Primary's Mr Sultan said he conducted trials and picked players according to their potential.

While the school has won the B boys' softball title for 14 years straight, it has been using foreign players only for the last five, he said.

When asked about the number of foreigners in his teams, Mr Sultan said: 'The school does not recruit them - they are the ones who come to us.'

He added: 'For some reason, many local parents think sports is a waste of time and are not supportive.

'Every school will use whatever resources it has, and it's no different for us.'

He said the school does not give scholarships to foreign students, nor is there any talent-spotting programme to identify foreign players like the Nepalese students.

'They happen to live around here and we benefit from it,' said MacPherson Primary's principal, Madam Rostinah Mohamad Said, who was there last week to watch her school win.

MacPherson Primary is located near where a Gurkha contingent with the Singapore Police Force is housed.

On its part, Maris Stella fielded a team of mostly local students for the finals, was sporting about the defeat.

The team fielded only one China-born player that day.

Its coach, Ms Elaine Chua, noted that 'a few of the MacPherson players don't look 13' because of their size, but added that age and nationality are both 'not issues' when it comes down to the game itself.

'Size definitely matters and is a good strength in a team,' she said.

'Of course, it's a very slim chance to win against them. But winning is just a bonus - as long as we do our best, it's good enough.'

But others like Madam Ng questioned if the number of foreign players should be capped in a competition.

'It is fair to have a mix of foreign and local talent, but by fielding so many foreign students, they are depriving local kids,' she said.

'I don't think it's entirely true to give the excuse that local parents are not supportive. I'm sure there are local kids who are interested.'

Madam Ng suggested that 'something be done' to level the playing field.

'There should be some sort of quota for foreign talent in school,' she said.

'Perhaps 30 per cent of any school team would be appropriate. It should be roughly proportional to the population of foreigners to locals on a national level.'

But in a country that values meritocracy, parents like Madam Ng would seem to be barking up the wrong tree.

When The New Paper contacted the Ministry of Education (MOE) over the issue of limiting foreign talent in schools, it said its position has not changed since it posted a forum letter response in 2006.

Said MOE: 'As foreign students are part of the school system, it would not be right to impose a cap on the number of foreign students in each sports team.'

Hoe Pei Shan, newsroom intern

This article was first published in The New Paper.

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