ASEAN Para Games: Inclusiveness and equality the goals

A milestone year for Singapore sports concludes with a pursuit of something greater than medals and athletic records as the ASEAN Para Games (APG) begins today.

Instead, a legacy of inclusiveness and equality are the targets which the Republic, celebrating its 50th birthday and host of the APG for the first time, has set for itself.

Such national values are a necessary progression of a first-world country like ours, noted Singapore ASEAN Para Games Organising Committee chairman Lim Teck Yin.

"Fifty years in nation building is short. We recognise where we stand as a people today and how much more we have to do," he said.

The week-long APG will see about 1,200 of ASEAN's best para-athletes - including several Paralympic champions - compete across 15 sports.

It is the ideal medium to deliver this message of greater integration, added Lim, who is also the chief executive officer of Sport Singapore.

Discrimination against the disabled remains very much part of the social fabric in South-east Asia, where education and acceptance is playing catch-up with the West.

"ASEAN culture is still thick with that belief. People in villages don't want to tell others if they have disabled children. But this mentality is slowly shifting and the Games has helped to change perceptions," said ASEAN Para Sports Federation Zainal Abu Zarin, who played a key role in launching the APG in 2001.

The growth of the APG - the inaugural edition in Kuala Lumpur had 235 athletes participating in only swimming and track and field - is mirrored by success on the sporting fields for ASEAN athletes.

Prior to the 2000 Sydney Paralympics, South-east Asia won only six golds and 30 medals. In the past four Paralympics since the turn of the century, there have been 14 golds and 59 medals.

Singapore waited 20 years to win its maiden medal at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics and swimmer Yip Pin Xiu, the country's first and only gold medallist, has observed a positive change in attitudes towards disability sports. She said: "There's still a long road to go but every step on the way is good progress."

Hosting the APG on home soil, at the cost of $75 million, has been a crucial factor in this as organisers have launched a series of initiatives in the last six months to engage communities and raise awareness.

Entry is free to all nine APG competition venues, with main clusters in the Singapore Sports Hub and Marina Bay, and the host nation is fielding its biggest contingent of 154 athletes, almost three times the size of teams sent to past Games.

Said sailor Anthony Teo, an APG debutant and, at 71, Singapore's oldest participant: "You will be surprised at some of the things you can do when you push yourself to the limits of your disability."

It has been a recurring theme in the months leading up to the Singapore APG and one that chef de mission Raja Singh hopes will inspire the local disabled community to play sports in greater numbers.

The Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) vice-president said: "Winning medals is important but we need to widen the base of para-athletes. Being in a wheelchair does not mean you should lead a sedentary life."

The signs of heightened interest are promising. In 2010, the SDSC's National Disability League drew about 300 participants. This year, more than 500 competed.

There has also been greater financial support. The SDSC obtained $1.06 million in government funding in 2005, less than half the $2.3 million it received this year.

And of the 70 national athletes under the $40 million Sports Excellence scholarships - which cover athletes' training and coaching costs, and pay monthly stipends of between $1,200 and $8,400 to recipients - 10 are para-athletes.

All things are not equal though. Singapore's gold medallists at the SEA Games in June were awarded $10,000 but an APG champion will receive only $2,000. It is a similar ratio at the Olympics ($1 million) and Paralympics ($200,000).

While the quantum at the highest tier is unlikely to change for now, SportSG's Lim believes the differences at the lower levels can be recalibrated.

He said: "Should the prize money for para sports move up?

"I see no reason why not, especially at the SEA Games and the APG. I feel that there should be no difference at this level."

Debates about disparities are nothing new for swimmer Theresa Goh, who was born with spina bifida and has spent most of her life in a wheelchair.

"People shouldn't pity us. You may think we are not leading a fulfilling life but that's not right, because a good life does not equal being able-bodied," said Singapore's most decorated APG athlete with 22 golds.

An ever-present figure at every APG edition since 2001, she has waited 14 years for a Games on home soil. That dream will be fulfilled in the next seven days.

It is the future, one of wider acceptance and compassion among all Singaporeans, that she hopes to witness.

This article was first published on December 3, 2015.
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