Lee finds new role a tough juggling act

When Ms Ellen Lee took over leadership of the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) last September, she inherited an organisation that is by far Singapore's most successful on the international sporting arena.

But in many ways, the silver and two bronze medals won at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, as well as world team title won by sensationally dethroning China in 2010 have also, have become a weight on her shoulders.

For the 57-year-old, the pressure in ensuring that success continues to be delivered by her paddlers is undeniable.

The Member of Parliament for Sembawang GRC and lawyer by profession is under no illusion what her term as STTA chief will be measured in: Golds, silvers and bronzes.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times, the first time the STTA president is speaking at length about the sport, she said: "More people are aware of this particular sport, and more people are also keen to see that we succeed and continue to get medals.

"But they also want to see more local-born Singaporeans getting the medals."

And therein lies the conundrum for her: Keeping STTA's many sponsors happy with good results, while coping with increasingly vocal cries from the public who yearn to see more local-born talent representing the nation.

It is a bit like juggling hot potatoes, she admitted.

"For us, we cannot afford to lose... the bar is (already) there, and that is our minimal responsibility to our sponsors. We cannot let our sponsors down," she said.

The STTA is one of the best- funded national sports associations in Singapore, and is also among the most successful in garnering sponsorship, clinching deals that totalled millions under former president Lee Bee Wah, her fellow MP.

Added Ms Ellen Lee: "When we have big sponsors, they also want to see results, and they want to be associated with success. So we must win medals to show them that their sponsorship is also good and is producing results.

"It is a very tough balance."

But as much as she also hopes for a local-born paddlers to reach the pinnacle of the game, she said the reality is that foreign-born talent such as world No. 4 Feng Tianwei will remain an integral part of Singapore table tennis' future for some time to come.

"For the time being, it's necessary to tap on the foreign-born players. It'll be a lie to say otherwise," she said.

"In order to be able to possess that (level of) technicality, it'll take a number of years. It's not something you can acquire on the spot.

"At the same time, we will not stop our quest for local-born players... to find the really good ones and polish them into an international player.

"It's going to be difficult, it's going to take a longer time because we know our pool is so much smaller." It is why she hopes there will be more parents willing to wholeheartedly give their children to the cause of chasing their sporting dreams. Ms Ellen Lee says she would, if any of her 10 grandchildren possesses the aptitude and attitude for it.

She said: "I would love to see parents who are prepared to (give) us their children to train into good players... (who) totally give up their child for that purpose."

Until then, facing what often feels like growing sentiments against the foreign-born paddlers will just be another thorny issue she has to manage as president.

On this, at least, there are no two ways about it for her.

"The sentiments will always be there. It's always the few more vocal ones that will evoke people's angst. But if those are their views, we respect it. We don't have to force them to agree with us," she said.

"But we have our own views and we feel that we serve a community that is supportive of us and we won't stop just because there are some distractions."

"The only thing we can ask of Singaporeans is to support us in our decisions and support all these players."

This article was first published on January 2, 2015.
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