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At the summit of Orizaba. The Society for the Physically Disabled's flag flying high!

At the summit of Orizaba. The Society for the Physically Disabled’s flag flying high!

Does Singapore Deserve its Mountaineers? ( Published in The Straits Times June 2, 2009)

unedited version here:

Let me join in a growing force of  congratulations to the women’s Singapore Everest Expedition that successfully placed its members on the summit recently. There’s not much in terms of natural, God-given vertical structures in Singapore. So perhaps, in a nation sometimes short on heroes, such an achievement is widely admired. But this moment is also an opportune time to reflect if our young nation truly deserves its mountaineers. I tend to think not at times.

Since the landmark 1st Singapore Everest Expedition in 1998, which I had to privilege to organize and lead, Singapore has witnessed an amazing shift in terms of economic sophistication, and greater tolerance for risk-taking, failure and diversity. But have things really changed that much?

For a sport in which we excel on an Asian level, is not size-dependent, and is not gender biased, why does mountaineering and the those on the forefront of pushing standards here receive such a disproportionately modest amount of support to get the job done? Conversely, sports in which we perform at a mediocre level, and where success is often dependent of physical size, often receive far more political and commercial support.

Worse, many of these latter sports have regular scandals and controversies, and personalities that do not necessarily serve as outstanding youth role models. As with the recent climb, I too recall how on two separate Everest expeditions, we were multitasking as the fundraisers, community-builders, public relations spokespersons and the participants ourselves. I wonder how the Singapore football teams of the past might have fared if leading striker Fandi Ahmad, had to raise the monies to train, mow the lawns at the stadiums, run the youth skills programmes, train and play the matches as well.

One would have thought since the 1990s where anyone thinking of excelling at this sport had to seek mostly independent sources of financing and advice, things might have changed. Sadly, all, or almost all of the approved funding from the Singapore Sports Council to mountaineering’s national sporting association is focused on indoor competitive sports climbing, held in a controlled environment.  Medals over gumption and self-sufficiency, say some.

Worse, mountaineers with projects or ideas at the cutting edge of Singapore and Asian standards are directed to take their appeals to other council schemes where success in one project, is rewarded by a progressively reduced funding on subsequent applications.

I wonder how other Singapore sporting groups would feel that each successful venture, at an elite level, is rewarded with less and less support. When less than 15% of funding of the $1.1 million dollars over two Everest expeditions I’ve led were from government funds, I wonder what reasoning goes behind offering such modest funding to an inspiring, and often character-building sport, often played at the Asian standard.

Little wonder why the mountaineers here have all but abandoned seeking any significant support or guidance from official organisations, and have moved to relying on themselves and a network of veteran climbers for advice, direction and ideas.

On a national level, our education system produces people that have failed to embrace a wider scope of risk-taking outside of making money. I have requests for adventure-based programmes where the programmes had to be absolutely ‘safe’. There is no such thing! With the benefit of hindsight wisdom, I look at the challenges to get the recent Everest climb off the blocks, and do not see the situation changing much.  Some things have not really changed in the past 15 years.

Well-run expeditions have shown great value to sponsors in terms of product testing, showcasing, as well as sustained news coverage. It’s time sponsors consider stepping back from already crowded sporting events, and consider carving up new space through the value propositions expeditions offer.

The media has also often taken few pains to educate itself on the sport of mountaineering. Until it educates its reporters that mountaineering excellence has never been defined by an ascent of Everest alone, the sport is truly doomed. Our busy and time-starved public will never be able to fathom anything in mountaineering other then “Everest-ing”.

I encourage reporters to differentiate between climbs involving significant external support on the mountain, from those where the entire burden of equipping and executing a climb are on the climbers. I urge them to understand how, this truly great sport can encompass all ages, levels of excellence, and the multiple skills required depending on types of routes attempted,

There is a saying that to get more in life, you have to be more than what you are. In that light, perhaps the Singaporeans most deserving of our mountaineers are those who continue to grow and live greater lives by the examples, efforts and inspiring stories brought home by those who have gone to the high peaks, risked something, and returned.


David Lim was leader of the 1st Singapore Everest Expedition in 1998, and now works as a leadership consultant.