Could We Have Helped Joseph Schooling Better Cope With His Circumstances?
Top image: Tag Heuer

Yesterday, Aug 30, Singapore’s broadsheets reported that national swimmers Joseph Schooling and Amanda Lim were investigated by the Central Narcotics Bureau for possible cannabis use.

The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) went on to say that Schooling admitted to consuming cannabis while he was on short-term disruption from full-time National Service (NS) to train and participate in the Southeast Asian Games held in Hanoi on May 12 – 23. Schooling won two golds and a bronze medal at the event.

Mindef added that, per existing protocol, even though he has tested negative for controlled drugs in his urine test, Schooling will be placed on a supervised urine test regime for six months. 

The Ministry also said that given his abuse of disruption privileges, Schooling will no longer be eligible for leave or disruption to train or compete while in NS. 

This consequence means that Schooling will likely miss next year’s SEA Games in Cambodia and the Asian Games in Hangzhou.

The Ministries Respond

Government agencies and ministries were quick to put out statements condemning Schooling’s admission to cannabis consumption.

Sport Singapore said that “Singapore adopts a zero-tolerance stance towards drugs. SportSG and SSA will be engaging the swimming and other sporting fraternities to underscore the importance of complying with Singapore’s drug laws at all times.”

MINDEF adds that “The SAF maintains a strict zero-tolerance policy towards drug abuse. Service personnel who test positive for drug abuse will be charged and sentenced to the SAF Detention Barracks.” 

“Those suspected of or confessed to abusing drugs will be placed on a SAF-supervised urine test regime as part of the treatment and rehabilitation process.”

Online, opinions on these statements were divided. Some laud the Government’s strict zero-tolerance stance toward drug consumption without fear or favour. They applaud this display of fairness, pleased that Schooling is afforded the same treatment as any ordinary citizen. They emphasised that his achievements were not considered in this circumstance, which is reason for praise.

Others plead for compassion. Former NMP, Anthea Ong, wrote on her Facebook page that “like Peter Parker, he’s (Schooling) merely human and not perfect; he shouldn’t be expected to be. He’s, after all, a young man, been under tremendous pressure and gone through much since touching gold at all of 21 years old 6 years ago.”

“We must not be a fair weathered society,” Ong adds. “He and his family did all the hard work and gave us all the glory in 2016 on the global stage. It’s not right to maim him publicly and repeatedly now; we can’t use him as a poster boy both ways for public education!”

Compassion aside, cries of “It’s just Cannabis—lighten up” ring clear in the comments section of The Straits Times and Channel News Asia’s Facebook page. These people took the opportunity to comment that Singapore’s laws on cannabis are too strict and that many countries around the world have legalised it. 

Singapore making a big ruckus out of this event is proof, they say, of how backwards we are as a nation.

A Reason For Misjudgement

In an Instagram story Schooling posted on his personal account, he expresses remorse for everything that has transpired and promises to do right by his family and fans.

He also readily admitted to giving in to a moment of weakness after going through a very tough period of his life, adding that he demonstrated bad judgement. 

Still, what these stressors Schooling had to push through is anyone’s guess. 

Perhaps it is due to the drastic change in the environment he’s had to overcome, transitioning from athlete to soldier when he enlisted in the army in January. 

This could be further exacerbated by the death of his father, Colin Schooling. The latter succumbed to liver cancer in November last year.

It is on the back of these life-changing events that Schooling had to prepare for the SEA Games in Hanoi in May. With grief suspended, Schooling was immediately thrown into the thick of training, the weight of Singapore’s hope on his shoulders. 

There is, of course, no excuse to be made for the consumption of drugs under such circumstances. After all, most of us manage without resorting to such extremes.

But how true is that, really? While some of us turn to yoga and mindfulness to manage stress, others lean on food, excessive gaming, alcohol, or smoking. Everyone’s coping mechanism is different, and perhaps for Schooling, cannabis was the easiest and most accessible temporary escape. 

All these assertions are, of course, conjectures. But it’s worthy speculation that compels us to extend empathy and not villainise nor conflate one person’s error in judgement to a grievous fault in character.  

It Takes A Nation

In this unfortunate turn of events, the pertinent question is if we as a country are doing enough to properly observe, manage, and help our local athletes with their mental health issues. 

Have we done right by these performance-focused sportsmen and given them ample resources to cope with personal pressures and circumstances that greatly determine their prestige and reputation on the playing field?

In an interview with VICE World News in October 2020, ahead of World Mental Health day, Schooling shared the mental health pressures he faced, swimming at such a high level. He also admits to struggling with harsh criticism (people commented that he looked fat), public scrutiny, and his expectations for success.

In Parliament last year, MP Ms Hany Soh asked the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) how the level of support provided to Singapore athletes in terms of mental and emotional wellness will assist them in their preparation and recovery before and after major sports competitions.

In response, MCCY Minister, Mr Edwin Tong shared that “ahead of major competitions, Singapore Sports Institue (SSI) and National Youth Sports Institute (NYSI) assign Sport Psychologists and Athlete Life personnel to provide psychological and mental well-being support for our national athletes, which may include one-on-one consultations, and imparting skills to athletes to manage their mental and emotional conditions.”

Mr Tong went on to add that “SSI and NYSI also partner the respective National Sports Associations (NSAs) to build the mental resilience of our athletes by equipping them with coping mechanisms and adjustment capabilities so that they can self-regulate, recognise symptoms of weak mental health, and practise self-care.”

Owning Up and Moving On

With the Ministry’s hands-on approach to mental health resilience and psychological well-being, many Singaporeans would be hard-pressed for why and how Schooling fell between the cracks. Those are explanations we can only speculate on. In time, hopefully, we will have some answers from the respective ministries.

Still, this is not by any means a crisis without its merits. If navigated correctly, the story of how Singapore’s first Gold Olympic medallist rose from the ashes of public embarrassment and national condemnation could motivate future athletes that anything is possible. “If Joseph Schooling can bounce back from a drug-related offence, what is your excuse?”

Perhaps we can take inspiration too from HUGO BOSS Southeast Asia, managing director Steven Lam. When asked for his take on his brand ambassador in the wake of this crisis, he opined that while Schooling has made a mistake, what is important is that he has taken ownership of it.

“Over the years, he has always been a positive influence in and out of the pool. He has inspired many kids to believe in themselves, to work hard and to chase their dreams. We have taught future generations that it’s ok to make mistakes, to own up, but you will have to take responsibility and more importantly, fix it,” said Lam.

He went on to say, “It will be a long road ahead for Joseph but we believe he will now show us how he will make good his promise to rebuild the trust with the people who believe in him. Our partnership and support for Joseph remain strong and unwavering.” 

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