Football

The Big Read: Dark days for Singapore football, but high-stakes election could offer fresh start

The Big Read: Dark days for Singapore football, but high-stakes election could offer fresh start
For the first time in its 125-year history, the FAS will be holding a democratic election of its council on April 29 following a directive from world football governing body, Fifa. Previously, the office-holders were appointed by the Government. Photo: Wee Teck Hian/TODAY
Published: 12:13 AM, April 22, 2017
Updated: 1:42 AM, April 22, 2017

SINGAPORE — The headline-grabbing police raids on the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) office and three football clubs earlier this week have stunned the sports fraternity, and became the talk of town even among non-football fans.

They have also cast the spotlight firmly on the state of affairs in what has been dubbed as Singapore’s “national sport”, more so than the usual handwringing over the national football team’s dire performances in recent years.  

The raids were triggered by a police report lodged by national sport governing body Sport Singapore (SportSG) against Tiong Bahru Football Club (TBFC) for suspected misuse of club funds, as well as a purported attempt by a senior club official to obstruct the completing of audits of former S.League clubs. 

For the first time in its 125-year history, the FAS will be holding a democratic election of its council on April 29 following a directive from world football governing body, Fifa. Previously, the office-holders were appointed by the Government. 

With the developments threatening to overshadow the historic FAS election — which looks set to go on as scheduled — the football fraternity is in soul-searching mode, and still holding out hope that the polls could pave the way for a fresh beginning. For a start, they hope to see greater transparency and consultation both within the FAS, as well as between the association and the football clubs. Some former national players also feel that they should be roped in to play a bigger role to shape Singapore football. 

The FAS Council — comprising the president, vice-presidents, honorary treasurer, general secretary, advisors, S.League CEO and council members — is the top decision-making body of the association. 

However, ex-national captain Razali Saad, who was an FAS council member from 2013 to last year, recalled how he and other council members were seldom consulted for their views on important matters. 

Mr Razali said: “To be honest, there wasn’t a lot of engagement then. Important decisions on football were made without much discussions or engagement with the entire council. For example, a policy would be drawn up (without any prior discussions) and that was it. Everybody would have to agree to it.”

He felt that there was a reluctance among football administrators to get former national players deeply involved in the running of the sport “because we’re quite opinionated at times”. “We give them our honest opinions about football, and maybe some of them cannot take it, and so they don’t take our views seriously,” he said. 

Former FAS vice-president Lim Kia Tong, who is leading a team to contest the elections, had himself spoken out against the culture of the FAS. 

If elected, ex-FAS vice president Lim Kia Tong (left) says he will handle the football association "very differently" as compared to his former boss Zainudin Nordin. Photos: Jason Quah/TODAY  

During a press conference on March 31 to unveil his team’s manifesto, the lawyer — who will be gunning for the top post of FAS president — had said: “Yes, I was on the previous council... but I did not have a lot of say in most of the decisions.” 

Referring to former FAS president Zainudin Nordin, Mr Lim said: “The previous president had his leadership style. But (if elected), I will handle the FAS very differently... we will work in a consultative manner, and decisions will be made jointly but the buck will still stop with me.”

The biggest scandal to hit Singapore football in recent times had escalated from a public spat between Hougang United chairman Bill Ng and FAS general secretary Winston Lee over a S$500,000 donation to the Asean Football Federation (AFF), which was made through the FAS. 

After the donation came to light, Mr Lim said it was “never” discussed during his time. A former senior full-time FAS employee, who declined to be named, told TODAY that he was also in the dark over the controversial donation which was made over a series of payments in 2014 and 2015. “It happened around the time I was there and I wasn’t even aware of it,” he said.  

He added: “There were times when key information doesn’t really flow down (from the top), and at my level, if we don’t get such information, then it can become a problem... I have to actively try to find out what’s happening sometimes.”

Former Nominated Member of Parliament Zulkifli Baharudin, who was also an FAS council member between 2013 and last year, felt that the association’s lack of resources hindered its proper running.

“I believe the management of FAS is extremely weak,” he said. “They’re not geared to take on the sort of tasks that the FAS wants to achieve. When the pay isn’t high, it is hard to get high quality people in.”

Referring to the FAS Council, he added: “In addition, the people supervising (the management) are volunteers who do this on a part-time basis... when we talk about running an organisation as big and complex as the FAS, which has a huge job to develop football, it requires a  lot of people with the right skills, expertise and time to ensure that proper governance is achieved.”

Mr Zainudin, a former MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, was appointed FAS president in 2009. He stepped down in November last year. Mr Zainudin did not reply to TODAY’s queries by press time. 

Former FAS President Zainudin Nordin (left) and current FAS General Secretary Winston Lee. TODAY file photo

During Mr Zainudin’s tenure, key members of the FAS Council — the president, vice-presidents, honorary treasurer and general secretary — would meet on average about four times a year. In comparison, the group met at least once a month under Mr Zainudin’s predecessor, Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee, who was appointed FAS president from 2004 to 2009. 

Former FAS general secretary Steven Yeo, who had served under Asso Prof Ho, described the former Senior Minister of State as a very hands-on and consultative FAS president. He said: “My belief is that the most important relationship is the one between the FAS president and the general-secretary, followed by the president and the council.”

He added: “There was open communication between Prof Ho and myself, and even if we disagreed over anything, we would do so in a professional manner. He is also open to all opinions and will go along with it if it makes sense. Prof Ho would also meet with the exco and various committees regularly, and would consult them on important issues pertaining to the FAS.”

Mr Collin Chee, who was an FAS council member during Assoc Prof Ho’s tenure, agreed that information was forthcoming back then. “We would have our own responsibilities and projects that we were in charge of, but because everything we do is recorded in minutes in our meetings, everyone in the council knew what was happening,” he said. “We would have a say in (major decisions) as these would usually be put to the vote during our council meetings.”

On Thursday (April 20), Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) officers seized key assets and documents from TBFC’s office at People’s Park Centre on Upper Cross Street. There were also raids at Woodlands Wellington’s clubhouse on Prinsep Street, and the office of Hougang United. All three clubs are associated with Mr Ng, a businessman and FAS presidential hopeful who is leading a rival team for the election. 

Photos: Robin Choo, Wee Teck Hian/TODAY

In the week preceding the raids, the public spat between Mr Ng and Mr Lee dominated the headlines. Mr Ng has insisted that he made the donation under the impression that it would benefit Singapore football, although Mr Lee has produced documentary proof that Mr Ng was aware of its purpose.  

Despite a sharp exchange of words in full glare of the public eye, FAS affiliates — who will be voting in the election — remain none the wiser over the issue. A total of 44 affiliates will vote in the election. They include clubs from the S.League, the National Football League (NFL), and the Women’s Premier League, among others. That the authorities are probing the accounts of the football clubs has also led some to question whether there was sufficient oversight by the FAS, given that the clubs are required to submit their annual financial statements to the association. 

An S.League club official, who did not want to be named, said: “This whole situation is (of concern to us)... the FAS has insight into the finances of the clubs, yet this can still happen.”

He was also worried that the saga would cast a shadow over Singapore football which could affect the clubs’ abilitiy to attract sponsors. “After all, sponsors will only come on board if there’s a high level of governance and it’s a shame because this whole ugly episode will overshadow the good work that some of the clubs have been doing so far,” he said. 

A NFL club official, who also declined to be named, added: “We’ve now become a laughing stock in the region, if not the world. We are Singapore, a country which prides itself on top-notch corporate governance, but yet we can’t get things right in the association of the most popular sport in the country.”

Nevertheless, Mr Khairil Zam, the secretary of NFL club Gymkhana FC, said that the saga — which will continue to play out in the coming months — would serve as a valuable lesson for the incoming FAS office-bearers. “Something needs to be done to put everything right, so that as a whole fraternity, we can move on and try to improve, rather than going backwards,” he said. “When the new council is voted in, this episode will hopefully show them that they will have to be more accountable and transparent in their processes.” Instead of just focusing on improving the “footballing side of things”, the new council will know that it has its work cut out in terms of raising administrative standards, he noted.

Team LKT (top), Team Game Changers (middle) and the two men competing for FAS President - Lim Kia Tong and Bill Ng. Photos: Robin Choo, Noah Tan/TODAY

GETTING BACK TO BUSINESS 

Not that the “footballing side of things” do not need urgent fixing: From poor results on the international stage for the various age-groups, an ailing S.League suffering from falling attendances, to the neglect of the NFL and grassroots football, the new FAS Council will have its plate full in trying to improve the standard of the game.

The FAS affiliates who spoke to TODAY stressed the need for the football fraternity to focus its attention back on the poll, which could provide a much-needed fresh start. 

An S.League official said: “Of course, we hope that when the new team comes in, the S.League will remain the front and centre of Singapore football. They will have to give the league the respect that it deserves.”
The new S.League season’s curtain raiser between Albirex Niigata and Tampines Rovers on Feb 26 drew 14,546 online viewers during the game itself, with an additional 9,273 viewing the match after its conclusion. Photo: Jason Quah/TODAY

Ms Yeong Sheau Shyan, an official of women’s Premier League club Arion Football Academy LLP, wants more to be done for women’s football. “We’re looking for more recognition for the women’s teams,” she said. “Right now, we’re like nobody, just one of the normal social teams. At a higher level, inside the council, we need someone who can speak up for women’s football.”

She pointed out that a lot of resources are devoted to men’s football, although she acknowledged that NFL men’s teams are also struggling with perennial challenges. “We have the same problems... As a club, we don’t have subsidies, no insurance (for players), and no fields to play on. But the thinking is that the men’s game should progress first before the women’s game... which I believe is not right,” she said. 

Mr Zairi Ahmari, the secretary of NFL side GFA Sporting Westlake, hopes that the new council will pay more attention to the NFL and find ways to help the clubs be financially stable. “(It) must definitely support the NFL because we’ve been neglected for many years,” Mr Zairi said.

“Nothing has been done for the lower division clubs. Hopefully, we will be able to get seed-funding in future because we are also the affiliates of the FAS after all. We’re not asking for a lot of money, we just hope that more support can be given, because right now, we’re funding everything from our own pocket, and this can’t go on forever.”

Agreeing, Gymkhana FC’s Mr Khairil added: “A good team has to be in the FAS and show that they are football-driven. They need to have the checks and balance... and people can sit down and work on improving football.”

Former national defender R Sasikumar noted that the two teams contesting the election have unveiled similar manifestos, and they should provide more details on how they plan to achieve their aims. “Both (teams) have good intentions and manifestos, but what was really missing was an action plan,” said Mr Sasikumar, who heads sports marketing agency Red Card. “The work is cut out for whoever comes in. Unfortunately, (the election) has taken a nasty turn into what it is today, (but) some good can come out of this, because now we can put new systems in place that will be palatable to all the stakeholders.”

Stressing the need to restore public confidence in Singapore football, he was keen for the fraternity to leave the saga behind, starting with the election which will be held at the (Black Box) Auditorium in the Singapore Sports Hub in a week’s time. “Let the 44 affiliates decide who they want in power, then whoever gets in makes the change and start an action plan... There is a need to see some immediate responses,” Mr Sasikumar added.