The Geylang winger struggled against Hong Kong, but the excessive criticism isn’t fair. He shouldn’t be blamed for being the only Chinese player in the side. That’s Singapore’s fault, argues Neil Humphreys
Being an unofficial sporting figurehead for one’s race must get irritating after a while. Whatever the standard of performance, there’s always that racial prefix.
Jackie Robinson was never just a second baseman, but a black second baseman. Tiger Woods couldn’t just be a golfing phenomenon. He had to be a role model for African-Americans.
From Houston Rockets’ Yao Ming to tennis’ Li Na, there is that preoccupation with the prefix. They were black players, or Chinese players, or Asian players and so on.
They were rarely allowed to be just players.
Singapore’s Gabriel Quak now finds himself in a similar, invidious position.
In the Lions’ flat performance against Hong Kong, the winger undoubtedly floundered and was substituted, as he was against Malaysia. But he was hardly the only culprit. In terms of poor performances, Quak was in undistinguished company.
But the tweeting trolls rounded on the Geylang winger, who generated the kind of sustained abuse usually associated with Wayne Rooney and his British critics.
And, inevitably, predictably, the petulant sniping returned to the prefix. It wasn’t just about the winger, but the Chinese winger.
Quak was allegedly only in the side so the national game could pay lip service to multiculturalism, a direct beneficiary of racial tokenism.
Never mind the effort. Think of the ethnicity.
One minute he offers an inspirational pathway for young players from a similar background, because he’s Chinese; the next, he’s unfairly benefiting from affirmative action, because he’s Chinese.
The claims are of course absurd and are contradicted by recent history – the Lions have sent out plenty of national sides with little or no Chinese representation – and one can only hope that Quak is a phlegmatic character that recognises that, in this instance, he’s in distinguished company.
The Olympic 100m sprinter Linford Christie once suggested that he was British when he won and “Jamaican-born” when he lost. His race and cultural heritage were both stick and carrot, a chance to praise and put down in equal measure.
Quak might empathise. One minute he offers an inspirational pathway for young players from a similar background, because he’s Chinese; the next, he’s unfairly benefiting from affirmative action, because he’s Chinese.
The 25-year-old probably just wants to play football.
Besides, the very definition of affirmative action makes the accusation all the more idiotic. Affirmative action is usually employed to benefit a discriminated group or people, i.e. the minorities in society.
With Chinese Singaporeans making up around 75 per cent of the population, Quak is part of an extremely healthy majority, which turns the affirmative action argument upside down.
Indeed, the only example comparable to the bizarre makeup of the Lions' squads actually comes from Down Under.
For many years, Australian “soccer” was rather patronisingly dismissed as a sport for ethnic minorities.
Indeed the ethnic minorities even underlined their close soccer ties, with names such as “Hellas”, “Croatia” and “Juventus” in the old National Soccer League, acknowledging their racial and cultural differences.
There was a perception that soccer was a game played and supported by ethnic communities, while the majority of (predominantly Anglo-Saxon) Australians focused on the rugby codes, Aussie Rules Football and cricket.
Swap cricket for, say, swimming and the example just about stands for Singapore.
Swimming is now considered a respectable and even prestigious pursuit in many circles (especially if there’s a condo pool or expensive swimming club membership involved).
The sport has a certain social standing in Singapore. Football doesn’t.
But to even suggest as much risks venturing into the game’s darkest corners, those secluded places where Chinese folks will speak freely of alleged Malay dominance; a place where Chinese kids allegedly have no chance of being picked for their school or club sides; a place where alleged cliques exist at every level of the game, from the dressing room to the boardroom, and are openly acknowledged.
The struggling sport can recognise that these perceptions and prejudices exist or continue to kick the can down the road (and pretend not to see that 75 per cent of the country do not want to kick anything anywhere).
The latter option has the most obvious appeal. It's easy. It’s easier to fiddle with the window dressing of farcical elections at the Football Association of Singapore or V. Sundramoothy’s ongoing struggles than to focus on the omnipresent elephant in the room.
In terms of racial representation, the game is regressing.
In the most ironic paradox of all, as the world rightly applauds the Little Red Dot for its peerless efforts in fostering a harmonious, multiracial society, the football world continues to head in the opposite direction.
In the most ironic paradox of all, as the world rightly applauds the Little Red Dot for its peerless efforts in fostering a harmonious, multiracial society, the football world continues to head in the opposite direction
As leading nations like France, Germany and Belgium are praised for nurturing and selecting ethnic minorities in their national sides, Singapore appears to be the only country that cannot incorporate its racial majority.
The Lions once reflected the united colours of their countrymen. Now they regularly finish games without a single Chinese player – instantly depriving their national sport of 75 per cent of the tiny island’s talent pool.
Meanwhile the game’s experts insist, with straight faces, that an FAS council makeover will make all the difference.
But then, in such an understandably sensitive arena, it’s hard to address matters of race and representation.
It’s much easier to criticise Quak instead.
But at least he’s playing the game.