Don’t turn FAS election into a Brexit farce

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Singapore football desperately needs a makeover, but with an AGM looming and members already calling for further constitutional amendments, it’s important to focus on the sport’s evolution rather than egos, argues Neil Humphreys... 

Many years ago, this once-rookie reporter was packed off to the Singapore Athletic Association. An interview was arranged not with an athlete or even a coach, but an official.

A fresh-faced, idealistic sports scribe met a man in a shirt and tie with no sports background to speak of. It was sports journalism, Singapore style.

In a stuffy, corporate office, an hour-long conversation included lots of hubristic claims and a long list of the official’s achievements.

One or two athletes might have even been mentioned by name in passing.

Little has changed in the Singapore sports scene.

In recent weeks, local football has found itself front and centre once again for an issue that has nothing to do with events on the turf and everything to do with a turf war for control of the game.

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An election will soon take place to determine who takes over from Zainudin

Story after story has focused on the Football Association of Singapore’s first elected leadership, which may or may not take place by the end of the year, depending on the outcome of the annual general meeting on September 24.

Constitutional amendments must be first voted in, approved by the FAS’ 46 voting members, but there are already calls for further amendments to the proposed constitution of a democratically-elected leadership and... are you falling asleep yet?

Are you not entertained? Are you not further motivated to follow the flailing game or would you rather lie on a bed of upturned football boots for a less painful experience?

The names of Zainudin Nordin, FAS president, and Lim Kia Tong, the vice-president of FAS, and R Vengadasalam, who intends to put forward a slate of (presently unnamed) candidates for the election are appearing more often in the football media than actual footballers.

To anyone not familiar with daily sports coverage in other countries, this isn’t normal. Most sports writers actually just focus on sports events and their competitors.

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FAS vice-president Lim Kia Tong is among the potential candidates

But Singapore has long devoted an abnormal amount of coverage to sports administrators, rather than its athletes.

Perhaps it’s indicative of a culture long accustomed to decision makers dominating media coverage or it’s a subconscious acknowledgement that there’s a dearth of genuine superstars so we’ll focus on the bureaucrats instead; e.g. we’re not great at the whole winning sports events thing, but we do put on award-winning sports conferences with excellent catering facilities.

And readers, supporters and even FAS voters probably get fed up with this.

The status quo, the elite, the old guard - call them what you will - have dominated sports associations for so long, making headlines for either their perceived lack of progress or constant internal bickering, that the desire for change is unavoidable.

Qualified, experienced administrators are dismissed as out of touch and populists curry favour with their calls for internal revolution.

And Singapore football is perfectly positioned for such a coup d’etat.

The S.League continues to falter. The Lions toil. The fruits of Michel Sablon’s labours may not be seen for a few years yet.

Whoever wins the FAS election face a plethora of problems, all of which need urgent attention (and will be addressed in a subsequent column.)

But there can be just as many problems with populism. From Donald Trump to Singapore’s elected presidency, the gloomy cloud of Brexit hangs over each and every voting process now.

Widespread resentment towards an established political body and its perceived failings, incompetence or elitism fuels the rise of the populist.

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Islandwide League clubs can vote for the next council

R Vengadasalam has devoted much of his life and career to local football and has earned his cult-like status. He should also be applauded for stepping away from the armchair warriors to actually present a manifesto for the FAS election.

But he hasn’t yet announced his slate of candidates – there’s still plenty of time – and his plans on watering the grassroots should be fleshed out further in the coming weeks.

And yet, according to a couple of media reports, he already has solid support among FAS voters.

There are 46 voting affiliates: seven S.League clubs, 10 National Football League sides and 14 Islandwide League teams along with 11 Women’s Premier League clubs. The rest are unattached such as Gombak United and Woodlands.

Representatives from the NFL and the WPL speak of a sense of alienation, that they are being neglected. They lament an alleged focus only on the “elite” S.League clubs, one that ignores those at the lower end of the food chain.

If these sentiments sound familiar, they were the common grievances of Brexit voters. They’re also sustaining Trump’s farce in the US.

If these sentiments sound familiar, they were the common grievances of Brexit voters. They’re also sustaining Trump’s farce in the US.

Whether the complaints are legitimate is really neither here nor there. In the age of Brexit, perception is election reality.

FAS voters – like many Singaporean fans – have every right to wonder why the current leadership enjoys extensive media coverage and also why its key figures are considering Fifa roles when the local game has clearly stagnated.

But equally important, the populist box cannot be ticked for its own sake.

A credible alternative with a detailed manifesto and a full slate of decent, transparent and experienced candidates must be taken into consideration first.

The future of the national game depends on an intelligent vote in the FAS election, not a Brexit vote.

And then, hopefully, Singapore’s football coverage can move away from the boardroom and return to the only people who really matter – the footballers.

Photos: FAS