Amidst calls to bring “home” footballers with Malaysian heritage from abroad, here's the story of someone who did the opposite and gave up his Malaysian citizenship…
Tell us a bit more about yourself.
My name is Ruzaini Zainal and I’m 27 years old this year. I’m currently playing for Hougang United in the S.League. I used to play for the [Courts] Young Lions, Singapore Armed Forces FC (now Warriors FC), Tampines Rovers and Tanjong Pagar United. I won the 2012 RHB Singapore Cup with the Warriors and the 2013 S.League title with Tampines. I am quite versatile; I can play both right back and right midfield.
You were born in Johor Bahru and originally had Malaysian citizenship. How did you end up in Singapore?
My dad is Singaporean and my mum is Malaysian. I was born in Johor Bahru in 1988 and I stayed there until I was two years old. At that time, the two of them were settling a divorce and the custody went to my dad, so I left to stay in Singapore, where I have been staying since.
Does that mean you did not receive any professional football training in Malaysia?
I never managed to do so. Since I left for Singapore at two, I seldom go back to Johor Bahru except to visit some distant relatives. Sepak takraw was actually my first sport, but when I went to secondary school, it wasn’t offered as a co-curricular activity, so I picked up football instead. I started learning the trade from former S.League player Idros Jamid, who is four years older than me, and learned the basics from him. Idros was in the same youth batch as Baihakki Khaizan and Shahril Ishak, but he retired early.
When did you decide to give up the Malaysian citizenship and become a Singaporean?
I made up my mind a long time ago, but I found the process a hassle – some of my documents were with my dad in Singapore while some were with my mum in Malaysia. Eventually I decided to do it at the age of 19 because I really wanted to stand a chance to represent Singapore. Also, after playing for the Warriors Under-16 team, I went on to play for the National Football Academy (NFA) Under-17 and Under-18 teams along with the likes of Shahdan Sulaiman, Irwan Shah, Firdaus Kasman, Ridwan Jamil and Siddiq Durimi. At that time, all my teammates are Singaporeans while I was still holding a Malaysian passport – there was some internal joking between the players and I felt weird. In the end, the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) helped me by providing supporting documents and I eventually got my Singapore citizenship upon going for National Service.
What was the feeling when you finally made your national team debut for Singapore?
I got my first call-up in 2010 at the age of 22. I was really shocked back then because I’m a foreign-born player and did not come through the scheme. Furthermore, I had yet to make my S.League debut – I was still playing in the Prime League for the Warriors. I remember my debut came against North Korea in the 2010 VFF Cup. I went on to play in a few competitive games, including a 7-1 defeat against Iraq in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. They really beat us hands down in all aspects that day!
Unfortunately, in the past few years, you have not been called up for the national team. Given that you have only made fleeting appearances in the red shirt, have there been any regrets in chasing the Singaporean dream?
I don’t have any regrets because I cherish every moment in the national team jersey. Although the jokes have never stopped coming about me being born in Malaysia, I really feel that Singapore is my home. Also, had I stayed in Malaysia back then, I think it would have been difficult for me to come up through the ranks due to the amount of politics and the larger pool of players there. At least the pool of players in Singapore is much smaller.
From your point of view, what’s the key difference between the football systems of Malaysia and Singapore?
From what I see, I think players are quite well-paid in Malaysia. They do not have to worry about money or taking part time jobs, and just have to think about football and focus on how to keep themselves in good shape. As for Singapore, I think we are slightly behind them and we really need to throw in a lot of money on things like medical stuff, physiotherapy and player welfare. We also need to improve on the salaries because some players are not paid well and they have to get part-time jobs. If money is not an issue, the players will be able to fully concentrate on football and aim to keep up their performances to justify the amount of salaries that they are getting.
Would you want to play for a Malaysian club if the opportunity arises?
If there is a chance, I will definitely go for it. Even if it is from a club below the Malaysian Super League, I will consider it because Malaysian football is currently improving with a lot of money being pumped in to improve their football scene.
(Photos: Weixiang Lim)