Pennant needs smart PR, not silly jokes about referees

Tampines’ new signing must get better advice and really shouldn’t have said “referee kayu”. Apart from insulting local officials, the chant hints at the S.League’s unsavoury past, argues Neil Humphreys

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Oh, it was only a joke. Where’s your sense of humour? Jermaine Pennant was unveiled as a Tampines Rovers player and, goaded by his giggling employers, revealed his acquired knowledge of the local vernacular.

Referee kayu.

Those were the first Singlish words spoken by the former Liverpool and Arsenal winger. He could’ve said anything; rojak, teh tarik, wah lau, talk cock, sing song, the ball is round, catch no ball or liak boh kiew if he really wanted to show off.

Or any of the thousands of colourful expressions included within the 121 pages of The Coxford Singlish Dictionary.

But he was advised to pick that one. The wrong one.

Referees deserve better than easy potshots

Referee kayu.

Just days after FourFourTwo suggested Pennant’s performances and press conferences, in his unofficial ambassadorial role, could either make the S.League famous or infamous, he unwittingly makes an oblique reference to the local game’s historical connection to corruption.

Anyone who assumes otherwise is either being willfully naïve or doesn’t travel very often.

Referee kayu, of course, literally means “referee plank”, or block of wood. The referee is wooden, a plank, incompetent and, if the chanting crowd is feeling particularly mischievous, on the take.

Referee kayu is a cousin of kelong, which is the Malay term for a fishing trap, but in regional football speak, means fixed, corrupt, bent, i.e. letting the fish slip through a broken net.

Naturally, the obvious retort here is, do not draw such a longbow. It’s only a laugh, a throwaway icebreaker at a press conference to ameliorate the stuffiness of the formal signing ceremony.

But the traditional defence for the bullying comedian doesn’t hold in this instance, failing to grasp the international perception of Singapore’s national sport.

At last year’s World Cup, this columnist was chatting with a doyen of football writing in the UK. He’s a revered journalist and a best-selling author and he kicked off our conversation by saying: “You cover Singapore football? What’s the latest on match-fixing?”

That’s what half a century of regional corruption scandals can do for a sport’s reputation. Whether it’s Lennon and McCartney, fish and chips, Bert and Ernie or Singapore football and match fixing, that’s just the way it is, inextricably linked, joined together in unholy matrimony till death us do part.

Or, at the very least, until new star signings aren’t encouraged to perpetuate a stereotype by making a joke about ineffectual referees.

It’s hard to recall a similar incident anywhere else in the world where a foreign footballer has attempted to disarm his new country by inadvertently insulting its league’s officials.

The fault doesn’t lie with Pennant, even if he might have checked the underlying meaning of “referee kayu” first, but it’s genuinely mystifying that no one considered the potential ramifications before passing along the cultural tidbit.

Suresh Nair is one of Singapore football’s pioneering investigative reporters, covering numerous match-fixing cases in the Malaysia Cup. He also happens to be an AFC refereeing instructor who conducts courses for S.League officials.

His lengthy, furious post on Facebook about the Pennant utterance underlined his shock and frustration.

Whatever the circumstances, whatever the intended outcome, why on earth would a foreign talent be encouraged to ridicule local officials?

Singapore football has always lived with an inferiority complex. The long-standing belief that playing, coaching, refereeing and administrative standards fall way short of Asian and global competitors lends itself to an inevitable chip on the shoulder.

It’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves. At the very occasion to celebrate the arrival of the biggest name in the S.League’s history, let’s get an unsuspecting foreigner to mock the competency of our referees.

Whether that was the intention, and it almost certainly wasn’t, that’s the reality. If the “referee kayu” comment gets picked up overseas, context must be included, i.e. Pennant referred to a popular terrace chant, often shouted when fans believe a referee is useless or, occasionally, corrupt.

Singapore has a history of football corruption. It was the first country to convict a referee for match-fixing, back in 1994. That’s the nuanced context of the referee kayu insult. The grubby dots are joined ever so quickly.

If nothing else, imagine how much fun the Malaysian media could have. The Liverpool and Arsenal old boy signs with the enemy across the Causeway and, in his best pidgin Singlish, jokes about their incapable officials.

Who needs the Malaysian Ultras to mock Singapore football? They do it to themselves down south.

Referees deserve better than easy potshots and Pennant certainly warrants better scriptwriters during the season.

It’s always good to get a laugh at a press conference, but probably not by calling your future match officials planks.

Photos: Weixiang Lim/FourFourTwo