When Singapore's Lions played nation builders

As Singapore reflects on Lee Kuan Yew's life, Neil Humphreys says it's important to remember the role that Singapore football played and why it must grow again.

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The grainy images are now familiar to millions. The election rallies, the kampongs, the sampans on a crowded Singapore River, the clips have been repeated throughout the week to celebrate Lee Kuan Yew’s life.

But nostalgia deceives. Memories are selective. We see what we choose to see. Many saw a post-colonial backwater on the cusp of modernisation. I saw a football nation.

An old photograph of the Grand Old Lady of Kallang – youthful, lively and energetic when opened in 1973 – was a reminder that the fledgling country was also a football nation; a local football nation.

Election rallies beside the Fullerton stopped a nation, but so did football matches at the National Stadium. Everyone crammed into the concrete arena to watch ‘Gelek King’ Dollah Kassim or pretty boy Quah Kim Song.

Much is made of Singapore’s successful multiracial story now, but the Lions got there first; a national side represented by all the major races. The Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians all ran out to the Kallang Roar. They were willing and equal participants, united only by the national football cause.

Multiracialism was natural and organic on a Singaporean football field. It’s something the game has lost, to its obvious detriment. The Football Association of Singapore is working to bring it back. There’s no other way. The sport’s future depends on a more multiracial makeup in the Lions dressing room.

In those halcyon days seen on TV this week, a career in Singapore football was not dismissed but actively encouraged. The path was tried and tested. There were clear footsteps to follow.

It wasn’t just a great year for England in 1966. Singapore also finished fourth in the Asian Games. The Quah family, Majid Ariff and flying keeper Wilfred Skinner came from different backgrounds, but ended up in one place – on a field in Bangkok, carrying a young nation’s hopes in the Asian Games.

Role models were everywhere. The seventies were book-ended by S Rajagopal and Mohammad Noh and some scrawny kid called Fandi Ahmad. For promising boys battering a ball around, aspiration was easy. The Quahs, Rajagopal and Fandi came from the same kampongs, the same kind of families. A kid could make it happen. Parental guidance was assured.

Quah Kim Lye and Dollah Kassim in training in 1983. Photo: National Archives

And they could play anywhere. Farrer Park was the legendary breeding ground, but an open field was just about accessible to all. Sembawang, Jurong, Woodlands and Tiong Bahru all had their kampong incubators.  

The Singapore Sports Council was established in 1973 and “Sports for All” was the order of the day. But the programme was not a tokenistic one. Support for a promising footballer was usually there, both on the terraces and, more importantly, within the family home.

To be a Singapore Lion was to be somebody.

Of course the emphasis gradually changed. A price paid for the island’s affluence was the steady demise of its only professional sport.

Other factors undoubtedly played their part. The rise of regional match-fixing coincided with the increasing availability of European football on TV. The perennial struggles of the S.League only exacerbated matters.

But at some point there was a fundamental shift in emphasis. Professional football stopped being a respectable career path and the local game lost its credibility. Law, medicine, engineering and biochemistry and the like were pursued for obvious, economic reasons.

But Singapore isn’t unique in its ambition to promote lucrative career choices that benefit both the individual and the wider economy. Other countries need doctors and lawyers, too. But those countries haven’t attached such an unwanted social stigma to kicking a ball around for a living.

In the last couple of decades, professional football has somehow been tarnished with the same brush that now sweeps across professional boxing in North America and much of Europe. It’s the sport of poverty, an escape route for the working classes. Whether it’s a ghetto in Harlem or a kampong in Hougang, the sport is only a means to an end, never an end itself.

For a mother raising a kid in Brooklyn, a choice between her son potentially suffering brain trauma in a ring or going to college isn’t a choice at all. But for the mother in Bishan, it’s become a similarly black and white issue between tertiary education and professional football (even though the two are not mutually exclusive).

Poor salaries are part of the recent problem, but this mindset took root long before the S.League’s financial shortcomings. The malaise goes back decades. It’s both the biggest stumbling block and the biggest lesson to learn from Singapore’s short history.

The last week has been an intense period of reflection, with many stressing the importance of remembering how the country got here.  Football also played its part in the narrative, with the Kallang Roar providing a unifying soundtrack. As nation-builders, the Singapore Lions more than did their bit.

The focus will now shift towards a Singapore after Lee Kuan Yew and what needs to be done to galvanise and unite future generations.

One of the answers can be found in those old photographs from 1973.

A packed National Stadium watching a multiracial team usually does the trick.

Photo: style mesti ada

Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. His newest book, Marina Bay Sins, is out in stores now. You can find his website right here.