Did politics kill S’pore football? Ministry should explain past decisions

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M'sia Cup 1977

[Photo above: Singapore’s glory days, M’sia Cup victory 1977]

With the acrimonious Football Association of Singapore (FAS) elections over and done with, it is time for Singapore football to move on and allow the new team to carry out its agenda and campaign promises.

Mr Lim Kia Tong, the newly-elected president of the association, has his work cut out in not only bringing unity to the football authority whose current general-secretary is under police probe, but also in raising the standards and international standing of Singapore football. It is a task which the FAS has failed in for at least the last 17 years.

Singapore currently sits at number 159 in FIFA’s world ranking, a miserable position, especially given the popularity of the sport here and the millions of dollars poured into it over the years.

A year ago, we were ranked 171st.

The FAS had also failed in bringing Singapore to the football World Cup in 2010, a goal it laid out initially in 1998. More recently, its aim of making Singapore one of the top 10 teams in Asia by 2015 also collapsed flat on its face, as Singapore football degenerated into mediocrity. We consoled ourselves with victories in the Suzuki Cup tournament which pitted Southeast Asia teams against each other. Our last victory, it is to be noted, was 5 years ago in 2012. That is little consolation as Singapore fans expect more after all these years.

It is time to stop deceiving ourselves with tiny crumbs of so-called successes.

While the spotlight is now rightly focused on the new FAS team and Mr Lim in particular, it is also necessary to look back on history to learn the lessons it taught us, so that the new FAS management can avoid them.

One of these is the appointment and re-appointment of the FAS president by Singapore’s sport ministry, namely the former Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sport (MCYS), now renamed the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY).

Under the old FAS constitution the FAS president and the members of the council were appointed by the minister of the sport ministry, before they are put through an election.

In 2015, it was FIFA which stepped in and told the FAS that the practice contravened FIFA’s rules which stipulate that there should be no third-party, or political, influence in the football authority.

The FAS constitution was then reviewed and tweaked to allow for open elections of the council members.

The ministry’s power to shape the association at the highest level has thus been removed, although there is at least one politician among members of the newly elected council, PAP MP Edwin Tong.

What should be asked is how the minister or the ministry, for the past 17 years, appointed and reappointed its own party’s politicians to the FAS president position even as the standard and ranking of our national football team plunged year after year, and targets such as Goal 2010 and Top 10 in Asia 2015 were not met.

This is the chart from FIFA’s website of Singapore football’ ranking through the decades.

In the last 17 years, when People’s Action Party (PAP) MPs continuously helmed the association, the decline is stark and patently obvious.

The fall is virtually a straight line down the gutter.

In the past, Singapore had ranked as high as 70. In 1999, it was 110. But by 2016, we had nosedived and gone into a freefall to 171.

During that time, 3 PAP MPs were at the driving wheel at the FAS – Mah Bow Tan, Ho Peng Kee, Zainuddin Nordin.

Besides the question of why politicians were repeatedly being appointed by the minister to the top management position despite the government being aware this was against FIFA rules, there must be some accountability from the ministry for continuing its practice despite the pathetic results.

Arguably, there have been improvements made to Singapore football by the three politician-presidents during their tenure, such as the various systems put in place to develop youth football, for example.

Nonetheless, at the end of the day, these “improvements” must result in raising the standards of the game at the national level, improving our international reputation, and perhaps most important of all, attracting spectators to the stands at each game.

There must be an overall sense of optimism and pride whenever Singaporeans talk of local football, as indeed they did in earlier days.

But is this the case?

Anecdotal evidence would suggest that the direct opposite is true, and the once proud fan has become a long-suffering one, hoping for the day the sun will finally emerge from the last 17 years of gloom.

So, why did the minister find it appropriate and beneficial to the sport to appoint its party politicians to the role of spearheading the charge to up our football standards?

What were the considerations which went into the decision? Who did the minister consult? Why were failures, as mentioned, apparently forgiven? Were the presidents not deemed responsible for such failures?

For example, the last government appointee for president was Zainuddin Nordin, who was a PAP Mayor and MP until 2015.

Mr Zainuddin stepped down as FAS president in 2016.

During this tenure, Singapore football went through what can only be described as its wilderness period with perhaps the steepest fall in FIFA’s ranking Singapore has ever gone through.

We fell from 110, when Zainuddin first became FAS president in 2009, to 171 by the time he stepped down in 2016 – a precipitous fall of 60 places within a span of just 7 years.

Yet, he was appointed for 4 two-year terms., despite this.

What was the reason for the ministry’s decision in doing so? What did the minister see in his management and performance that justified reappointment?

Mr Zainuddin was reported to have been arrested and is currently out on police bail. He is apparently being investigated for what the media report as “suspected misuse of club funds at Tiong Bahru Football Club and an attempt to obstruct audits into clubs.”

If FIFA had not stepped in, another PAP MP was likely to have been appointed FAS president, continuing the long-held tradition of government-appointed heads.

While there are advantages to having politicians being in charge of sports associations, it should nonetheless be the results which matter. And for the FAS, the results – or lack thereof – truly speak for themselves.

The lesson here is this: it is not that politicians should not be appointed to head the associations but that if such appointees repeatedly fail to raise the standards, achievements and targets set for the sport, he must not be allowed to carry on, to the detriment of the sport and all involved.

And in the interest of public accountability, where millions of dollars have been spent, it is necessary for the ministry to explain its decisions in sticking to a failed practice – a failure which has now become all too obvious.

Why were FAS presidents who failed to perform repeatedly appointed and reappointed to head the association, for almost 20 years?

Did politics kill Singapore football?