Unconstructive Singapore politics, Italian fascism and the World Cup

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by Michael Y.P. Ang

Since it began in 1930, the World Cup has been linked to political, economic, social and cultural developments. Using FIFA’s premier event to serve political ends is commonplace. Goh Chok Tong tried to do it when he was prime minister. So did Benito Mussolini, Italy’s dictator before and during World War II.

Italian fascism

In his book, Football and Fascism: The National Game under Mussolini, Simon Martin shows how Italian fascism fully exploited the opportunities football provided to shape public opinion, penetrate daily life and reinforce conformity.

Mussolini successfully fought to have the 1934 World Cup finals staged in Italy, deriving political gains from the event. Martin points out that Italy’s matches saw the home fans chanting “Duce, Duce” while the Italian militia band played Fascist hymns.  Duce (The Leader) was a Fascist reference to Mussolini’s dictatorship.

In a foreword for the book, Sport, Representation, and Evolving Identities in Europe, Paddy Agnew writes: “Mussolini was not the first, nor the last, political leader to realise that football could provide priceless popular consensus, not to mention positive PR and photo-ops for himself and his regime.”

Perhaps the PAP government is also seeking such political gains through its long-standing governance of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS).

But while Mussolini played a key role in laying the foundation on which Italy became the first country to win consecutive World Cups (1934 and 1938), various PAP politicians over the past quarter-century were helpless in their capacity as FAS president, unable to stop Singapore football’s seemingly endless decline.

GOAL 2010: PAP’s unconstructive politics

France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team included a significant number of immigrants and native-born players with immigrant parents, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the PAP.

Against the backdrop of opening the floodgates for immigrants, the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong raised the issue of imported athletes at the 1998 National Day Rally:

“Last year I told you Singapore would never have a chance in the World Cup, because the rules require all players to be citizens. But after watching the French victory, I have changed my mind. Maybe if we change our immigration criteria to bring in top football talent and make them citizens, then one day we too can get into the finals. In fact, we intend to do just this, to bring in sports talent.”

Just months after that speech, the FAS launched GOAL 2010 with the target of reaching the 2010 World Cup finals. But even before the qualifiers began in 2007, GOAL 2010 had already been shown the red card to avoid prolonging the embarrassing appearance of both the FAS and Government scoring an own goal

Neither the Government nor the FAS could properly account for this: How could Singapore secure World Cup qualification when the Lions, apart from their qualifying campaign in 1977, perpetually miss the final qualifying round by a mile?

Perhaps GOAL 2010 was a vehicle for cultivating support for the PAP’s immigration policy. The Lions are Singapore’s most visible national sports team. If Singaporeans readily embrace national footballers, including immigrant players, this may extend to welcoming economic migrants, both skilled and low-skilled.

The problem, however, was that Goh probably did not receive sound advice on football. If he did, he would not have made a public statement which must have been widely viewed as vacuous

After all, how many Singaporeans actually believe GOAL 2010 was a well-conceived target for the Lions? Does anyone know of a rational argument that claims Singapore could realistically reach the World Cup finals?

Despite the absurdity of GOAL 2010, I do agree with the practice of tapping the World Cup for political purposes if it is done through a viable plan likely to produce a beneficial outcome for Singapore.

However, I am not a fan of politicians rallying Singaporeans for an unattainable goal. According to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, part of constructive politics is to rally people together for a common cause. But implementing GOAL 2010, a common cause so off-target it lacked substance, must be like committing the foul of unconstructive politics.

Unfortunately, the Government-controlled FAS appears not to have learnt from its GOAL 2010 fiasco. The national football association’s current target is for the Lions to ascend to Asia’s top 10 by next year – another unreachable goal.