• Thu. Oct 5th, 2023

From SEA Games silver to Tiger Cup triumphs. Does race really matter in Singapore football?

Jun 21, 2023

The lack of success for the Singapore national football team in recent years has prompted several quarters to question whether we should cast the net wider and reel in more footballers of Chinese descent to play the sport professionally in Singapore in order for the nation to have a higher chance of enjoying success on the field.

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For many years, that has been the convenient fallback with proponents surmising that if the majority race of Singapore’s population does not play football, then the sport is doomed.

This argument is however, not based on fact and evidence as this piece will aim to illustrate.

In fact, there were also respondents who were asked inputs to this article who considered the line of argument about having more players in the team just based on race as being somewhat “racist”.

“Players should be selected based on their ability and their contribution to a team,” said R Vengadasalam, one of Singapore’s long-serving football officials, currently chairman of Woodlands Lions Football Club.

“It is ok to have a team of all Malays, or all Indians, or all Chinese and the key is to source for the talent from all over Singapore.

“It is after-all a team of Singaporeans,” he argued.

Another official who spoke to TMSG said that if the current argument calling for more Chinese players to play the sport would mean success, then shouldn’t China be a world beater by now at the Asian level?

What is also true is that the same argument is not being used for other team sports where there is one dominant race which is involved.

Examples like water polo, basketball and even cricket (photo below) come to mind, where a single race can dominate the sport due to multiple reasons like physiology and genetic make-up.

PHOTO: SNOC

“Is it the fault of the community that they choose which sport to excel in,” asked the same official who declined to be quoted for this story because of the sensitivity of race.

But this is precisely why this piece needs be written – given that the argument that having more Chinese players playing the sport would automatically mean success is still being bandied about by various quarters, mostly without any modicum of evidence to support their theories. 

SILVER AT THE 1989 SEA GAMES AND TIGER CUP VICTORIES

Many still cherish the memories of the Malaysia Cup days, where players passionately represented Singapore despite it being a domestic competition. 

Notable iconic moments include the League and Cup double in 1994 led by Fandi Ahmad, with the reliable David Lee in goal and the towering Lim Tong Hai in defense. 

PHOTO: ASIAONE

Others like Lee Man Hon, and V.Selvaraj started the match against Pahang in the 1994 Malaysia Cup final among the other players, who were largely Malays like Saswadimata Dasuki, Rafi Ali, Malek Awab and Rudy Khairon.

Some players in the 1994 Malaysia Cup final had also previously won a medal for Singapore in the 1989 SEA Games. 

Coached by Jita Singh, the squad included four Chinese players in David Lee, Lim Tong Hai Au-Yeong Pak Kuan and Tay Peng Kee. 

But in a squad of 23, 14 were Malays, which was more than half the squad which went all the way to the final.

They had a decent run in the tournament; holding Thailand to a 1-1 draw, defeated Myanmar 4-0 in the group stage, and secured a 1-0 victory over Indonesia in the semi-finals. 

However, they lost 3-1 to Malaysia in the finals, earning them the silver medal.

The Singapore senior team’s first major regional success occurred in 1998 when they clinched the Tiger Cup, defying expectations that they would not progress beyond the group stage following the retirement of their Malaysia Cup heroes. 

Led by coach Barry Whitbread, the young Singapore team, featuring goalkeeper Rezal Hassan, defenders Aide Iskandar, S. Subramani, Lim Soon Seng, midfielders R. Sasikumar, Rafi Ali, and attacker Ahmad Latiff, caused an upset by emerging as champions, with Sasikumar securing victory with the winning goal against host Vietnam in the final.

PHOTO: SPORTFIVE

Did Coach Whitbread’s success come about because he assembled a team with more Chinese players or were there other factors at play, such as his tactical brilliance and the players’ determination to succeed on the field? 

There was also continuity from the 80s to the 90s, with the new and younger players that replaced the former players in the national set-up growing up watching their idols play for the Lions.

The Football Association of Singapore turned to the Foreign Sports Talent Scheme in the early 2000s, with notable players like Itimi Dickson and Agu Casmir contributing to Singapore’s victory in the 2004 Tiger Cup. 

Other non-Malays players in the squad were Daniel Bennett, Goh Tat Chuan (photo below, left), goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, and Subramani. 

PHOTO: SPORTFIVE

Singapore successfully defended their title in the 2007 edition, adding new foreign talents such as Shi Jiayi from China and Precious Emuejeraye from Nigeria. 

Singapore’s fourth AFF Championship title came in 2012 under former coach Radojko Avramovic who also led the team in 2004 and 2007. 

His squad had five foreign born-players – Jiayi, Qiu Li, Mustafic Fahrudin, Bennett, and Aleksandar Duric.

WHAT HOLDS THE CHINESE PLAYERS BACK

Despite being the majority in Singapore, the Chinese population tends to avoid pursuing professional football careers. 

However, they can often be found participating in amateur Singapore Football League and social matches on weekends across the island. 

This may be attributed to the unappealing salary packages offered by certain clubs, as revealed by former Woodlands Wellington and ex-Singapore under-21 player, Ang Zhiwei (photo below, left).

PHOTO: TNP

“We do have lots of untapped talent pool, but many might think there is no future in it. 

“If you have an attractive salary, not only the Chinese, others will also go for it. 

“You see many young Chinese players paying to join academies, and coming up through the ranks. 

“But after that they disappear because of the lack of career opportunities” said Ang, who last played for local professional club Warriors Football Club in 2017.

“There are also many Chinese playing football socially during the weekend. During my time playing professionally, I believe that my work rate and skills are better but my salary is not that great.”

THE RACE REPRESENTATION ARGUMENT IN SPORTS IS OFFENSIVE AND RACIST

If race representation will equate to medals, then why has Singapore’s basketball sides not tasted success? 

How many times have the Singapore Slingers won the ASEAN Basketball League since its inception in 2009? 

The Slingers and their long-serving coach Neo Beng Siang have worked their socks out, putting in tremendous effort trying to win the championships. 

PHOTO: SINGAPORE SLINGERS

Or similarly, Singapore’s men’s cricket team recently took gold at the SEA Games in Cambodia. 

They did not need to have members of the majority race to secure the gold medal. 

In fact, the question is – would the same critics be calling for the majority race in Singapore to take up cricket to secure gold? 

The answer is obvious, and it is no. 

A senior local coach who spoke to TMSG said that if selectors get too caught up in the need for Chinese representation just for the sake of it, then they would be missing the wood for the trees.

“In trying to keep an eye out specifically for players from one race may actually mean that a player from another race who is more talented may well be overlooked,” he shared.

“This is unfair, and so what if there is one race who is keen and want to make football a career?”

DO NOT DENY THEM WHAT THEY ARE GOOD AT DOING, AND THE CHANCE TO EARN A LIVING

By continuing the narrative that one race is better than the other may not really go down too well with the community, as it also gives the impression that there is a movement to take away the one skill which sets them apart as being unique.

Football enthusiasts definitely yearn for success, but some out there must not use this opportunity to argue about the racial imbalance in the sport. 

It is essential to acknowledge and emphasise that race should never be a determining factor in an individual’s athletic abilities or chances of succeeding in sports. 

It is therefore imperative to focus on holistic development and improve the footballing ecosystem in Singapore – starting from the youth set-up, the Singapore Premier League, National Football League and the various national age-groups, which will eventually benefit the Singapore national team – and this must be done without ethnicity being brought into the mix.

“Talent is talent, regardless of race,” said Vengadasalam.

Fandi Ahmad, D Tokijan, Mohd Noh, Salim Moin, Nasir Jalil, Nazri Nasir, Abdullah Noor, Hassan Sunny, Shawal Anuar, Baihakki Khaizan, Indra Sahdan Daud, Noh Alam Shah, Ahmad Latiff Khamaruddin, Kadir Yahaya, Malek Awab, Yakob Hashim.

These are just a few of the names of players who have represented the Lions over the last four decades. 

Race was never an issue, and it should never be. 

MAIN PHOTO: SPORTFIVE/1998 TIGER CUP

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