TL;DR – What a sordid mess!
In 1998, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong set Goal 2010. The aim was for the Singapore national football team to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup Finals in South Africa. 2010 came and went. We didn’t get anywhere near to qualifying for the World Cup Finals. Then 2014 came. And went. We didn’t get anywhere near qualifying for the World Cup Finals.
It’s 2017. And we are already out of the running for a spot in the 2018 World Cup. Not only that, the FIFA ranking of our national team has fallen drastically since 1998. We used to be ranked 81 in 1998. Today, we are ranked 159.
There are a total of 211 national associations in FIFA. So while we aren’t exactly at rock bottom, we are pretty close. How did Singapore football get to such an abysmal state? The root causes are fairly complex. But recent events can give us some ideas of why Singapore football is so hopeless.
The $500,000 donation
For the first time in donkey years, the leadership for the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), the governing body of football in Singapore, is to be elected, not appointed. Any illusion that this would improve the state of football in Singapore is quickly dispelled by the farce of the campaigning.
It all started when Mr Lim Kia Tong, the current interim President of FAS, alleged that his opponent Mr Bill Ng, chairman of football clubs Hougang United FC and Tiong Bahru FC, as wanting to be the President of FAS he is “only interested to gain some mileage”.
That prompted Mr Ng to hit back. He alleged that the FAS had asked him to donate $850,000 to it through his clubs Tiong Bahru FC and Hougang. Mr Ng intimated that Winston Lee, the FAS general secretary, arranged the donations without the knowledge of other FAS council members. That led to a whole long sordid exchange of “he said, she said”.
Regardless of who said what, the whole $500,000 donation incident says a lot about the administration of football in Singapore.
Did the donation help Singapore football?
One question that the $500,000 donation raises is this. What was it used for? Ostensibly, the donation went to the ASEAN Football Federation’s (AFF) Football Management System, a “system” that almost no one had heard of until last week.
Given that football in Singapore isn’t exactly flushed with cash, every cent counts. $500,000 is a huge sum of money compared to what’s available to develop football in Singapore. Why did that much money go to some regional system rather than on developing football in Singapore? How does that help develop football in Singapore? Could the money not have been better spent?
For instance, only $70,000 was spent on organising grassroots competitions. Clubs involved in these grassroots competitions provide a base and platform for players to train and develop and serves as a channel for budding players to turn professional. It is estimated that FAS need to spend about S$400,000 annually to ensure that these clubs were sufficiently funded and that the leagues were properly run.
Show me the money!
Speaking of how FAS spends its money, FAS paid its key management personnel $1.8 million in the financial year ending March 2016. The key management personnel include the general secretary, and CEO of S.League. Of the key management personnel, the highest paid personnel earns between $400,001 to $500,000. In contrast, national players in the S.League are paid between $4,000 and $10,000 a month.
But at least FAS spends the majority of its money on football related activities. That isn’t the case for Tiong Bahru FC. Tiong Bahru FC had an annual revenue of $36.7 million in the last financial year from its fruit machines (a fancy name for jackpot machines). It paid out around S$23 million in winnings in 2016.
From the balance of $14 million, it paid its 15 employees $2.073 million in salaries in 2016, and also forked out an additional S$528,000 for staff training, uniforms and staff welfare. It paid around S$960,000 in total rent in 2016 to the unit’s landlord, Polygon Venture. That’s about $80,000 per month and works out to be $31 per square foot.
What’s strange about the rent is that it’s quite exorbitant compared to other units in the area. The club house is in the basement. Other units on the same floor are charging between S$2.92 and S$11.23 per square feet in rent. The only unit charging S$31.50 per square feet in rent is located at street level.
Things get fishier when you consider that Polygon Venture, the landlord, is owned by Bonnie Wong Yuk Ying, who shares the same same residential address as Mr Ng, the club’s chairman. Also, consider that the total rent paid for the clubhouse is substantially more than what’s the paltry $169,000 that is actually spent on the football team.
And it’s not as if Tiong Bahru FC couldn’t afford to spend more on the football team. After accounting for all its expenses, the club made a profit of about $604,000 in 2016. So it seems that the primary business of a football club in Singapore isn’t about football, but about operating jackpot machines instead.
While it’s not fair to say that all the football clubs in Singapore are like Tiong Bahru FC, but this latest revelation really creates a terrible impression. But the management of Tiong Bahru FC, the spending priorities of FAS, and the curious case of the $500,000 donation really don’t inspire confidence in the management of football in Singapore.
To make matters worse, police have raided the headquarters of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) and three football clubs. The raids were triggered by a police report filed by SportsSG. This is SportsSG’s statement:
“SportSG also made further checks, which raised other serious questions about the use of Club funds. Based on legal advice, SportSG decided to file a police report on 19 April 2017 at about 7:50pm, in respect of suspected misuse of Tiong Bahru Football Club’s funds and a purported attempt by a senior officer of the Club to delay and/or obstruct the completion of audits into the S.League sit-out clubs.”
After the raid, four people have been arrested. They are Hougang United chairman Bill Ng and his wife Bonnie Wong, FAS general secretary Winston Lee, and ex-FAS president Zainudin Nordin. They are now assisting the Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) with the probe into the suspected misuse of funds, and an attempt by a senior club official to obstruct the completion of audits of the S.League’s sit-out clubs.
All hope lost
Neil Humphreys, long-time observer of Singapore football, sum up this situation best:
“To the casual observer, Singapore’s only professional sport looks like a dispiriting basket case of back-handers, back-slappers and ladder-climbers, all focused on personal ambition rather than the game itself.
That’s the long-standing perception and after a week of petty claims and counter-claims, the perception now presents itself as reality. It’s all about greasing palms and making friends in higher places.”
Given how sordid it has become, you would be forgiven if you have lost all hope in Singapore’s football. The only silver lining is that we are probably at rock bottom. The only way from now on, surely, must be up. Or so we hope.
(Cover image via)