Independence days, part I

Posted on August 19, 2011


In August 1965, the air around Jalan Besar Stadium was thick with the scent of uprising. The month had already brought momentous events – a Malaya Cup triumph and national independence within the fortnight. In the days following independence however, Singapore football seemed determined to prove the truth of the maxim ‘divided we fall’.

Singapore captain Lee Kok Seng with the Malaya Cup in 1965

Singapore captain Lee Kok Seng with the Malaya Cup in 1965

At the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, the brilliance of keeper Wilfred Skinner, skipper Lee Kok Seng’s assured defending, the mercurial talent of Majid Ariff and the canny guidance of coach Choo Seng Quee presented a picture of health for Singapore football.

But the 3-1 win over Selangor only temporarily papered over the cracks within the Singapore Amateur Football Association (SAFA).

In debt and with talk of bankruptcy hanging over the association, SAFA’s rule was also resented by Singapore league clubs like Darul Afiah and Chinese Athletic. The rifts which would open up over the following months had been brewing for some time, but it was a SAFA council meeting in August which would kick things off.

The meeting, presided over by deputy president P. Appavoo, made an amazing decision – that Singapore would not participate in the football event at the 3rd South-East Asian Peninsular (SEAP Games, the predecessor to the SEA Games) in December. The council’s reasoning? The Games in Kuala Lumpur were scheduled for the same month as the Aw Hoe Interport Cup, where Singapore  would play the hosts Hong Kong.

The council also set out a team of 16 players and six officials for the Aw Hoe Cup, including Appavoo as deputy manager, a secretary, a treasurer and two council members with no apparent appointment.

The news of the Aw Hoe touring party brought uproar in the local football community. The council members were accused of financial mismanagement and seeking a free trip to Hong Kong. SAFA president Hussein Kamari tried to repair the damage in September, claiming that the council’s decisions had been taken in his absence and would be reversed.

Hussein’s move would not salve the anger of fans and club officials though. In September, 28 clubs presented a petition to SAFA, calling for its 24-man council to resign en masse. The petition spoke of “gross mismanagement” of the association’s affairs, and crucially was backed by the signatures of 12 voting members of SAFA – which compelled the association to call an extraordinary general meeting within two weeks.

Before the EGM, Hussein chose to fall on his own sword. His parting words remained defiant: “(This is a) stab in the back. I firmly believe that the ‘rebel’ clubs have no grounds for complaints against the administration.

“I cannot tolerate this and I do not intend to be made the scapegoat by these power-seeking factions. It is best that I make way for those who think they can do a better job than I can.”

Days later, seven of the 10 senior clubs affiliated with SAFA made their move. They passed a vote of no confidence in their own representatives on the SAFA council, Salim Omar and Quek Ah Chua, saying that the duo had failed in their duties as senior club representatives and acted as “stooges” for the council. The 62 junior clubs followed this up with a petition of their own to dissolve the SAFA council, backed by the Association of Football Players.

The heat was too much to bear for the SAFA council. At a meeting on 10 September, treasurer N. Ganesan moved for dissolution. “The decision must be a harmonious one. We have no unity among ourselves, being divided into several factions,” said the man who would later become president of the Football Association of Singapore, the renamed SAFA.

“The only alternative in the interest of soccer in the state is to make a wise and bold decision – dissolve the present council and form a new one.” Ganesan’s motion was passed, and the charge of SAFA was put in the hands of two men – caretaker president Kee Yew Leng and secretary Lim Yong Liang.

The months ahead would bring a new president, Abu Bakar Pawanchee, the permanent secretary to the Foreign Ministry, and a new council. But Singapore football’s state of crisis would endure, this time spreading to the field of play.

Singapore and the aftermath of the 1965 SEAP Games in Part II.