Independence days, part II

Posted on August 24, 2011


Going into the 1965 South-East Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games, the mood in the Singapore camp was clearly one of confidence. “Beautiful soccer” was the verdict of acting Singapore Amateur Football Association (SAFA) president Kee Yew Leng after a 1-0 friendly win over Johor in November.

Musing over the depth of the squad, Kee was of the view that the quality of the players fighting for a place in the SEAP Games side presented an almighty dilemma for selectors.

Singapore captain Quah Kim Swee

Singapore captain Quah Kim Swee

December brought further good tidings. Singapore headed for the Games having captured the Aw Hoe Cup, defeating Hong Kong 2-1 after extra-time in a replay. The injured Lee Kok Seng aside, Singapore’s Malaya Cup-winning side was intact, as was the guidance of coach Choo Seng Quee from the sidelines.

With newly appointed captain Quah Kim Swee leading the line, the Lions also boasted players of the quality of keeper Wilfred Skinner, defenders Lee Wah Chin and Matthew Chin, and the talented attackers Majid Ariff and Rahim Omar.

In Kuala Lumpur however, Singapore’s challenge went to pieces. Playing two matches in a five-team tournament, the Lions lost 1-0 to Burma in their first game before being crushed 5-1 by South Vietnam in their second.

As bewildered fans pondered the swift exit, the fallout began. Two days after Christmas, the new SAFA council wielded the axe – coach Choo and six players – Quah Kim Swee, Quah Kim Siak, Mokhtar Tabri, Ali Astar, Mahat Ambu and Majid Ariff – were sacked.

The sackings stemmed from team manager Tan Peng Ghee’s report to the council. Tan alleged that captain Kim Swee had demanded monetary allowances before the tournament, and that coach Choo had stood with the players.

“In my opinion these players lack the spirit of loyalty, dedication and obligation to their country. All they were interested in was the amount of allowances and bonuses they were to get. We could do without these players,” said Tan. He also accused coach Choo of insubordination and inciting indiscipline and resentment among the players.

In an era when the players were nominally amateur, the issue of financial incentives was a touchy one. It emerged that SAFA had been paying allowances of S$15 per match and S$100 for a win, which for many went against the spirit of amateur sport. The new council’s move in December 1965 to end the practice of allowances, bonuses and other gifts was applauded by the media.

With the core of the 1965 Malaya Cup team gutted, SAFA attempted to rebuild the national team. Of a 23-man squad named to face Czechoslovakian champs Slovan Bratislava in January 1966, only 12 were national team regulars. New faces included Brian Richmond, John Fernandez and future national coach Robin Chan.

With the team in flux, the results that followed were predictable. The national side lost 2-0 to Slovan; what made things worse were the pull-outs just before the match of keeper Skinner and defender Lee Teng Yee. Singapore had to field the Johor keeper Ungku Ismail.

Slovan played another two matches against invitational teams featuring the national players as well as players from Johor and the Joint Services. These ended 10-1 and 7-0 to the Czechs, with Slovan proposing after the second game to lend three players to Singapore to make their final match more even. Another visiting side, OFK Belgrade, handed out another two heavy defeats in January with a 4-1 win over Singapore and a 6-1 hammering of an invitational side.

After the humblings at the hands of the two Eastern European teams, SAFA renamed itself the Football Association of Singapore in late January 1966. Former national coach Choo meanwhile was still appealing the decision to sack him and six players after the SEAP Games.

Abu Bakar Pawanchee, Singapore's representative to the United Nations and FAS president, 1965-1967

In a letter to new FAS president Abu Bakar Pawanchee, Choo wrote: “I humbly appeal to you to use your wise counsel to see that justice is done. The players should be given a chance to answer the allegations and they cannot possibly do that without a commission of inquiry”. No such commission would be forthcoming.

On the field, things continued to look bleak as the new-look Singapore were knocked out of the Football Association of Malaya (FAM) Cup by Johor. Despite a month-long training camp under Scottish coach Frank Brennan, Singapore then lost the first match in their defence of the Malaya Cup, again to Johor.

At the beginning of the year, the FAS had said: “(We) are prepared to start from scratch. We don’t care if it takes us another five years to rebuild a team of 1965 standard. We are determined to do it.” After the second defeat to Johor however, fingers landed firmly on the panic button.

In April 1966, reconciliation talks were called with the six players sacked the previous December, as well as with Skinner and Lee Teng Yee. The talks ended with all eight available for the national team once again. An FAS statement said: “Inche Abu Bakar was convinced that some of them had indeed misbehaved themselves during the SEAP Games, but he was prepared to give them another chance.

“He was also convinced, after hearing reports from the players as well as from officials who accompanied the team to Kuala Lumpur, that not all the blame should be attached to the players alone.”

A Quah Kim Swee goal on his return gave Singapore a half-time lead in their second Malaya Cup match, but the Lions still lost 2-1 to Singapore Joint Services. An 8-1 victory over Negri Sembilan inspired by Kim Swee restored some hope, but Singapore were eventually eliminated after further losses to the Malaysian Armed Forces and the Services.

Only after December 1966 and the Asian Games would Singapore football be able to hold its head up in pride again.