Controversies in local football

A club and its millions

Mr Bill Ng, chairman of Tiong Bahru football club. Mr Winston Lee, general secretary of FAS. Former FAS president Zainudin Nordin.
Mr Bill Ng, chairman of Tiong Bahru football club.
Mr Bill Ng, chairman of Tiong Bahru football club. Mr Winston Lee, general secretary of FAS. Former FAS president Zainudin Nordin.
Mr Winston Lee, general secretary of FAS.
Mr Bill Ng, chairman of Tiong Bahru football club. Mr Winston Lee, general secretary of FAS. Former FAS president Zainudin Nordin.
Former FAS president Zainudin Nordin.

News of Tiong Bahru FC amassing millions in a year stuns public, raises questions and leads to probe

Thirty-seven million dollars. Or $36.8 million to be more precise.

It is enough to run the Football Association of Singapore, or FAS, (annual budget, $35.8 million in 2016) for an entire year.

It can fund the struggling S-League (annual budget, $16 million) for a little over two years.

This was the amount amassed by Tiong Bahru FC, a team in the National Football League (NFL), for the financial year ending in March last year. In a sport that depends largely on subsidies from the Tote Board, the amateur club's wealth, largely made from its 29 jackpot machines, was stunning.

This was the figure revealed by The Straits Times on April 20 which shocked Singapore and resulted in police raids ahead of the FAS' inaugural watershed election. Its effects are still being felt today.

Tiong Bahru's chairman is Mr Bill Ng, a corporate rescue expert who led a slate of 15 called the Game Changers to contest the election. The 57-year-old faced Team LKT, a side led by lawyer Lim Kia Tong.

  • Who's who in the FAS Donate-gate scandal

  • BILL NG AND BONNIE WONG

    Mr Ng, a corporate rescue specialist, led a team called the Game Changers to contest the inaugural Football Association of Singapore (FAS) election. The Hougang United and Tiong Bahru chairman made no secret that his financially healthy clubs have a steady revenue stream from jackpot machines. Tiong Bahru alone raked in almost $37 million in the previous financial year. The Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) raided the clubhouses of Tiong Bahru, Hougang, Woodlands Wellington and the FAS office on April 20. Mr Ng and his wife, Ms Wong, were both arrested.

    WINSTON LEE

    Mr Lee was appointed FAS general secretary in 2008 and will leave the organisation at the end of this month. The saga started when Mr Ng alleged that Mr Lee had asked him for a $500,000 donation to the Asean Football Federation (AFF). This sparked a war of words between Mr Ng, Mr Lee and former FAS president Zainudin Nordin. Although Mr Lee made public documents to try to prove that it was Mr Zainudin who had asked for the donation, the football fraternity expressed disappointment that the huge donation benefited a foreign entity and was not invested in the local game. Mr Lee was also arrested as part of the CAD probe.

    ZAINUDIN NORDIN

    President of the FAS from 2009 to 2016, the former MP for Toa Payoh-Bishan GRC was named by the FAS as the individual who solicited a $500,000 donation from Hougang United and Tiong Bahru FC chairman Bill Ng. The money was later given to the AFF, through the FAS, to procure a management portal. During the saga, Mr Zainudin posted cryptic tweets saying "#betrayal" and "revenge is a dish best served cold". He was also arrested by the CAD.

The first bombshell dropped on April 13 at the unveiling of the Game Changers' election manifesto. Presidential hopeful Ng revealed he had made donations totalling $850,000 to the FAS, which was later reported to include $500,000 to the Asean Football Federation (AFF) for a management portal and $200,000 to the now-defunct LionsXII. He later alleged that its general secretary Winston Lee knew about the donations.

That accusation began a war of words. The FAS then named its former president Zainudin Nordin, a former MP for Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC, as the party that solicited the donation from Mr Ng to the AFF. But there was also disappointment that the FAS had allowed this huge amount to be given to a foreign body when the local game, struggling for funds, could have gained.

On April 20, national sports agency Sport Singapore said it had lodged a police report over the suspected misuse of Tiong Bahru's funds and a purported attempt by a senior official of the club to delay and/or obstruct an audit into the S-League sit-out clubs.

That same afternoon, Commercial Affairs Department (CAD) officers raided the clubhouses of Tiong Bahru, Hougang and Woodlands. All three clubs are linked to Mr Ng, as he is also the chairman of S-League side Hougang and was tasked by the FAS in 2014 to merge the Cheetahs and Woodlands Wellington. The FAS office in Jalan Besar was also swept. Investigators worked long into the night to cart away boxes of documents and computers. Mr Zainudin, Mr Lee, Mr Ng and his wife Bonnie Wong were all arrested.

Checks into annual reports showed that Tiong Bahru paid out $31 million in jackpot winnings and taxes. That left it with an income of $5 million and a surplus of $700,000. But its expenses were eye-popping: It spent $2.07 million on its staff, including $527,877 on "training, uniforms and welfare", $1.37 million went into salaries and bonuses and $169,250 was spent on "football accessories expenses", which is three times the average of an NFL club's spending.

For its 3,735.08 sq ft clubhouse at People's Park Centre, Tiong Bahru paid $958,955, at a rate of $21.40 per sq ft (psf) in rental to landlord Polygon Ventures. The rental rate of a 500 sq ft unit in the same building is between $12 and $24 psf with prices going down for larger units. It was also revealed that Polygon's majority shareholder is Ms Wong.

In the aftermath of the raids, the FAS held its election. Team LKT won a swift victory in 28 minutes,claiming 30 of the 44 votes at stake, with one affiliate abstaining.

In July, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced tighter regulations on jackpot licences for sports clubs in an effort to reduce the number of machines over the next two years. It also targeted football clubs that have jackpot revenue but do not field a professional team.

The ailing S-League now has to wean itself away from the money-spinners. Clubs have to work harder than ever to reach out to sponsors and find other revenue streams. And the fraternity awaits the outcome of the CAD probe.

Singapore football is never going to be the same again, and its future is far from certain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2017, with the headline 'A club and its millions '. Print Edition | Subscribe