How U-12 footballers won nation's first sports trophy

Lim Teng Sai, part of the Combined Schools team who played in Cheras days before Singapore's independence, was also the country's flag-bearer at the 1973 AFC Youth Championship in Teheran, Iran. At left in front is future radio DJ and sports commenta
Lim Teng Sai, part of the Combined Schools team who played in Cheras days before Singapore's independence, was also the country's flag-bearer at the 1973 AFC Youth Championship in Teheran, Iran. At left in front is future radio DJ and sports commentator Brian Richmond.PHOTO COURTESY OF LIM TENG SAI

It was 7am on Aug 6, 1965, but Lim Teng Sai was already up and buzzing with excitement. It was to be his first trip out of Singapore, after all.

The 12-year-old McNair Primary School pupil - who would eventually play in defence for Singapore's 1977 Malaysia Cup-winning side - was selected to represent the Combined Schools football team in an Under-12 tournament in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, featuring teams from various Malaysian states.

Assembling at Farrer Park with his team-mates, he travelled light - just a bag with a few clothes. There was no need for boots and shin pads, for he played barefooted, just like the other boys.

There was no need for a passport too. Singapore was part of Malaysia then, three days away from its unexpected independence.

And on Aug 8, the Combined Schools team won the Cheras tournament, beating their counterparts from Selangor, Pahang, Penang and Perak en route to the trophy.

Yet winning the tournament was far from Lim's mind as the coach made its way up to the Malaysian capital.

He was still excited about Singapore beating arch-rivals Selangor 3-1 to win the Malaysia Cup just a week earlier.

"It was a long and winding trip on a non air-conditioned coach. There were long traffic jams and many of the boys vomited," Lim, now 62, recalled.

"By the time we reached Cheras, it was already 8pm. During dinner, a Malaysian official claimed that Singapore would soon be kicked out of the federation.

"Of course, this hit us like a thunderbolt. It was a period of anxiety. There was already tension between Singapore and Malaysia.

"And we worried about whether we could go home."

One of the officials leading the Singapore team was the late George Suppiah, who would go on to fly the country's flag proudly in 1974 as the Republic's first referee at the World Cup Finals. Lim played up front for the Combined Schools alongside another future Lions star, Mat Noh.

But during those few days in Cheras, dreams of wearing jerseys emblazoned with five stars and a crescent moon were a world away.

"For our safety, Suppiah told us to keep a low profile and stay indoors at the dormitory," Lim said.

"When the next morning came, we just went out to play football."

And over two days, that was what Lim and his team-mates did as they brushed aside all comers to seal the win.

There was no border, no Customs and no welcome party back in Singapore though. The bus stopped quietly at Farrer Park and the boys returned to their waiting parents, who told them Singapore had become independent.

Said the former centre-back: "As a boy who loved to play football then, I felt very proud to represent my school.

"But on Aug 9, 1965, I felt that I am now part of a new country and I really wanted to keep winning things for my young country.

"The experience made me play even harder, to keep doing Singapore proud."

He laughed heartily as he recalled the immediate days after independence: "Life was normal, I went back to study, people went back to work. There was no public holiday."

And that was how things were 50 years ago for a team of schoolboys and officials who left the island as Malaysians - and returned as Singaporeans.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 09, 2015, with the headline 'How U-12 footballers won nation's first sports trophy'. Print Edition | Subscribe