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Time for politicians to step out of sports bodies?

Despite a shift away from MPs leading sports associations, a complete exit seems unlikely

Weeks before Joe Louis fought Max Schmeling for the heavyweight boxing championship in 1938 and a year before World War II, Louis had visited the White House and received a pep talk from United States president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The American boxer was told, "We need muscles like yours to beat Germany", and he duly did, knocking out Schmeling in the first round.

The fight ended after only 124 seconds but offered lasting proof of the inextricable relationship between sports and politics.

Separating them is a tricky task, as the Football Association Of Singapore (FAS) discovered last year in July. That was when its Constitution - which dictated that all council members, including the president, be appointed by the minister for community development, youth and sports (now known as the minister for culture, community and youth) - was found to be in breach of Fifa's regulations.

Fifa, the world governing body for football, frowns upon government interference in member associations. It has imposed suspensions on Indonesia, Kuwait and Benin for such infringements in recent years.

The FAS revised its Constitution which was approved unanimously by its members last month. An open election of office-bearers will be held by May next year.

It will signal a historic shift in the governance of the country's national sport. Since the Singapore Amateur Football Association was changed to the FAS in 1974, the president has always been appointed by the Government and most have been politicians.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Of the nine men chosen from that period onwards, only teacher Richard B. I. Pates, lawyer N. Ganesan and former tax commissioner Hsu Tse-Kwang were not politicians.

The last four dating back to 1994 - Mr Ibrahim Othman, Mr Mah Bow Tan, Mr Ho Peng Kee and Mr Zainudin Nordin - were all Members of Parliament (MPs) from the ruling People's Action Party when they became FAS president.

Current interim president Lim Kia Tong, a litigation lawyer in private practice, is understood to be the FAS' preferred choice to lead the new team. The new president must run as part of a team of nine, comprising a deputy president, four vice-presidents and three council members. It is compulsory for a woman to be part of the slate.

Purists will maintain that sport and politics make for strange bedfellows though the reality - particularly in Singapore - is that both spheres do interact regularly.

Hougang United chairman Bill Ng has been touted as a candidate for the top post.

Another team, fronted by former Woodlands Wellington manager R. Vengadasalam, has been formed.

ALTERED LANDSCAPE

Regardless of the result, the landscape of sport administration in Singapore has changed.

In January last year, eight of the 63 national sports associations (NSAs) - or about one in eight - were led by MPs. They included major sports like table tennis (Ms Ellen Lee), badminton (Mr Lee Yi Shyan), basketball (Mr David Ong) and football (Mr Zainudin). Of the four, only Mr Lee remains an MP.

Today, only four - and largely lower-profile - sports are fronted by politicians. They are netball (Ms Jessica Tan), dragonboat (Dr Chia Shi-Lu), wushu (Mr Sitoh Yih Pin) and volleyball (Mr Ang Wei Neng).

This shift, whether intentional or otherwise, has its pros and cons.

Having a politician at the helm of an NSA can help to raise the profile of the sport and attract sponsors.

Under ex-chief Mr Lee, the Singapore Badminton Association signed a number of big sponsorship deals, including a four-year, $8.8 million agreement in 2010 with Chinese sports brand Li-Ning.

Former table tennis chief Lee Bee Wah raised close to $10 million during her six-year tenure at the Singapore Table Tennis Association.

The MPs involved in NSAs spoke up in support of sports in Parliament, noted Mr Nicholas Fang, a former national fencer and co-chef de mission at last year's Singapore SEA Games. He was also a Nominated Member of Parliament from 2012 to 2014.

He said: "We had a number of passionate individuals and were able to maintain the sports agenda as a talking point. That conversation needs to continue as we work towards building a sporting culture in Singapore."

National policies promoting sports have increased in recent years. In 2013, the $40 million Sports Excellence scholarships for elite-level local athletes were launched.

A year later, the Government unveiled a $1.5 billion Sports Facilities Master Plan to enable the majority of Singaporeans to be within 10 minutes' walk of a sports venue for play and exercise by 2030.

With the bulk of funding for NSAs coming from national agency Sport Singapore (SportSG), and thereby out of taxpayers' pockets, corporate governance has also long been a key concern.

There have been several high-profile cases of misappropriation of funds.

In 2002, former Singapore Tenpin Bowling Congress (now Singapore Bowling Federation) president Ong Teck Thian fled the country after siphoning off between $1 million and $2 million.

Three years later, ex-Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) finance executive Sean Lee allegedly embezzled $1.2 million from the association's coffers.

In May, Singapore Floorball Association president Sani Mohamed Salim allegedly misappropriated funds and was investigated by the police.

The expectation - and hope - was that having a public figure like an MP in charge would bring greater accountability.

But the presence of a politician in the primary leadership position, particularly in Asian cultures, could promote group think and an environment that discourages frank and open discussion, said one veteran official.

To succeed in elite-level sports, where the margin between a gold medal and fourth place can be centimetres or milliseconds, a robust debate of ideas is often required, he added.

POTENT MIX

Politicians in charge of NSAs with struggling on-field results also become a lightning rod for criticism from the public. Their involvement can even become politicised as it did during the 2015 General Election. During a rally speech, Workers' Party chairman Sylvia Lim took aim at the practice of appointing PAP MPs to head the FAS as evidence of the Government's interference in aspects of Singaporeans' lives.

Then there is the question of time. An MP often juggles a full-time job and constituency duties. It is questionable whether he or she is able to devote sufficient time and attention to ensure a sports association is well run.

Mr Low Teo Ping, who previously headed the Singapore Sailing Federation and is now SRU president, reckons that running an NSA is a multi-faceted job and favours someone with business experience.

The person has to juggle the demands of athletes, parents, volunteers, sponsors and various organisations like Sport Singapore and the Singapore National Olympic Council.

The retired banker added: "You have to think long term as well, not just for the first few years but far beyond. You want to create a pipeline of talent that can succeed at the highest level."

In the sporting fraternity, Mr Low, Mrs Jessie Phua (bowling), Mr Tang Weng Fei (athletics) and Mr Michael Vaz (shooting) - past and present NSA presidents with substantial global contacts - all hail from the private sector.

Such networks play an important role in developing their respective sports, said former Singapore Sports Institute chief Bob Gambardella, who led the organisation for seven years before stepping down after the Rio Olympic Games.

He added: "Besides their knowledge of best practices through years of building relationships with their respective international federations, they also help to bring marquee sporting events to Singapore."

Yet political backing is equally crucial in this regard. Large-scale events cannot be hosted if a country's government does not pledge the millions required to build the necessary infrastructure.

Both Mr Ng Ser Miang, then Singapore's International Olympic Committee executive board member, and Mr Teo Ser Luck, then Parliamentary Secretary (Community Development, Youth and Sports), worked hand in hand towards Singapore's successful bid for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

Purists will maintain that sport and politics make for strange bedfellows though the reality - particularly in Singapore - is that both spheres do interact regularly.

Mrs Phua, president of Singapore Bowling and a former NMP, argues that the essential trait for sports leaders in the Republic should not be his or her political affiliations.

"The most important quality is passion," she stressed. "Will this person have sleepless nights worrying about the sport, wondering how to improve it and be willing to make sacrifices for it?"

In some ways, the best administrators are like the sportsmen they oversee: neurotic, driven and ambitious.

But there is a key difference. While the Greek royal family had its box on the marathon finish line at the first modern Olympics in 1896 in Athens, officials these days must be able to accept their place on the back bench of sport.

After all, the sporting arena belongs solely to the athlete.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2016, with the headline 'Time for politicians to step out of sports bodies?'. Print Edition | Subscribe