Politicians' vital role in building sporting ties

At the Workers' Party rally last Thursday, party chairman Sylvia Lim said that the Singapore football team was once a force to be reckoned with - until government representatives got involved ("WP flashes red card at Govt for its interference in sports"; last Friday).

Her account is one-sided.

I was appointed chairman of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) in 1982 by the former minister for social affairs, Dr Ahmad Mattar.

The year before my appointment, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) had booted the FAS out of the league, following an incident involving FAS officials.

What happened was that some FAS officials, most of whom were from the private sector, had been unhappy about reserved seating arrangements at the VIP grandstand at Larkin Stadium, where a game between Singapore and Johor was being played.

The FAS officials showed their unhappiness over the incident.

Subsequently, they and the players boycotted the usual post-game reception hosted by the Johor football officials.

This absence was seen as a deliberate snub to the Malaysian officials, and the Malaysians made a strong official complaint to the FAM.

To teach Singapore a "lesson", the FAM dismissed Singapore from the Malaysia Cup competition.

The expulsion had a very negative impact on Singapore, and our football standards deteriorated rapidly.

We could not keep our best national players as there were no international games for them to play.

Singaporeans did not attend matches, and the Kallang Roar was no longer heard.

When I was appointed FAS chairman, my priority was to repair Singapore's damaged relationship with Malaysia's football fraternity and to get Singapore back into the Malaysia Cup league.

To do this, I made many trips to Malaysia to lobby the various government officials, including the former menteri besar and state secretary of Johor, as well as members of the Pahang royal family.

Then, the FAM president was the Sultan of Pahang, who was also Malaysia's King, and the FAM vice-president was his son.

I also met some key FAM council members, all highly placed individuals in Malaysian society, to extend Singapore's apology over the incident and explain that we now had a new team of FAS council members who had been appointed by the social affairs minister.

Finally, in 1984, the FAM decided to invite Singapore back into the Malaysia Cup.

This incident shows that the appointment of the heads of sports associations is important in building good relationships between Singapore and others.

Football is more than 22 men kicking a ball around a field.

It is based on sportsmanship and personal relationships on and off the turf.

These transcend national and political boundaries.

Hence, it is vital for a government appointee, especially a politician, to head sports organisations.

Teo Chong Tee

• Forum Note: The writer, a former Member of Parliament, was FAS chairman from 1982 to 1988.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2015, with the headline 'Politicians' vital role in building sporting ties'. Print Edition | Subscribe