SINGAPORE - Lim Kia Tong was the president of the biggest and most high-profile national sports association – the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) – but he always made time for the community, be it current and former players, or those at the grassroots level.
Described by those who knew him as generous and passionate, he was also a “straight-talking man with a wicked sense of humour and a heart of gold”.
This is how the football chief will be remembered after he died on Wednesday. He was 70.
Lim, a lawyer with more than 40 years of practice and who headed the criminal department at Hin Tat Augustine and Partners, is believed to have suffered a heart attack. He was found collapsed in his office when he did not turn up for a hearing.
He is survived by his wife and two children – a 31-year-old daughter and 30-year-old son – who also read law.
His friends, as well as the football and wider sports fraternity, were stunned to learn of his sudden passing. Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who was in Indonesia for the Group of 20 culture ministers meeting, was among those who expressed shock after receiving news of Lim’s death.
In a Facebook post, Mr Tong, who was one of Lim’s vice-presidents at the FAS before stepping down in 2020, wrote: “My heart sank, and, for a while, I could scarcely believe the messages I was seeing. I had just been in touch with him over the weekend.”
He praised Lim’s folksy approach to management, noting that his “amiable disposition... gradually healed divides and brought people together”.
He added: “Kia Tong’s job in football was a difficult one, but he handled it with grace and poise. Beneath his casual, friendly demeanour was a steely dedication to football, battle-hardened through his years of experience.”
Lim was first elected FAS president when his Team LKT beat Bill Ng's Team Game Changers in 2017.
In a Facebook post, the FAS described its late chief as “a dedicated servant of the sport he loved”. A space will be set up in its office lobby at the Jalan Besar Stadium for people to pay their respects from Thursday.
The Singapore Premier League clubs and footballers also took to social media to eulogise Lim and send their condolences to his family.
Tampines Rovers wrote that they were “deeply saddened” by his death and thanked him for his “service to local football”.
World football governing body Fifa also mourned Lim's death, with its president Gianni Infantino saying in a statement on Thursday: "Mr. Lim was a great man and a huge supporter of football in south-east Asia. Both FIFA and the world of football have lost a great friend.
"Mr Lim was a trusted leader in the FIFA Disciplinary Committee and his devotion to developing football in his beloved Singapore was evident to me when I last visited him last year. Mr. Lim’s wisdom and support will be greatly missed by all in the football community.”
As a mark of respect, the flag of Singapore was flown at half mast at the Fifa headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland on Thursday.
National striker Ikhsan Fandi blacked out his Instagram profile picture and wrote in a story: “RIP Sir”.
Former national defender Baihakki Khaizan, now FAS’ ambassador and lead for special projects, wrote in an Instagram story: “It’s always chats and laughter every time you walked past my desk, reminiscing about our U17-U18 days as our team manager back then.
“We always joked about how you always mispronounced players’ names. I will remember you as someone who was passionate and gave your best for Singapore football.”
Former Singapore striker Ho Kwang Hock, 67, said Lim had always been very helpful to former internationals and had helped them cover accommodation and logistical costs for a veterans’ football tournament in Sabah.
He said: “Once he tells you he will do something, he will make sure it is done. That’s the kind of character he was.
“He always believed there was life after football, and that we should not be forgotten.”
Calling Lim a man with a “heart of gold”, FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari said he took a keen interest in the amateur game and believed the sport should be accessible to everyone.
After Lim became FAS president, he oversaw the operations of the National Football League (now known as Singapore Football League), brought in Ajinomoto (Singapore) as a sponsor, organised insurance coverage and helped secure proper venues for the amateur competition.
In world football, he was a highly respected figure for his role as a former deputy chairman of the Fifa disciplinary committee and as chairman of the Asian Football Confederation DC.
He was in the Fifa DC that dished out a four-month ban and a fine of 100,000 Swiss francs (S$146,000) to Uruguay striker Luis Suarez for biting Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini during the 2014 World Cup.
He joined the FAS DC in 1992 before he was appointed an FAS council member in 1999. By 2007, he was the vice-president of the FAS.
At the Singapore National Olympic Council MAP Awards presentation & appreciation dinner on Wednesday, SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin said: “Singapore sports suffered a loss today... We lost a dedicated champion of football.”
For some, Lim will also be remembered for his courage and compassion.
Former Fifa referee Thiru Rajamanickam was handed a lifetime ban from all football activities and deregistered from the FAS referees’ list in 1994 after he was jailed for eight months and fined $1,000 for accepting a bribe from a bookmaker.
The ban was lifted by the FAS in March, and the 71-year-old said: “It takes a man of courage to do that and I understand he also put in a lot of effort to research my case. I will continue to try to contribute to local football to repay what Kia Tong has done for me.”
Those who wish to pay their respects to Lim may do so from Thursday, 6pm, at the Singapore Funeral Parlour, Level 5A Tulip Hall, 91 Tampines Link, Singapore 528746.