Sing When You're Winning
How the need to appear successful turns fans in Singapore from the S.League to the Premier League
To the casual observer, with average attendances just about up on last season, a new television deal in the bag and plenty of noteworthy action on the pitch, all would appear to be going swimmingly for Singapore’s S.League. Indeed, add all that to the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) grand S.League Version 2.0 plan, designed, primarily, to increase the league’s wow factor, and you could be forgiven for thinking that those behind the S.League were, free from concern, ready to push on and scale even greater heights. Everything, so it would seem, is rosy in the FAS’s garden.
It would be an easy mistake to make.
While the current situation is — on the surface at least — brighter than usual and the valiant effort to improve en route to a better future both admirable and necessary, strip away the corporate hyperbole and the S.League’s long-term future still appears to be dominated by questions rather than answers.
When the S.League (or to give it its full name, the Great Eastern-YEO’s S.League) first appeared in 1996 — thanks to a dispute between the FAS and their Malaysian counterparts which had seen the league and cup double-winning Singapore team withdraw from the Malaysia Cup two years earlier — optimism abounded.
Amid razzmatazz galore, Geylang United snaffled the first league title, leading to a general consensus that the country’s new S.League — modelled on Japan’s J.League and heavily financed by the Singapore government — was set to be a rip-roaring success. That initial feel-good factor was not to last.
Instead of the steady upward trend planned by the FAS, there followed a wearisome succession of peaks and troughs. Initiatives designed to stimulate football in Singapore began to appear on a regular basis as officials thought they could solve the country’s footballing woes by, for the most part, making grandiose announcements on which they couldn’t deliver.
At a national level, the ‘Goal 2010’ project aimed at ensuring Singapore’s place at the Fifa World Cup finals in South Africa came and went without success, while the decision to hand Singaporean passports to players born oversees brought short-term success, yet seemed to ignore the fact that the imported professionals were forcing young local talent to the periphery.
Domestically, the introduction of laughably poor non-Singaporean teams such as Sinchi FC from China and Sporting Afrique, based in Singapore but made up solely of players of African descent, saw the S.League lurch from one public relations disaster to another. In an instant, mediocrity ruled the day as the S.League floundered, seemingly incapable of attracting the masses it needed to survive.
Granted, there have been some triumphs along the way. Three regional titles for the national team, the founding of a national football academy as well as the current participation of Singapore’s Under-23 side, the Young Lions, in the S.League are signs that at times the right moves were being made, that there is some hope.
Nevertheless, for that modicum of hope to be turned into something that can endure, the FAS needs to understand that the problems blighting its key product cannot be solved merely with the announcement of a Version 2.0 which, on the whole, flattered to deceive.
This shiny vision — shepherded in last January by the S.League’s new CEO, Lim Chin, a former colonel in the armed forces — promised, among other things, the arrival of quality foreign talent with box office appeal who would then operate outside the current S$10,000 per month salary cap. Despite names such as Robbie Fowler and Laurent Robert being bandied about, fading stars who would nevertheless still have appealed to the Singapore audience, the first big name is yet to arrive at Changi Airport.
Lim’s attempts to take the S.League and its current 13 teams onwards and upwards may yet become a reality but it is difficult not to think that both he and the FAS have failed to recognise (or chosen to ignore) the biggest issue damaging the S.League — Singapore’s cultural reluctance to support its elite division.
Since gaining independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has expanded, enjoying rapid economic growth and becoming a model for similarly small countries succeeding against the odds. Primarily due to the government’s insistence that hard work and an individual’s determination to rise to the top will always bring results, the stellar transformation has given the overwhelming majority of the nation’s citizens jobs and housing. There is a general sense of well-being and shameless self-promotion that many are reluctant to forego, and most want more of.
In the Chinese dialect of Hokkien this need to be the best, this need to impress and not only keep up with the Joneses but beat them, is known as kiasu — literally “the fear of losing”. It now manifests itself on a daily basis.
From outrageously selfish driving and people being barged out of the way in the mad rush for seats on a train to the ‘5 Cs of Singapore’ concept (where heaps of cash, credit cards, condominiums, cars and memberships at some expensive country club are deemed as must-haves to impress others), the dread of coming last and the overriding need to get on in life no matter what have become omnipresent through huge swathes of the island republic’s population.
Of course, a desire to become better and have more in life is not a uniquely Singaporean notion. However, what makes its case so noteworthy is the extent to which the kiasu approach now impacts on life here; a relentless tide which has seen the self become far more important than the community and, consequently, left the S.League reeling.
Among those non-S.League believers I have spoken to, the general consensus is that the league is starved of quality and lacks the pulling power of either the Premier League or Spain’s Primera Division. Of course it does, but that is of particular concern in a land obsessed with striving to be associated with the best.
Despite the FAS trying to convince Singapore that the opposite is true, S.League fixtures on non-Premier League nights are routinely ignored, while at the weekend the chance to watch Home United take on Geylang United is passed up in favour of watching the action from Old Trafford or the Camp Nou, perhaps even at the Manchester United café at Boat Quay, one of Singapore’s most popular watering holes.
After all, to be in the company of Europe’s elite is a far more desirable state of affairs for someone who has, in their own mind at least, the highest of standards to maintain both at home and among friends. It is in effect, a badge of honour, an indication that the S.League naysayer backs a team synonymous with winning and is therefore something of a hot shot himself.
Pledging allegiance to one of football’s giants obviously happens elsewhere in the world, but what is striking is the general ease with which Singaporeans align themselves to a side several thousands of miles away and yet blatantly ignore one that may be just up the road. There are millions of Premier League supporters in Malaysia and yet attendances for local league games are high.
Then again, when you consider that from an early age Malaysians learn to love the state they live in with a passion, it is only natural that tribalism rules. These well-defined boundaries give rise to the rivalries we see as a matter of routine in Europe or South America, partisan leanings which are virtually non-existent in Singapore where, given the country’s size, it is almost impossible to generate intense inter-community rivalry.
Coupled with the Malaysian passion for live football — something Singaporeans tend to look down on, wrongly comparing it to the rarefied Premier League atmospheres — it makes sense that the Malaysia Super League champions Kelantan regularly jostle for newspaper column inches alongside Liverpool.
As well as the attraction of the Premier League, the S.League has also suffered on a purely practical level, thanks to the infamously long hours Singaporeans work and the reluctance of parents to let their children become professional footballers.
The first of those issues is no particular secret. Regular surveys confirm that Singapore’s citizens work more than most (46.2 hours per week according to 2010 statistics), driven as they are to go above and beyond to achieve what they want in life. With the average working day being a minimum nine-hour slog and S.League games kicking off at 7.45pm, many people have neither the time nor the inclination to eat — and eating is an important part of Singaporean culture — and then watch the S.League at the end of a busy day.
On top of that, and with an already ridiculously small talent pool, the S.League is robbed of potential new recruits because of parental beliefs that more is to be gained through study, which in turn leads to better jobs and a better salary, than training on a football pitch. In a country which has no state pension and therefore an obligation for children to look after elderly parents, this is particularly salient.
As if that weren’t bad enough for the S.League, Singapore once again has a side playing in the Malaysia Super League, LionsXII, 28 years after the last team played there. Cue taxi drivers talking about the good old days, times of yore when Singapore, driven on by legends such as Fandi Ahmad, Lim Tong Hai and David Lee battled with Malaysian states, stirring up national fervour on the way.
With jingoism coursing through their veins again, the average Singapore football fan is now far more likely to watch the likes of Shahril Ishak strut his stuff against Malaysian powerhouses Selangor or Terengganu, than scream in delight as Singapore Armed Forces ace Fazrul Nawaz bedazzles the Tanjong Pagar United defence. LionsXII has been a body blow to the S.League.
But amid the gloom, there are rays of light. Among the Premier League throngs, there are sets of fans such as the Hougang United Ultras — known to friends and family as the Hougang Hools — who proudly proclaim at every game that, “You can stick the Premier League up your arse.” It’s welcome pride for an area in a country where security guards often ask rowdy fans at international matches to cheer more quietly and communal identity has all but disappeared.
Then there is the recently launched ‘Support Our S.League’ campaign and the hundreds of people who live, eat, sleep and drink the S.League. They are a committed band of believers, from fans and school kids to press officers and kit men, who do their best to stir passions and arouse interest amid widespread disinterest.
Without these few, the S.League’s battle would have been lost long ago. If those hardy souls are to see the S.League treated with the respect it deserves by the rest of the nation, the FAS must realise that its attempts to solve the issues it faces are more complicated than they appear. Changing policies is one thing; changing mindsets is another.