Saturday, June 27, 2015

Water under the Causeway

This article, slightly edited, appeared in the January 2015 issue of Four Four Two.

The romance with Singapore is water under the Causeway

Dec 10, 1994. Shah Alam Stadium. Selangor keeper Hassan Miskam dropped a clanger. Speeding like a bullet from his goalmouth, his sortie ended in disaster.

He failed to catch a cross from Selangor’s left, the ball dropped onto Abbas Saad’s path and the Aussie international hammered home the equaliser that guaranteed Singapore, who clinched the league title four months earlier, a place in the Malaysia Cup final.

Before Hassan’s ill-timed run and error, Selangor were leading 2-1, with 11 minutes remaining. Again in Shah Alam a week later, Abbas’ rich vein of form continued as he struck a hattrick against Pahang in an emphatic famous 4-0 victory for Singapore, ending a 14-year agonising wait for the prestigious Cup to cross the Causeway.

I was seated at the media tribune, reporting for Berita Harian, while almost a busload of my relatives who crossed the Causeway by car was enjoying the momentous occasion of witnessing the Lions’ last Malaysia Cup win before the FA of Malaysia (FAM) insisted on organising the M-League in 1995 without Singapore’s participation.

FA of Singapore’s withdrawal fuelled much speculation, with some critics hinting that the acrimonious parting stemmed from FAM’s war on match-fixing scandal that rocked Malaysian football throughout the entire 1994 season.

Instead of sweeping the shame under the carpet, FAM took a stern action in banning from the game 83 players, of whom 29 were national team material between the ages of 19 and 34.

A whole generation of players was wiped out. The media all along suspected a hidden hand behind the strange and outrageous results in Malaysia Cup matches.

Admittedly Malaysia and Singapore are inextricably linked in football. Singapore was after all part of Malaya.

One of Singapore’s greatest coaches, Choo Seng Quee, brought Malaysia, then known as Persekutuan Tanah Melayu or Malaya, to the bronze medal in the 1962 Asian Games and countless Merdeka Tournament titles.

He was later succeeded by Penang-born Yap Boon Chuan.

One of my uncles by marriage, Ibrahim Hassan, was a member of the Singapore side that competed in the inaugural Merdeka Tournament in 1957. It was a year after his demise in 2000 that I discovered his tales on football he used to regal me with, were not an exaggeration.

My late uncle Long Long Rahim and the 1957 squad

Fast forward to 2011, a MoU was signed for greater co-operation between the two countries.

It allowed Singapore to return to the M-League in 2012, with certain conditions and privileges, while Harimau Muda A would be competing in the S-League.

The truth be told the MoU does little to serve Malaysian football but it is worth its weight in gold for Singapore. The side, comprising players under the age of 23 with a few seniors, get to play against quality opponents on a weekly basis with massive crowd attendance and huge TV ratings, which is in contrast to what Harimau Muda have to endure.

For the individual who dazzled the Shah Alam crowd two decades ago, Abbas Saad, the M-League deserved better.

Now a pundit at Astro SuperSport, Abbas has called for changes.

“The M-League particularly the Malaysia Cup remain prestigious competitions. I am in favour of a stronger Singapore side strengthened by foreign players participating in the league. That way both parties benefit from the development and financial factor,” said Abbas.

Having read FIFA’s most wanted match-fixer, Wilson Perumal Raj’s memoirs Kelong Kings, I argued Singapore legalised betting encourages match-fixing.

This situation will remain irresistible for the bookies to resist.

Malaysian football will continue to be fixed so long as Singapore or representatives of Singapore remain part of the league.

Abbas retorted: “You can ask the authorities to scrap the betting.”

Admittedly there is no perfect solution to combat match-fixing in a region where betting is common.

As my fellow 4-4-2 columnist Neil Humphreys had suggested, Singapore has nurtured a deep rooted sports-betting culture and that the love of sport can be superseded by the love of a winning bet.

Author of The Fix, Declan Hill too suggested the Singapore authorities tolerated and protected certain individuals accused of match-fixing.

Until today it remains a mystery how Singapore allowed Malaysian referee Shokri Nor to jump bail, as much as how Michal Vana was allowed to fled the country in September 1994.

With revelations that the match-fixing syndicate is rooted in Singapore, Malaysia must not be a party to it.

Declaring the MoU with the FA of Singapore as no longer valid is a start as we usher in the new year. Malaysian football’s romance with Singapore is water under the Causeway, unfortunately.

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