I second and support the motion moved by my honourable colleague Associate Professor Jamus Lim, “That this House celebrates the accomplishments of our athletes and para-athletes at the recent 32nd SEA Games and the 12th ASEAN Para Games in Cambodia, and calls on the Government to undertake a thorough evaluation of the areas of improvement in Singapore’s sporting ecosystem, and commit to realising clear, achievable goals for sporting success over the coming decade.”
The recent 32nd Sea Games and 12th Asean Para Games which was held in Cambodia saw the participation of Singapore’s contingent with the strength of 558 athletes competing in 30 sports and 26 athletes in 6 sports, respectively.
At the Sea Games, our Team Singapore had bagged a total of 158 medals; 51 golds, 43 silvers and 64 bronzes. Meanwhile, at the Asean Para Games, our Team Singapore had brought back 12 golds, 15 silvers and 17 bronzes, in all 44 medals.
I salute all our Team Singapore athletes for giving their best, sacrificing time and energy, and for their resilience and endurance in overcoming challenges and obstacles in flying our Singapore flag high.
My heartiest congratulations go out to our medal winners for their triumph and bringing pride to our country. Also to our national athletes who had better their personal bests at the games as well as those who fought hard against formidable opponents. A big thanks to our Team Singapore’s coaches and officials and a deep appreciation to our athletes’ families, loved ones and friends for their great support and encouragement in spurring and motivating our athletes.
In any sporting event, there will be triumphs and defeats. For the 32nd Sea Games and 12th Asean games, we celebrated the continued success of our swimmers both at the SEA games and the Para Games, and we rejoiced at the resurgence of runner Shanti Pereira – among other wonderful wins. But there were also moments of despair. In particular, when we saw our football team suffer their heaviest SEA games loss in decades when they lost 7-0 to Malaysia.
Our footballers’ dismal showing at the SEA Games came not long after another crushing disappointment when we limped out of the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championships 2022 tournament. It felt like rubbing salt to the wound or in Malay, ‘sudah jatuh ditimpa tangga’
Sir, in this speech of mine, I will focus on the circumstances of Singapore Football. I can confidently say that football has the strongest following among Singaporeans as compared to any other sports. Football is also known to be a unifying sport as it brings together the different segments of society regardless of socio-economic status, race, language and religion. While this is not unique to Singapore, our football culture has its unique characteristics. We have our Kallang Roar and Kallang Wave, named for the location of our former National Stadium, where fans always turned out in droves to support our Lions in every home match when they competed in the Malaysian league and cup competitions. The experience fostered a sense of our shared bonds, and a feeling of oneness and pride of supporting our national team as each fan became a part of the Kallang Roar and Wave.
Sadly, Sir, this experience now feels like ancient history. We have not witnessed such exhilarating and tremendous support for our Lions for many years. Many are still painfully waiting for the revival of our Lions, expressing our concerns, sharing views and perspectives but, regrettably, there are quite a big number who has lost faith and given up after our Lions poor performance in AFF Championships 2022 and the 32nd Sea Games followed by two recent uninspiring international friendlies.
Sir, I have throughout the years spoken several times in this chamber on Singapore Football, sharing my perspectives.
Speaking in support of this motion, I would like to again surface mine and as well as fellow Singaporean’s observations, concerns, thoughts on the current situation and what can be done for the future of our football. Some of these points are a reiteration and elaboration of what I have said in this chamber.
Sir, I would like to make it clear neither I am claiming that I have the solutions to this plight that we are facing, nor do I want to belittle any ongoing efforts in bringing glory back to Singapore. My speech is a small contribution in terms of observation and perspectives in our attempts to Make Singapore Football Great Again.
To begin with, let’s look at where Singapore currently stands in Fifa rankings. Our men’s national team is currently ranked at 158th place. The highest ranking we ever attained was 73rd in 1993 while the lowest is 173rd in 2018 and our average is 127th. At the peak of our Fifa ranking, our men football national team in 1993 was made up of popular footballers such as Fandi Ahmad, V Sundramoorthy, Malek Awab, Nazri Nasir, Rafi Ali and other excellent players. This means that in the three decades since we achieved our highest ranking, we have dropped by a remarkably disappointing 85 places, which is also 31 places below our average. Since we hit bottom in 2018, we improved by fifteen places in five years. But this minor improvement is small consolation for the players and fans who are struggling to understand how we have failed to improve over the years despite all the effort put in. Our recent results demonstrate that where many other countries in the region have improved, Singapore football has fallen behind.
Sir, the right efforts are needed to formulate the right programs and approaches to better our football situation.We need to see what has worked and what didn’t work in the past so we can dissect, review, fine tune and come up with the best efforts and measures in improving our football.
I believe any changes that need to be made should start with setting a Goal or Vision for Singapore Football. I believe that both the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) and the Government understand this. In 1998, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had his vision – Goal 2010, to qualify for the World Cup in that year. We obviously did not make it – but we had a brief glimmer of hope when our junior Lions won 3rd place during the inaugural Youth Olympic Games hosted in Singapore. That team, coached by former player Kadir Yahaya, seemed to hold promise for a brighter future in Singapore football. I’ll speak more on that unfulfilled promise later.
More recently, in August 2019, it was reported in the media that the then Vice President of Football Association of Singapore (FAS), Mr Edwin Tong mentioned that, I quote, “FIFA World Cup 2034 will be a realistic goal for Singapore.” On this matter, I had asked MCCY through a Parliamentary question in September 2019 as well as in my COS 2020 cut on FAS’s strategic plans in achieving this goal. MCCY’s replies was that the Ministry are waiting for FAS to advise them on their plans.
Nonetheless in March 2021, FAS as reported in the media shared that the World Cup 2034 is an ‘aspirational target’.
Pertaining to Singapore national team qualifying for World Cup 2034, I would like to seek two clarifications. One, FAS announced in August 2019 that World Cup 2034 as a realistic goal. Meanwhile, in March 2021, FAS mentioned it as an ‘aspirational target’. Can FAS or MCCY confirm whether it is the former or the latter?
Second, I would like to once again ask for updates from FAS or MCCY on the strategic plans in achieving this realistic goal or aspirational target. I note that there are plans to launch an Under-17 league in 2024, and also to train talent scouts which were announced in May 2023 during a consultation exercise. But surely there has to be more to the roadmap?
Sir, aspirational targets are well and good, but there also needs to be a healthy dose of reality injected. If we cannot even advance beyond the group stages in regional competitions, making it to the World Cup is nothing short of a fantasy. And even if by some miracle, we were to meet that unlikely aspirational target, we are likely to be utterly humiliated.
Before we even think about the World Cup, why not we first try to qualify for the AFC Asian Cup in 2036? Historically, our national football team has participated in the AFC Asian Cup since its inception. However, the only time we have ever qualified for the final round was in 1984 – as the host country. We have never made it past the qualifying rounds on our own steam. Let’s set our sights on the AFC Asian Cup and develop a roadmap towards that goal. The roadmap can include milestones such as winning the AFF Championship and maybe even gold at the SEA games in a decade. In this manner, there is greater accountability as well. And if we need to revisit the strategy along the way, and tweak it here and there, so be it. It is better than setting an aspirational target that is plain unrealistic.
Youth Development Program
Sir, in any sport, the seeds for success must be sown early. In 2021, FAS announced the introduction of ‘Unleash The Roar’. Once again, as I did in my COS 2022 speech, I welcomed the small steps that have been taken under the UTR project, such as the setting up of School Football Academies and partnerships with global leaders in football, such as clubs from the Spanish premier La Liga.
This is not the first time that the FAS has tried to implement youth development programs. One example is the Junior Centres of Excellence (JCOE) which was implemented in 2011. If we go even further back, we have the Milo Soccer School. For those who may be too young to remember, the Milo Soccer school was a key youth development programme in the 1980s and 1990s which gave birth to many of our nation’s football heroes, among them are Fandi Ahmad, Nazri Nasir and Lee Man Hon.
So we know that youth development is not a new idea for Singapore football. But we also have to confront our failures in youth development, despite the investment of time and resources. In 2015, then FAS technical Director Michel Sablon, in a media report, praised JCOEs and mentioned with further improvement of this program, he was confident that Singapore national team can be like Japan’s by 2020. Maybe Mr Sablon was being overenthusiastic in speaking to the media. Maybe his sense of optimism was hopelessly misplaced. We may never know.
What we do know is that we have failed to make progress in youth development even after all the programs that were implemented, and even after we appointed several reputable technical directors and coaches. There was a time, in the 70s and 80s, where our football team was on par with the current Asian football powerhouses such as the Japanese and Korean teams. They have advanced considerably – we have not.
The relative lack of progress suggests that there are factors that hindered the effectiveness of our plans and programmes. These could include failures in the training and development systems and the lack of quality in mentoring, coaching and grooming of young talents.
To elaborate this point further, I want to return to our 2010 Singapore Youth Olympic Games (YOG) team, whom I mentioned earlier in my speech. This team created history for our football when they won a bronze medal at the tournament. And they seemed to hold great promise, having also secured a 3-2 victory over the Tottenham Hotspur academy team during the team’s two-week camp in England in their preparation for the YOG 2010.
The players from that tournament were dubbed a “Golden Generation” not only for achieving a milestone bronze medal at the inaugural event, but also for their exciting style of play. And yet, a review of their fortunes a decade later told a story of a lost generation of footballers. I would like to quote some of these players sharing their woes which was reported in one of our local online media,
“After the YOG, there was no follow-up… We had no coach, and we didn’t even have a single training session for seven or eight months.”
“While much was promised, “in terms of on-the-groundwork, nothing was really done. We were on our own, things soon went downhill, and eventually they forgot about us”.
Sir, I am aware that excellence at the youth level does not always translate at the senior level. Nevertheless, I believe we need to pose some hard questions, identify where we have previously gone wrong, and rectify these errors as we commit towards a long-term youth development programme that will not lead to another “Golden Generation” turning into a “Lost Generation”.
Sir, I mentioned earlier in my speech that Singapore football has its unique features such as the Kallang Wave and the Kallang Roar. There are other, less positive, unique aspects to Singapore football which we need to address if we are to progress towards success.
I have touched on this issue previously. In 2019, I noted that former national player and coach Fandi Ahmad had made reference to a “unique eco-system” in Singapore football which he felt was important for the coach of our national team to understand. In response to Fandi’s comments, FAS had cited our small population, land constraints, and the competing commitments such as National Service and academics which our young players have to juggle as compared to their peers globally and regionally who are more likely to be full-time professionals.
I believe these “unique” factors remain relevant today. In my previous speech I had called for MCCY, SportSG, and FAS to form a unique team to examine how we can leverage on these factors to create a more positive eco-system for our footballers – and in fact, all our athletes.
The issue of national service has been thoroughly debated in this House, and I acknowledge the various allowances for deferment or disruption of National Service obligations which MINDEF has provided for our athletes competing at a high level. Balancing our defence needs with our sporting aspirations is necessary and possible.
As for our other unique features, I would like to know if MCCY has conducted study visits and reviews of countries who face similar population constraints as Singapore and what lessons have been learnt and perhaps implemented into our own development planning. I had cited Iceland, whose football team made it to the 2018 World Cup despite their small population.
Sir, Croatia is another footballing nation that we could also learn from. A country with a population of around 4 million, has been achieving great success in international football. The Croatian football team joined FIFA in 1994 ranked 125th. They rose to the 3rd place with their first World Cup appearance in 1998, making them the fastest, most volatile ascension in FIFA ranking history as well as the youngest team to ever occupy the Top10 of the World Ranking.
Another point I would like to share which could spur our football is about providing better support in terms of employment or career path for our national players upon their retirement from football. I brought this up as I met and spoke to a couple of Singapore’s ex-internationals who shared that they don’t encourage their children to pursue their dreams to start a football career. When asked why, their short reply was, “No future”. Their concern is what would become of their children after their short career stint in football. Sir, this is a real and valid concern.
Sir, I am aware that on 23 June 2023, FAS has announced “Players’ Concierge” as a platform to serve our national players, both current and former, providing guidance guiding and equipping them with the necessary tools to prepare for life after football as remarked by former Singapore international Baihakki Khaizan, who conceived this initiative. Baihakki gave assurance that our aspiring footballers of the next generation would see football as a viable career which does not end once they hang up their boots.”
Sir, I laud this initiative and hope that this effort will get the support from all the stakeholders and in turn build confidence in our youth as well as their parents of viability in pursuing a football career.
Sir, the final point I would like to make is to reiterate the call I made in this year’s COS which is FAS and other relevant stakeholders engage in an open conversation, a large scale one similar to our national conversation with local players and coaches, both current and former, and to add on also local football fans and enthusiasts. The sporadic and occasional closed door consultations FAS has held is of limited value, and has the risk of creating an echo chamber. In May 2023, FAS has announced that it will convene a review panel after the dismal performance at SEA Games. I support this effort, however, I would propose that this review does not only look into our dismal performance at the SEA Games but instead to do a review on Singapore Football as a whole. A review that will look into making Singapore football Great Again.And if it means we need to tear down FAS and rebuild from the ground up, so be it.
Sir, I think this proposed effort is worth the time, resources, and energy. As I have mentioned in the earlier part of my speech that football is a unifying sport as it brings together the different segments of society regardless of socio-economic status, race, language and religion. Making Singapore Football Great Again will bring the revival of Kallang Roar and Kallang Wave which our nation has been patiently waiting for almost three decades. Thank you, Sir.