The Singapore Malaysia Cup Overconnect Syndrome

I was reading this on Facebook and it stirred me enough to get me out of my blanket and onto a proper table so I could compose a decent reply. In summary, Hazrul Azhar Jamari addresses what he calls the “Singapore Malaysia Cup Disconnect Syndrome”: the criticism that this experimental return to Malaysian competitions is seen as a regressive step and the uncertainty among the critics whether this four-year experiment should succeed or fail, whilst calling for a focus on the S.League instead of returning to Malaysia.

I am one of those critics. Not having watched Malaysian football recently, I can hardly comment justifiably on the quality of the teams in the competition, but I sincerely doubt the supporters of this experiment, Hazrul himself of course included, have watched enough Malaysian football to know it is worth our time to compete there. I think, on the other hand, we are suffering from “the Singapore Malaysia Cup Overconnect Syndrome”. Let me explain.

I am also Singaporean, and I have lived through the tail end of the Malaysia Cup days. I want to see my team succeed, of course, by which I mean any Singaporeans competing anywhere, but I object to this entire experiment because of the mind-blowing amount of effort put into publicity which was sorely missing from Singapore football in the past 15 years or so. It’s a tacit admission that Singapore football is only at home when it is competing against Malaysian club sides.

On the basis of history and improved match quality, Hazrul argues that a return to Malaysian competitions – especially in the form of a mutual agreement like the one here – can only bode well for Singapore football and that the arrogance involved in constructing a professional league led to a poorly-conceived effort.

Singapore and Malaysia, he argues, shared a colonial history and as one of the Straits Settlements we were on par with the other states of then-Malaya. Returning to the oldest football tournament in Asia, the Malaysia Cup, Hazrul claims, makes sense because it was a bond and a rivalry that we shared with other Malaysian states. I quote: “The Malaysia Cup was conceived during a time when Singapore was never seen as another country, and our opponents were a state of the Malayan peninsula, who share the same struggles of colonialism as us.” While it is an undeniable historical fact that when Singapore used to be one of the territories under British colonial rule, I would like to point out that the Malaysia Cup and Malaysia League made sense then, because our state FA, if you can call it then, was on par with other state FAs in organising a team for these competitions. But not now.

Now, as the Football Association of an independent Singapore, surely the national FA should have other aims with higher priority than to return to a competition against other state teams, such as the nurturing of its own professional footballers. Other than youth development schemes, and helping the successful youth footballers make the transition to the national team level, neither of which has been stunningly successful, but will not be the subject here, I believe maintaining our own league would allow Singaporeans more exposure to what professional football is like, since it would showcase dozens of squads of professional Singaporean footballers to the public and allow them to follow the clubs’ successes and failures, than focusing all the attention on one solitary squad of professional footballers representing Singapore. I contend that building and maintaining a professional league in such a small nation is not a mark of arrogance but a bold step made in the direction of footballing independence.

“One must understand,” Hazrul points out, “that Malaysian state football associations are not clubs.” Fair point, since they do, as he continues, “administer football at the state level, many times bigger than the size of Singapore.” It would be impossible to disagree with that, since they do manage larger populations than Singapore’s. But why should we rehash this population fallacy? Does Jamaica get outperformed by the US in track and field? Does the Netherlands crumble in the face of mighty India at the football World Cup because of sheer population numbers? Managing a bigger group of people just means you have responsibility on a larger scale, but it does not put you at the “same status as the Football Association of Singapore” because you’re comparing a state FA with a national FA. This is absurd. I wager Hazrul would not claim that the Football Association of Malaysia “has the same status” as the FA in Kelantan, for instance, since clearly one is in charge of football development on the state level and the other is responsible nationwide. If one agrees that the FAM is one step up from a state FA, it would be impossible to state (sorry.) that the FAS is on par with the FAM unless you disagree with the zeroth law of thermodynamics. FAS = FAM and FAS = Kelantan FA but FAM > Kelantan FA?

And hang on a moment. If the state FAs are not on the same level as clubs, why are they in a competition against club sides like PKNS, Felda United, Johor FC and T-Team? And what is Johor FC doing one division above Johor FA, or Pahang FA and Perlis FA, who have again club opponents such as Pos Malaysia FC and USM FC? Let me suggest something that might clear up some confusion. While FAs of different levels have to oversee football competitions and development on their respective terms, the teams that they are sending to these competitions are club teams on par with privately-run clubs. This makes T-Team competing against Terengganu FA a local club derby, not a job interview for footballers in the clubs trying to make it to the prestigious FA sides.

“To imply that a country, the size of Singapore should not play in a league against teams in a state, many times our size would be arrogant and ignorant of the long history Singapore has had in the Malaysian competitions,” writes Hazrul. I could not disagree more. The Malaysians have moved on, and brought top club teams into their league formerly reserved for FA-representative sides. Now clubs and state FAs compete on the same level, subordinate to the national team, and Hazrul wants us to accept that we return to that status? This would be grounds enough to suggest that Singapore has not moved on, and Malaysia is merely exploiting our nostalgia to improve themselves.

He even goes on to point out that “This is why we’ve maintained friendly, competitive ties…” and cites competitions like the Sultan of Selangor Cup and the Royal Malay Cup as proof. So it is not enough, to him, to compete in commemorative events once a year, and Singapore should return to participating full-time in Malaysian competitions? I don’t see how staying out of the Malaysian Super League would be a sign of arrogance and ignorance of history on our part.

I myself miss the days of the “nostalgic, historical tournament (his words)” I grew up watching. As I recall the exploits of Singapore’s chosen XI, which included a Czech, a South Korean, an Englishman, an Australian at various times, I remember also the masses which packed Kallang Stadium to watch Fandi, Malek, Steven and Tong Hai don Singapore colours and represent our hopes and dreams against the “evil visitors from up North (mine)”. But those days are over, and we have moved on from a “semi-professional Premier League” and “kampong football” to our very own professional S.League, young as it is. I don’t believe that spending more time, money and effort on the S.League instead of embarking on this experiment would be “akin to denying Singapore’s deep roots and history with Malaysia” as Hazrul suggests.

Of course, he points out, the experiment is a bilateral one which would benefit both countries, since the Harimau Muda – the Malaysian youth team – would be competing in the “S-League” and is sure to pull in interested fans from across the Causeway. He finds it puzzling that critics claim the local league is being ignored when the FAS has increased the number of teams playing in the “S-League” and “included two neighbouring teams which are proven quality”. On the other hand, I don’t find it puzzling at all.

Compare the amount of effort put in by the FAS to promote 4 seasons of Malaysian football, the clamouring of the media to cover this initiative and the amount of column space and public attention the LionsXII have received even before the official kickoff of the first season today – thanks to @LigaSingapura I know they are currently drawing 1-1 with Kelantan FA – with the amount of attention the entire S.League has received in the past 4 seasons in all media, online or otherwise. If you search hard enough and are generous enough, you might even find that both have received the same amount of attention over the past 4 years. Except one is a 8-12 team competition that has been around since 1996 and was ranked among the top 10 in Asia at some point during the last 4 seasons and the other is a single team fulfilling part of the MOU that was signed between two FAs in July 2011. Is the criticism that the local league is being ignored justified now, Hazrul? Also, the fact that the rebranding from “S-League” to “S.League” has gone either unnoticed or unacknowledged by Hazrul is a telling sign that clearly, not enough attention is being paid to the local league.

In terms of quality, Hazrul contends that the Singapore team was kept together for many seasons and played high-impact matches regularly. “This was what gave the Singapore team match fitness when it participated in international tournaments.”

Yet if you look at the major achievements in Singapore football on the international stage, all that time spent playing the high-impact as a cohesive unit didn’t bring any regional success. The best we did at the SEA Games was silver in 1983, 1985 and 1989, with Fandi playing a key role in the team’s success. Yet during those years, Fandi wasn’t playing with the Singapore FA side in the Malaysian tournaments – he was off playing against the likes of Inter with FC Groningen in the UEFA Cup, then for Kuala Lumpur FA against Singapore FA from 1986 to 1989. Our best national player was overseas, but there was enough cohesion to bring us to 2nd place in a regional competition. Our national team earned bronze medals in 1993, when our FA team was trying to get promotion back to Division One of the FAM’s then semi-professional league, and in 1995 after we were thrown out of the Malaysia League and Cup but the FAS decided to field the national team in the now-defunct FAS Premier League for match practice. So the match-fitness argument does hold water, but our performances on the international stage have been largely independent from our form in Malaysian competitions.

Also, our three Tiger Cup / AFF Suzuki Cup triumphs in 1998, 2004 and 2007 were won with the S.League in place, and players – naturalised or otherwise – played against one another in the domestic league until it was time to prepare for the tournaments. Clearly, while playing as a team together in a league works, it has not been even correlated with our international performances, let alone shown to be a cause for success on the global stage.

So what will the return to the Malaysian competitions of the LionsXII, featuring many players from the Courts Young Lions, some taken from their parent clubs “on loan” for the SEA Games last year and never returned, do for the national team? It can’t be proven that they will be a contributing factor to our success, but they have caused some disruption to the club sides in the S.League.

The clubs have not all gone belly-up, however, because they have foreign imports and an abundance of professional local-born talent like K. Vikraman for Balestier Khalsa, Shamil Sharif and Patrick Paran for Tanjong Pagar United, Shukor Zailan and Ahmad Latiff for Tampines Rovers, Erwan Gunawan and Mustaqim Manzur for SAFFC, Sobrie Mazelan for Hougang United, Firdaus Idros for Home United, and the list goes on.

It is these clubs that continue to feed players to the national team, these clubs that continue to participate in top-level regional competitions like the AFC Cup, and these clubs that will be the future of Singapore football. The Malaysians bring the pedigreed Harimau Muda A, core of their AFF Cup-winning team, over to compete in an S.League which has no relegation, hoping to give their young talent more exposure and more match training to keep them competitive. Smart move.

What do we do? We invent the LionsXII to bring over into an established professional league, ask for a no-relegation clause and a sizably larger squad to overcome the difficulties presented to us by National Service – which, by the way, also plagued the Singapore national team’s World Cup campaign – to remain competitive against state FA teams and club sides, and the Malaysian FA agrees. Fair deal? What convinced them to accept so many concessions against their own club/state sides? I leave the question open.

While I continue to support the Singaporeans in our latest adventure, I cannot help but wonder if this return to Malaysian football, rather than the formation of the S.League, is the poorly-conceived decision Hazrul Azhar Jamari should be talking about, instead of trying to suggest that said return would bring about Singapore’s return to the World Cup by creating a “mutually beneficial bilateral relationship.”

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One Response to The Singapore Malaysia Cup Overconnect Syndrome

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