How does Bill Ng spend the jackpot money?
by Gary Koh
THE raids on Mr Bill Ng Eng Tiong’s football clubs and his bid for control of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has thrown the spotlight on finances – those of the FAS as well as the clubs he controls. The merger and acquisitions specialist’s skill as a money-maker applies on and off the pitch, but what of how he spends it?
Mr Ng’s first foray into Singapore football came in 2004 when he was brought into semi-professional side Tiong Bahru FC for his expertise in turning around the fortunes of in-crisis companies in other industries.
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It was an all too familiar story in Singapore football – without a viable revenue stream to fund their football operations, Tiong Bahru FC was a club mired in debt and primed for shut down. Mr Ng turned to legalised gaming in the clubhouse as the best bet for clubs to be financially self sustaining.
“Self-sustaining”, though, is an understatement. Its takings for the last financial year came to $36.8 million, more than 20 times the income of a typical S-League club and even more than the FAS, which gives local S-league clubs an annual $800,000 handout. Many National Football League (NFL) clubs operate on less than $10,000 a year.
But spending has been a big question where Mr Ng is concerned, and could make or break his campaign. Sport Singapore made a police report about suspected misuse of funds after checks this week raised “serious questions about the use of club funds”. A police raid on Mr Ng’s clubs followed on Apr 20.
The Straits Times reported that the Tiong Bahru FC spent nearly as much as it made in most years, which is also surprising for a club of its stature. Mr Ng said that 80 to 85 per cent of the revenue is returned to the player or paid out as winnings. It was from Tiong Bahru’s FC funds that the controversial $500,000 donation for the Asean Football Federation’s football management system was made.
A report in Today revealed that Mr Ng’s Tiong Bahru FC paid close to a million dollars in rent for its People’s Park Complex clubhouse last year, which works out to $31 price per square foot for the 2,583-square-foot basement unit. It has 15 staff and paid out salaries of over $2 million, spent $528,000 on staff training and benefits but committed a comparatively paltry $168,000 for its football activities, although that number is many times higher than the budgets of other clubs of the same calibre.
Mr Ng’s business acumen would be put to a sterner test in 2009 when he was once again asked by FAS General Secretary Winston Lee to turn around a different crisis club, this one in the S-League. Then known as Sengkang Punggol, they were more than $1 million dollars in the red. Again, Mr Ng’s ‘jackpot solution’ helped the club, later rebranded Hougang United, it generated a $2 million dollar surplus over the next five years. It is the only local club that eschews the $800,000 handout from the Tote Board.
The questions about spending are amplified by poor results on the pitch. Players of Tiong Bahru FC found themselves relegated to Division Three for a spell, but the strengthening of their financial base allowed for them to return to Division One in the next few seasons. The club has never topped the NFL despite its good financial fortunes. Hougang United FC is also seen as underperforming, given its financial position.
Mr Ng’s methods were not without criticism, from murmurings on the regular turnover of coaches to accusations of seeking ‘profit-at-all-costs’. In order to win the vote, he has to convince his critics that he isn’t using football to chase finances, but that he is using finances to improve the football situation.
A lot of bad blood came in 2014 following his management team’s controversial takeover attempt of financially insolvent S-League side Woodlands Wellington, amid fears that he would damage the club’s footballing culture in favour of a cushy bottom line.
A group of Woodlands Wellington fans, led by former long-serving club official Vengadasalam Rengayyan, formed an activist group to take control of the club and block Mr Ng’s takeover. The merger was eventually ruled to be unconstitutional, and neither Mr Ng nor the activists took control of the club. New management was put in place, and these days Woodlands Wellington only play in the Women’s premier league. It still runs a clubhouse with jackpot operations.
Mr Ng has countered that he was merely doing the job entrusted to him by the FAS – to turn struggling clubs around financially. He has also taken great pains to stress that the profits from Hougang United FC’s gaming operations are ploughed back into football and the community.
His most famous donation right now is the $500,000 from Tiong Bahru FC which went by way of the FAS to the Asean Football Federation, which raised eyebrows for both its quantum as well as for, why a small club was paying for the infrastructure of a regional football body.
Outside of that, Mr Ng’s notable football give-backs include a million-dollar club scholarship fund which pays the school fees of promising young footballers, and the providence of a regular allowance, in addition to regular fund-raising dinners for the late disabled footballer S. Anthonysamy, from 2012 until his passing four years later.
The financial help provided to S. Anthonysamy and his family is significant because Woodlands Wellington had paid scant attention to their former employee after the on-field accident in August 1996 that left him paralysed from the neck down.
When Amin Nasir, once a caretaker coach for Hougang United FC and player at Woodlands Wellington suffered a relapse of cancer in 2014, the former national defender’s medical bills were paid by Mr Ng in his personal capacity. A regular monthly allowance is also given to his family, which will continue until the end of the year even though he passed away in January 2017.
Hougang United FC’s confidence in running operations without subsidies has enabled it to invest in footballing infrastructure at Hougang Stadium.
Apart from being the first club in Singapore to acquire the Globus EuroGoal ball shooting machine that aids its goalkeeper training sessions, it has also renovated its home dressing room with individual lockers and a recovery bath-tub, and installed leathered seats on both benches.
But all this does little to put off critics, for whom money is merely a resource to keep building football. The closest the club came to on-pitch success was a League Cup runners-up finish in 2011, while meagre bottom-half league finishes of seventh, 10th and sixth were the best it could achieve in the three most recent league campaigns.
The task at hand for Mr Ng, and his Game Changers, should he win a mandate on 29 April, is enormous. He has to rejuvenate not just a single club, but an entire football ecosystem. Beyond financial recovery, he will have to win hearts and minds, convince Singaporeans that Singapore football deserves their support and convince the youth that the pursuit of football excellence is still worthwhile. Most of all, he has to do the one thing he has failed to do at his clubs – raise the quality of Singapore football.
With more than a decade spent covering football, Gary Koh’s works have previously appeared in local and international print and online publications, among them notably with FourFourTwo and Asian Football Confederation.
Featured image courtesy of Hougang United Football Club.
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