by Bertha Henson
THERE’S something to be said about having free and open elections: It allows questions to be aired in the expectation that answers will be given.
I am not a football fan but the saga surrounding the Football Association of Singapore’s (FAS) upcoming April 29 elections has been riveting. Some might say that challenger Mr Bill Ng’s questions regarding a $500,000 donation he (or his Tiong Bahru FC) made was a distraction and that more attention should be paid to the plans of both teams that are contesting the election.
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I don’t think so.
What it shows is that an electoral process brings more scrutiny and urges more transparency from office-holders and those vying for the job. So world football governing body Fifa finally realised that for decades, the FAS was breaking the rules by having officers appointed by the G. After seven years on the job, Mr Zainudin Nordin has stepped down to pave the way for elections. FAS is usually headed by an MP, and the past list included those who have made it into ministerial ranks such as Mr Mah Bow Tan and Mr Ho Peng Kee.
Doubtless, the FAS is a tough organisation to manage given its myriad clubs, tournaments, programmes as well as the attention paid to it by people at the grassroots. That the G has a hand in its running isn’t surprising since it gives out grants to sports bodies, that is, taxpayers’ money of more than $2 million annually to FAS. Its other major donor is the Tote Board, which used to disburse some $25 million to the FAS annually, but which will now do so through Sport Singapore (SportSg).
Members of the public who are interested in the management of FAS can turn to its annual reports but in the main, the concern is about crowd turn-out, football rankings and whether goals of the football kind are being delivered given the resources poured into the sport. It takes an electoral process to bring matters out in the open, whether among those with a stake or the community at large. Of course, like all elections, there will be agendas and strategies, like rubbishing the old to make way for the new.
Now the FAS is embroiled in controversy with questions raised over the past year about its handling of money, including donations. There have been particularly feisty exchanges between Mr Ng and the FAS through the person of General Secretary Winston Lee over what happened three years ago. To put it bluntly, they are accusing each other of lying.
So what are the issues involved?
The key point is whether Mr Ng knew where the $500,000 donation was going to go. He claims it was for local football but it went to the Asean Football Federation (AFF). There’s no question that the AFF received the money – although it fumbled about whether the money was from the FAS or Mr Ng’s Tiong Bahru FC. The FAS has a paper trail, including a letter setting out the terms of the donation, which Mr Ng, rather improbably said was drafted by the FAS and which he was somehow made to sign.
In any case, even if the money had always been intended for AFF, the question is why such a big sum, which is about half the income of an S-League club, should go to outside entities at a time of a struggling football scene here.
Another issue is whether the sum was properly recorded somewhere. So far, not a single person in past councils has come out to say he had knowledge of the sum. What’s worse is that most people evinced surprise.
Then comes the question of why Mr Ng chose to raise the matter now instead of three years ago. Is this an election gambit to allege improprieties in the FAS which he, a challenger, will want to clean up?
In the middle of it all is the deafening silence of ex-chief Zainudin, which the FAS said was the person who solicited the donation. Mr Ng, however, denied this and pointed his finger at Mr Lee.
Mr Zainudin must know by now that he would have to say something lest gossip and misinformation fill in the blanks, thereby impugning his reputation. To say nothing because he is not standing for the upcoming election is a bad excuse for something that happened during his tenure.
Which brings me back to the point of having democratic elections. They are complicated and fussy affairs and there might even be those who say that such “disagreements” should be dealt with behind closed-doors so as not to give Singapore football a bad name. If so, they forget that it was “closed-doors” which gave rise to the current controversy.
To a spectator, the FAS looks like the Augean stables. It might be better for the challengers to discuss sweeping and mopping up operations first, before moving on to pronouncing grand visions. SportSg has ordered FAS to give a full account of the donation. Hopefully, it will be done before the elections so that there will be more clarity.
Good luck to Singapore football.