June 23, 2017

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Bill Ng

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by Bertha Henson

IT WAS bound to happen. With news of the millions Tiong Bahru FC amassed from its fruit machines, there have been calls to keep these one-armed bandits confined to the two casinos.

Yet, there are more than 100 clubs – whether it is an NTUC Club or an exclusive country club – which has such misleadingly-named gambling contraptions. And you don’t have to pay a $100 entrance fee to get into the premises.

What you have to do, though, is be a member of said club or society. That’s because the machines are supposed to be “private’’, under the Private Lotteries Act. Located in the basement of People’s Park Centre, with 29 machines, Tiong Bahru FC has more than 18,000 members, according to its latest annual returns filed with the Registry of Societies, as reported by The Straits Times (April 23).

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Given that Tiong Bahru FC reported S$36.8 million in total revenue in the last financial year, that works out to roughly S$1.27 million for each machine, or just over S$100,000 per machine each month. That’s plenty of arm muscle or finger pressing every day in the club.

A check through newspaper reports showed that clubs view them as a big attraction. There’s the National University of Singapore Society Clubhouses, Singapore Cricket Club, Changi Swimming Club, Changi Airport Recreation Club and Keppel Club. NTUC Club has several jackpot rooms all over Singapore, in places such as Ang Mo Kio, Bedok, Tanjong Pagar and Pasir Ris.

Of course, the G exacts its pound of flesh by imposing 9.5 per cent of annual gross turnover. This was put in place in 2011 because, gulp!, clubs said that an earlier proposed 12 per cent duty was too high now that casinos have surfaced in Singapore.

Casinos don’t seem to have affected the clubs’ takings equally. In fact, according to Business Times, the Automobile Association of Singapore had S$4.27 million in 2015, up from S$3.39 million the previous year. It has about the same number of machines as Tiong Bahru FC. So while revenue is growing, its takings are small beer compared to what the football club is raking in.

And this brings us to the question of just what those jackpot machines do for Singapore football – besides minting money. Tiong Bahru FC’s Bill Ng of the $500,000 donation fame, has always made no bones about his financial model for football.

He did the same to Hougang United FC and both clubs can afford to thumb their noses at any subsidy the Football Association of Singapore can funnel. Most S. League clubs operate on an annual budget of between $1.2 million and $1.5 million, and cannot do without the $800,000 annual subsidy.

“The public has to understand that we do not have any other source of revenue at this juncture. Hence the success of jackpot operations is critical,” he told TNP in October last year.

“This is the only artificial revenue that we can rely on at the moment. Any club with an eye towards financial self-sustainability must be prepared to look for alternative revenue streams as we may have to phase it out in the next five years.”

What the jackpot earnings have been spent on now appears to be the subject of police questioning. Besides monthly accounts and yearly audits, it isn’t clear what stipulations were put forth when the clubs obtained their licence to install fruit machines. At the very least, the club should be expected to use the revenue for its own purposes and in its own interest.

If so, it gives rise to the question of whether it is alright for $500,000 to be drawn from the Tiong Bahru FC account for the Asean Football Federation to build a Football Management System.

Mr Ng’s “jackpot” modus operandi is not without detractors who object to using gambling as a way to finance football. That was what Tampines Rovers chairman Krishna Ramachandra said last year about depending on an activity that has been known to wipe out the life savings of retirees.

There is, therefore, a moral issue here, and given the amounts amassed by Tiong Bahru FC, it would be safe to say that the punters aren’t there because they like football. In fact, its 18,000 members is significantly more than the 600 members of Geylang International FC, an S. League club. Another S. League club Balestier Khalsa’s 1,000-plus members also pales in comparison to that of Tiong Bahru FC.

But high-minded words aside, Mr Ramachandra is in a bit of a pickle now because he is on Mr Ng’s Game Changers slate as vice-president. In a TNP report today (Apr 24), he focused on the use of gaming revenue rather than the act of gaming. “I think the authorities have always had very clear and extensive rules and regulations on the jackpot operations.”

“I do not see that as an issue. Ultimately, the clubs need to ensure that they utilise the profits in a responsible manner and one that furthers the mandate of that club, be it a social or recreational or sports club.”

And no, he doesn’t want any rules on fruit machines tightened.

The FAS saga has opened a whole can of worms – both legal and moral.

 

Featured image by Sean Chong.

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Mr Bill Ng with recipients of the Hougang United club scholarship fund (image by Hougang United)

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.
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The Tiong Bahru FC clubhouse in People’s Park Complex.

“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.
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Police cart away boxes of documents and computers from the Tiong Bahru FC clubhouse.

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.
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Hougang United players decked out in suits before departing for an overseas game (Image by Hougang United FC).

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.
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The late former Hougang coach and Woodlands Wellington player Amin Nasir (Image by Hougang United FC).

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.
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Hougang United FC’s refurbished dressing room (Image by Hougang United).

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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The Tiong Bahru FC clubhouse in People's Park Complex

THE police raided the clubhouses of Tiong Bahru Football Club, Hougang United Football Club and Woodlands Wellington Football Club at about 4pm today (Apr 20).

Soon after, investigators were seen entering the premises of the Football Association of Singapore (FAS). FAS general secretary Winston Lee was seen accompanying the investigators into a room. Boxes of documents were seen being moved into a room at the FAS office.

Media crowd the doors at FAS during police investigations.

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It is not yet clear if the raids are linked to SportSG’s statement yesterday (Apr 19) that it had filed a police report against Tiong Bahru about misused funds and an allegation that a Tiong Bahru official had lied to another club to try and delay or obstruct the completion of audits until after the landmark FAS elections due on Apr 29.

FAS presidential candidate Bill Ng, is the chairman of Tiong Bahru and Hougang United. Mr Ng revealed this week that he had made a controversial $500,000 donation to the Asean Football Federation from Tiong Bahru’s coffers by way of the FAS.

The Straits Times reported today (Apr 20) that Tiong Bahru had earned $37 million in revenue from its jackpot operations.

Police carry boxes of documents and CPUs to a back room at Tiong Bahru FC.

Woodlands Wellington has also been linked to Mr Ng. He had made an unsuccessful bid to take control of the ailing club in 2011 which faced opposition from fans. Mr Ng is running against Mr Lim Kia Tong to lead the FAS. It is unclear if the raids and ongoing police investigation will affect Mr Ng’s candidacy.

Plainclothes officers were seen moving several boxes of documents and several CPUs into a back room at the Tiong Bahru Clubhouse in Chinatown, and similar scenes are also unfolding at the other two clubs.

There have been no reports yet of any arrests.

 

Featured image by Erin Chua

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