June 25, 2017

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Tiong Bahru FC

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by Daniel Yap

THE former Football Association of Singapore (FAS) council is rather powerless, to hear it told.

Former council members on team Lim Kia Tong (LKT) have come forward yesterday (Apr 24) to say that they had been kept in the dark about the $500,000 donation from Mr Bill Ng’s Tiong Bahru Football Club (FC) to the regional Asean Football Federation (AFF), which had sparked an outcry in the football fraternity. It even led to a raid on three football clubs and the FAS offices (read more here). Mr Lim and Mr Ng are currently in the contest for the FAS presidency. Elections are on April 29.

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Mr Lim Kia Tong, former FAS vice president, said the council did not have access to the financial books of FAS, “Myself and the other council members did not know about how and who triggered this idea of sponsorship to AFF. This is a fact. There was no discussion. It was never raised at council meeting or at exco meeting.”

Mr Lim was also the provisional council president of the FAS from Nov 16 last year to Mar 31 this year. The donation was made in a few tranches between Dec 2014 and Sep 2015 when Mr Zainudin was the president.

No power over finances?

Former FAS vice president Bernard Tan said that the role and powers of the council, apart from the president, were limited. “The council is an advisory body. The President is conferred significant powers; he has sizeable authority.”

Mr S. Thavaneson, also a former council member and Chairman of Balestier Khalsa Football Club, said that independent auditors who had looked through the FAS books for that financial year did not flag anything suspicious about the transactions.

“Donations as such are extremely rare,” said Mr Tan. “FAS was a middleman in this transaction, also rare. But should it have been flagged to the council? Yes, on hindsight. Who knew? At least three individuals: Mr Ng, Zai, Winston.” Mr Tan was referring to Mr Bill Ng, former FAS President Zainudin Nordin and FAS general secretary Winston Lee. Mr Tan said that there is no policy at FAS for handling donations.

“But financial procedures were followed,” he said, adding that there was a clear need for a donation policy at FAS with better due diligence.

The FAS Constitution, however, seems to say that the council should have been consulted. The council has final authority over the finances of the FAS, and among other things, is empowered “to incur and authorise the expenditure of the funds of FAS for approved purposes and to designate signatories for the operation of the FAS’ banking accounts”.

And as for the rare occurrence of a large donation, and in the absence of a donation policy, the constitution says that the council has the authority “to decide upon any matter which has not been provided for in the Constitution”. Thus, wouldn’t it be even more important to inform the council of a rare and large donation that was part of a rare and possibly controversial arrangement to send money to the AFF?

So far from being merely advisory, the council should have had power and should have been told of such a rare and significant donation or arrangement. Were they stripped of their ability to exercise their constitutional power because pertinent information was deliberately withheld? Was it so easy to emasculate the council?

“Given the circumstances, said Mr Tan, “it’s hard for us to take responsibility for something we didn’t know about.” He said that the council “was very surprised” to find out about the transaction and had been “totally unaware” of it.

No power over jackpot operations

Mr Tan also said that the FAS only has oversight of the clubs in relation to their participation in football. S. league clubs receive annual funding from FAS and need to submit monthly accounts. Tiong Bahru FC, however, is not a S. League club.

Tiong Bahru FC is registered with the Registry of Societies, and their jackpot room operations are issued and governed by the Police Licensing Unit, which the FAS has no say in. Any society that is not a charity can apply to have a jackpot room if it meets certain criteria, including having at least 500 voting members and operate at least two other recreational facilities at the clubhouse.

At these “members only” clubs, membership is curiously easy to obtain. Several clubs offer free memberships or levy token membership fees. Applications for memberships are approved quickly, even on the spot.

The FAS does not even have the power to get non-playing football clubs that have fallen into debt to cease jackpot operations – all it can do is ask them to rejoin the league once they have cleared their debt. But if elected, Team LKT said that it wants to make sure that money generated from gambling “should 100 per cent” be ploughed back into local football.

But with no authority over how such money is spent, the most the FAS can do is boot out clubs that it considers to be flouting this principle, which does not stop the clubs from continuing their jackpot operations. A case in point is Sinchi FC, which left the S. League after the 2005 season, ceased to be an FAS affiliate, but continues to run jackpot operations to this day.

It is all FAS can do to keep its own house untarnished by claims of misspent gambling gains.

“Clean up the image of soccer”

Mr Bernard Tan said that what is important now, if they win the election, is to work to heal football, even with those who vote against them. He said, “The image of the game has been tarnished. Substantial damage has been done. Whoever is elected has to clean up the image of soccer.”

He said that a good council trades on integrity, and that they formed their slate to make sure that status, privileges, or deriving a livelihood from the FAS was not the reason for serving. Mr Thavaneson said that he was willing to open Balestier Khalsa’s books for public scrutiny.

When asked about how he felt about his team’s chances of getting elected, Mr Tan said, “No matter what we feel, you always want to behave like you got to fight for it. We want to feel like the underdog.”

 

Featured image by Daniel Yap.

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By Bertha Henson

SO MANY accusations left hanging in the air. Allegations of financial impropriety and other shenanigans – all left unsaid. What are we to make of the statements of protagonists in the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) saga and the police action? Everybody’s been coy about joining the dots because they might not draw a pretty, and maybe even defamatory, picture. Here, however, are six points that seem the subject of contention:

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a. That $500,000 donation
It was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Mr Bill Ng’s claim that this donation in 2014 intended for local football went instead to supporting the Asean Football Federation (AFF) led to an escalation of tensions between past and contending challengers for the council.

Did he know or not know? General secretary Winston Lee produced documentary evidence that he did but Mr Ng then said that Mr Lee coerced him into signing the letter and putting it on his club letterhead.

Was ex-FAS president Mr Zainudin Nordin involved in asking him for the donation? Mr Ng said it was Mr Lee but an acknowledgement letter was addressed to Mr Zainudin. Sport Singapore has asked for an audit of such large donations. Both Mr Zainudin and Mr Ng seem to be good friends. Mr Ng even asked the ex-MP to chair Tiong Bahru Football Club (FC) when he stepped down from the FAS earlier this year. He declined the offer as he was given a post of Deputy Principal (Development) at ITE College.

b. Whose money is it anyway?

It appeared to have come from Tiong Bahru FC which Mr Ng owns, going by the cheques signed. It went to the FAS which passed it to the AFF. Now why this sum had to go through the good offices of the FAS is another question. Why not a direct donation?

c. So what if FAS was the channel?

If so, how is it that other council members seem to have no knowledge of such a large donation, which amounts to half of what could be used to run a football club? Is this a sign that the old establishment, as so many in the fraternity had alleged, is elitist and secretive? Mr Zainudin, president since 2009, only held council meetings four times a year unlike his predecessor Associate Prof Ho Peng Kee, who did so once a month.

d. How did Tiong Bahru come to have so much money anyway?

The club has 29 jackpot machines on its premises which rake in about $37 million last year, more than the $35.8 million FAS budget. Those machines aren’t illegal and appeared to be Mr Ng’s chief method of turning around ailing clubs. The corporate had experience in gaming operations, having set up a casino in Cambodia. According to TODAY, the club paid its 15 employees S$2.073 million in salaries last year and put in an additional S$528,000 for staff training, uniforms and staff welfare. But spending on its football team was a more modest S$169,000.

His other two clubs, Hougang United and Woodlands Wellington, also have jackpot machines although not of the same number. In 2014, Hougang United made a $2million profit and Mr Ng made a point of returning the FAS its $800,000 subsidy.

e. So if it’s not illegal, then what’s the problem?

There are questions about an audit during the saga of Hougang United and Woodlands Wellington intending to merge in 2014 which was later ruled as unconstitutional. In March 2016, however, Sport Singapore ordered FAS to do an audit on the merger and clubs sitting out of the S. League. This is, apparently, still on-going. It also told Woodlands Wellington, which is sitting out of the S. League, to cease making money from the machines and move out of the premises.

f. Does the saga have anything to do with Mr Ng’s companies?

He founded private equity firm Financial Frontiers and is a director of six companies.

ST reported that in his company’s portfolio is an ESW Manage, which is a sponsor of Hougang United, and also had Mr Zainudin Nordin and Woodlands Wellington chairman Gary Tan as directors. It might not be a surprise that those in the football fraternity have commercial ties but there is the issue of whether proper disclosure of interests was made to relevant parties.

Mr Ng’s wife Bonnie Wong is the listed owner of Polygon Ventures, landlord of the Tiong Bahru club’s 2,583 square foot premises in the basement of People’s Park Centre. The club pays rent of about $80,000 a month or $31 per square feet. TODAY’s checks showed that other basement units in People’s Park Centre are charging between S$2.92 and S$11.23 per square foot in rent. The only unit charging S$31.50 per square foot in rent is located at street level, and measures only 200 square foot.

Nobody’s drawing any links in the above except to state the facts. Clearly, Mr Ng had been under some auditing pressure even before he threw his hat into the FAS electoral ring. So is he trying to obstruct the process as he has been alleged to?

Let’s wait for the next match.

 

Featured image from TMG file.

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