Gila Bola: Interview with Dan & Zakaria

Posted by on May 17, 2012 in Memento | 3 Comments

After our initial launch of three commissioned films by Tan Pin Pin and Wee Li Lin, our commissioned series Drawn From Memory moves to the format of the e-book in exploration of a wide range of topics on culture, identity and belonging. First up is a photo essay on the state of football fandom in Singapore by Dan Koh and Zakaria Zainal. The subject is timely as Singapore is now leading the scoreboards at the Malaysia Super League after an absence of 18 years. Yeong Chong speaks with Dan Koh and Zakaria Zakaria to get the scoop on the genesis of the project.

Yeong Chong (YC): The open call under the Singapore Memory Project accorded wide latitude to explore many topics of nostalgic interest and I’m struck by the choice of football as a subject matter for this piece. Are there biographical reasons on the subject choice, and what were some of your earlier memories in support of the Dream Team?

Dan Koh (DK): It’s really to pay tribute to Singapore soccer, and how indestructible homegrown soccer culture is. I was struck by how, because of colonial influence, we have the first football association in Asia in the Singapore Amateur Football Association, the predecessor of the Football Association of Singapore. Away from officialdom, the idea of a Singapore culture has always been tied in with soccer. Before it served nationalistic ends, soccer was a way of asserting racial and communal pride, as can be seen through clubs like the Singapore Malays and Somerset United (born out of Farrer Park) in the once popular amateur leagues.

All Rights Reserved. © Singapore Memory Project 2012

Tour operator Akbar Hashim leads the LionsXII fans

Even after independence, Singapore soccer connected us with our neighbours in a natural way that has ceased in our modern, isolationist age. Alongside Selangor, Singapore dominated the HMS Malaya Cup, but in 1968, when it changed to the Malaysia Cup, then-Minister for Culture and Social Affairs Othman Wok called our participation “improper” – “The continuance of these competitions could have been right when we were a part of Malaysia,” he said. Although we are no longer one country, I believe Singapore temporarily leaving the Cup in 1968 was as unfortunate a phenomenon as when we withdrew again in 1982 and 1994. At least in soccer, reunion is inevitable and important to link us historically.

So to me, the story of Singapore soccer is essentially one of outrageous survival. I would like to think it deserves to be told. Despite all the challenges — fervent support then indifference, the move from Jalan Besar to the National Stadium, and the subsequent redevelopment of both, the lack of governmental money then too much gambling money and ticketing receipts at stake — Singapore soccer, and its fans, have persisted.

Personally speaking, I was never a big fan of soccer. My father dragged me along to Malaysia Cup and S.League matches, but I was always more interested in the men. My favourite players are Abbas Saad, Nazri Nasir, and of course Fandi. While I may not admire the sport, I do admire the spirit.

The story of Singapore soccer is essentially one of outrageous survival. I would like to think it deserves to be told. Despite all the challenges — fervent support then indifference, the move from Jalan Besar to the National Stadium, and the subsequent redevelopment of both, the lack of governmental money then too much gambling money and ticketing receipts at stake — Singapore soccer, and its fans, have persisted.

– Dan Koh

Zakaria Zainal (ZZ): Football was a big part of my life growing up. I admired the beautiful game and drama that comes along with it. I closely watched football games from the EPL and European Leagues and especially at the international level, like the World Cup and Euros. And when I can, I will attend matches when Singapore played, especially the regional tournaments like the Tiger Cup or the SEA Games. I will not say that I am the most ardent fan but every time the national team does not perform to our expectations, I would feel a sense of frustration and anger and wanting the team to do better. Of course, when we win, the feeling is very special.

When the decision to return to the Malaysian League was announced, I was surprised. The good old days of the Malaysian League and Cup were defining moments for Singapore soccer. And this led me to wonder, where have the fans been all along? In any team especially when you look at the household names, like Barcelona or Manchester United, it is backed by a very strong community of fans—who lift their teams during games. It does not matter where you come from, people from all walks of life, young and old, of different races and religions, will come together to support their number one team.

All Rights Reserved. © Singapore Memory Project 2012

Henry (left) & Edmond Tan

I took it upon myself to meet and get to know these fans who were making the first away trip back since the separation in 1994. That it when I realised that these fans, have such a riveting story to tell. And their passion for Singapore soccer is unparalleled.

YC: The bulk of your book turns the lens away from celebrated players to another important element of any winning team: its fans. What prompted an investigative angle from the fans’ perspective on the topic of local football, and are the fans really as gila (Malay for “crazy”) as you make them out to be?

DK: Essentially because the stars’ stories have been told, and even after they have moved on, the fans are the ones who have stuck around. Having said that, I think the six stories in the book can be seen as three stories on soccer as livelihood, and three on soccer as life.

All Rights Reserved. © Singapore Memory Project 2012

Ex-national football coach Yap Boon Chuan

To ex-national coach Yap Boon Chuan, former radio soccer commentator Wilfred James, and tour operator Akbar Hashim, soccer was and is their business. And not all of them have continued to support Singapore soccer. Mr. Yap, for example, says current homegrown soccer has “lost that feeling”, while even fans like Henry and Edmond Tan have shifted their support to the English Premier League. While it is important to preserve the fans’ stories, I also feel it’s important not to sentimentalise it, or focus on empty nostalgia.

For other fans, sure, they’re pretty gila about soccer. When we met the Lee family, for instance, they had just returned from a Malaysia Super League match in Malaysia, and we fact-checked with them as they were boarding a flight to another soccer match. It’s the sport that encourages positive craziness, I think.

All Rights Reserved. © Singapore Memory Project 2012

The Lee Family

As Godfrey Robert writes, no other sport has even begun to touch the obsession with soccer, especially in Singapore. I’m really inspired by The Seventeen Connection, a beautiful ’90s Fandi Ahmad fan magazine that Yana Lee herself was involved in. I wish more Singaporeans would put up posters of their own people on their walls.

I took it upon myself to meet and get to know these fans who were making the first away trip back since the separation in 1994. That it when I realised that these fans, have such a riveting story to tell. And their passion for Singapore soccer is unparalleled.

– Zakaria Zainal

ZZ: I agree with Dan. As much as people would like to know and remember the players, I feel that the backbone of the football community are actually the fans. Those that attend games out of their own free will, attend and support their teams no matter what. I think what is ‘gila’ is their commitment to be there for the games, from Mr Molazim Suhood’s story of how he attended a Malaysia Cup game immediately after his wife gave birth. What cannot be denied also is how their eyes simply light up talking about football, the mere mention of the word simply fills them with such excitement.

All Rights Reserved. © Singapore Memory Project 2012

Molazim (left) and Abdul Malik

Gila Bola: Surviving Singapore Soccer is now available for download at the Singapore Memory Portal. Check it out, tell us what you feel and share a personal memory on your own football fandom moments. Here are some submitted memories to get you inspired!

Your resident do-gooder

Yeong Chong
Editor, irememberSG
Singapore Memory Project

3 Comments

  1. Jim
    May 18, 2012

    I find it ironic and slightly jarring, that despite alluding Singapore as the first country in Asia to have a football association due to her colonial roots, the writer refers to the game as ‘soccer’.

    Is he hinting at a subaltern estrangement of the nation’s footballing identity therefore the use of ‘soccer’?
    Is he americanising the sport, granting it a further, bewildering remove despite the book’s attempt to reconcile a nation to its ‘Malaysia Cup’ legacy?
    Did DK score an own goal?
    Would Fandi, Sundra or Sasikumar( footballer before SHOWMAN NOW) call it ‘soccer’?
    Is it because ‘Singapore Soccer’ sounds that much snazzier?
    Is it because DK only refers to soccernet and not football365?
    Is it a clever attempt to engage youths and ex-youths stuck in lazy recess speak of ‘eh, wanna play soccer not’?
    Was DK’s mum a soccer mom?

    Reply
    • Dan Koh
      May 18, 2012

      Hi Jim,

      Dan here. Thanks for your comment.

      In the e-book, the interviewees and I use the terms ‘football’ and ‘soccer’ interchangeably. While ‘soccer’ is now commonly known as an American term to differentiate the sport from American Football, I’m sure you know that the term can be traced back to Oxford students. In the late 19th Century, they abbreviated Association Football to their slang of “socca”, from Association’s “soc”, to differentiate the game from the rules of Rugby Football.

      Today, in Singapore, I do not think there is a colonial hang up about either term’s etymology. For example, you may like to ask the kids you mentioned, who in their “lazy recess speak of ‘eh, wanna play soccer not’?” link back to the language of Oxford students. And yes, “Surviving Singapore Football” does not have quite the same ring to it.

      I do not think it matters if my parents are Singaporeans or non-locals, but thank you for asking.

      Best,

      Dan Koh

      Reply
  2. 42: Gila Bola!: Surviving Singapore Soccer | Zakaria Zainal | Dispatches
    June 21, 2012

    […] You can know more about our thoughts on this project in an interview here. […]

    Reply

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