Twenty years ago, over 50, 000 Singaporeans travelled for six hours to the Shah Alam Stadium to watch the Lions take home the 1994 Malaysia Cup — and Cheah Koh Keong was one of them. It was a time where Singaporean football gripped the nation’s imagination, and the nation’s heart.
Cheah Kok Keong can still name the Malaysian members of the 70s lineup who were high on the radar of the Singapore football team. Mokhtar Dahari, a striker who had the maddening habit of scoring against the Lions. The “Spiderman” Arumugam, the goalkeeper with long Mr. Fantastic-esque limbs. The towering defender, Soh Chin Aun, whom everyone called “Towkay” (‘big boss’).
It’s been twenty years since Singapore lifted the Malaysia Cup in 1994, but for 48-year-old Kok Keong, these enemies that lay between us and tantalizing silverware still loom large in his imagination. He is a “diehard”, one of the Singaporean football fans who travelled six hours to Malaysia in December 1994 to watch Singapore beat Pahang 4-0, bringing the Cup home after a 14-year drought.
We meet Kok Keong in his office, where he works as a Senior Manager at the Office of Professional Engineering and Executive Education in the Faculty of Engineering at the National University of Singapore. Before we even sit down, he’s launched enthusiastically into the story, his hands thumping against the table whenever he makes a point.
He’s a storyteller, a Scheherazade, footballers’ names unspooling like thread and laid out in glittering embroidery as he invokes the 90s Singapore football scene.
Each boyhood hero is reverently dissected in turn: Fandi Ahmad, the homegrown boy who re-ignited the nation’s love of football, the player who hung in the air longer than anyone else when he jumped like a salmon to head the ball into goal. Of Steven Tan, the ‘super sub’, Kok Keong says: “poor thing. He never made it into the first eleven but always scored when he was released onto the pitch.”
He asks if we’ve seen Sundramoorthy’s 1993 bicycle kick; to his shock, we shake our heads no. He exclaims, “You mean you’ve never seen it? Ask any football fan about Sundram and they’ll know the bicycle kick—it’s a classic!”
How many times has this miraculous goal played across the minds of Singaporean fans? On YouTube, it’s got over a hundred thousand hits.
As Kok Keong talks, he pulls up video after video on YouTube. We watch, mesmerised, as the cross is made and Sundram absurdly twists upside down to score the goal. Even through the grainy speakers, the Kallang Stadium is a howl of disbelief and astonishment, burning rapidly upwards into roaring joy.
Growing up along the sidelines
Kok Keong grew up watching football, especially the Malaysia Cup matches—not on cable TV, but live, at the National Stadium. In the 80s, before the construction of Kallang MRT, he was driven there by his uncle; other Singaporean fans trickled through traffic, stuffed into hot public buses. “When the Kallang MRT station opened in 1989, that was the turning point,” Kok Keong says. “It brought the National Stadium very close to all of us. We got out of the MRT and just crossed the Nicoll Highway bridge to get to the stadium.”
“There was no cable TV then,” Kok Keong says. “And watching football was cheap; for kids with a school pass, tickets were maybe $1, $2… $5 at most. At that time, local football was something that you could see every day live—and it drew people together.”
He remembers vividly the scene after the matches, when everyone attempted to leave the stadium at the same time. “The National Stadium can house 55, 000 people and it was always full house—tickets sold out weeks before the game. Malaysia Cup mah!
“When the crowd took the same exit route, the bridge was at maximum capacity so everyone just said, ‘Aiyah (sigh), let’s just cross the highway.’ The cars had to stop and let us cross. We were the kings of the road.”
Whether we felt like triumphant kings or bereft paupers depended on how the Lions were doing. In the Malaysian Semi-Pro League, the Singapore team played against Malaysian teams from different states throughout an entire season; in a separate competition, teams competed in the Malaysia Cup. In 1992, the Lions, crushingly—and shockingly—did so badly that they dropped from the top tier of the Semi-Pro League to the second division.
This triggered a homecoming in 1993. “Suddenly the old players came back,” Kok Keong says. “They came back from afar, from the other teams, to play for Singapore again. Sundramoorthy came back, and Fandi joined us again. We called it the Dream Team. There was even a song about it!”
The Dream Team got Singapore into the finals of the 1993 Malaysia Cup—but lost. Shakily, we gathered ourselves to make another attempt in 1994. Kok Keong recalls that in 1994 there was a hunger for the trophy, but the team got off to a bad start. “They let go of good players like Alistair Edwards and Sundramoorthy!” he says, disappointed. “We were all surprised. Then our coach, Ken Worden, got cold feet and resigned.”
Irrepressibly, however, the Lions began to rise through the ranks again. Kok Keong tells us that Singapore won a number of critical games in 1994 while playing entertaining football. “We won the league, and we wanted the double—to win the Cup, too. Every Malaysian team was out to stop us from winning the finals.”
When it finally came down to the semi-finals, Kok Keong couldn’t make it to cheer the Lions on in person. His wife-to-be was organizing a Miss Universe pageant, and faithfully he chose to accompany her to the event. Instead, he snuck an electric radio into his shirt pocket and slipped in earphones to keep up with the match. But he didn’t need to—the DJ took it upon himself to keep everyone there updated on all the goals.
“It became home ground”
Then it was the night before the final match. The enemy: Pahang; the battle field: Shah Alam Stadium. Kok Keong found himself snarled in traffic on the Causeway, waiting in a coach that was draped in red. His fiancée had chosen to keep him company, as faithful to him as he was to her.
“Everyone you see was all in red,” Kok Keong tells us. His eyes have lit up; it’s a story he loves to tell. “They were so excited. It was like an an exodus—motorbikes, cars, people walking across… it was such a traffic jam! Everyone was there: all races, young and old.”
They were dropped off in the city to spend some time before the match started. Kok Keong, worried about violence incited by rival fans, had brought a yellow shirt—the Pahang colour—in case he needed to blend in. But to his surprise and pleasure, the shopping malls were a sea of red. It was the same when they got to the stadium.
Kok Keong flips through the photo album, showing us his photos of the historic night. “We thought the fans would be half-Singapore, half-Pahang, but when we got to the stadium, the red hit the halfway mark and then went on! Red, red, red, red…” he jokes.
“It was supposed to be neutral ground, but it became home ground. Singaporeans were all waiting, excited for the match to begin. The stadium could accommodate 80, 000 people and we made up 70% of it. I believe 55, 000 Singaporeans were there that day. This must be a world record—the biggest assembly of Singaporeans overseas!”
The match passed like a good dream: a 4-0 win to us, three goals by Abbas Saad, polished off with one more by Fandi. Singaporean fans were disbelieving, delirious. Twenty years later, Kok Keong still sounds like he doesn’t quite believe it himself, as if it had happened yesterday: “We did not expect it to be so easy!”
The atmosphere must have been carnivalesque, deafening; children were dressed as lions, grown men tearfully waving red flags. It was a joyful, unabashed, collective dream of patriotism. It was we who had won the Cup; the distinction between player and supporter had become unclear. We had somehow all done it together—a David and Goliath story, the miraculous triumph of a tiny country against the might of Malaysia. The sense of national pride was inviolate, wholly unironic, an organic excitement that swept through every household that turned on their television and watched the match that night.
Does Kok Keong remember how everyone celebrated afterwards? What was the atmosphere like?
He looks straight at us, smiling, and says: “How do you describe happiness?”
Every player had a song
The televisions and radios replayed it nonstop, again and again, all four of the goals that had shattered Pahang’s defense. Camera crews camped out at the Changi Airport arrival hall, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with old grandmothers who were there to watch “the boys” bring home the Cup and women who led each other in cheers.
The coach, turning its nose and travelling back down the highway, was wide awake. “No one was sleeping,” Kok Keong says, as if it was an obvious fact. “We had travelled six hours to watch them win! It was thrilling. Everyone was cheering and singing. It was all everybody could talk about. This was a time when Singapore loved football.”
Kok Keong is an everyday historian, a person who documents what is built over, torn down, left behind. When he got home he immediately laminated the ticket stubs and he shows them to us now, proudly. 17 December, 1994. 15 ringgit.
“There was no cable TV then,” he says. “Watching football was cheap; for kids with a school pass, tickets were maybe $1, $2… $5 at most. At that time, local football was something that you could see every day live—and it drew people together. That kind of fervor is no longer there anymore. At that time, I knew every player. Every player was a character on the field. There were songs to sing about them.”
The magic of football
Singaporean football is not dead. In 2007 the ASEAN Football Championship drew plenty of eyes; together with the urgent knowledge that the National Stadium was being torn down, there was a resurgence of the Kallang Roar. Singapore triumphed after a number of pulse-racing encounters with Malaysia and Thailand. We routed Laos 11-0 in that tournament and beat Iraq in the Asian Cup qualifiers—the only team to do so that year. The Lions also won the Suzuki Cup in 2012.
But 1994 was the last year that Singapore played in the Malaysia Cup—the Lions withdrew from Malaysian competitions to focus on our own S. League—and without the urgency of playing against a classic rival, the old bugbear Malaysia, both enemy and sibling all at once, the draw to Singaporean football hasn’t truly been the same.
Kok Keong, however, has never stopped being a fan of the game. “You give a boy a ball and anyplace square in shape and he’ll play,” he says. “That’s the magic of football! Regardless of race, we all play together. As a child, it was common for me to play anywhere and everywhere, on any open field I could find. It was muddy everywhere, and my school uniform was all white! White shirt, white pants, white shoes. When I played football, sure kena (‘get a scolding’) one!”
But despite scoldings and stains, Kok Keong played on. Today, he still takes part in a kickabout with some of the neighbours’ kids at an empty plot of land below his house—younger boys who are bullied out of the futsal court two streets away. But a neighbor complained about the noise and the police were called, leaving Kok Keong to defend the boys’ antics. Despite everything, the boys are always itching to play.
“Every era,” Kok Keong tells us, “you have your own hero. For me, they were Sundram and Fandi.”
He says: “I remember this saying that I heard once. It went something like this: in our lives, we make many changes. You might change your job, your career, your house… you might even change your spouse. But there’s one thing that you hardly change. And that’s the football club that you support as a small boy.”
Interview by Kellynn Wee
Photographs by Kellynn Wee and Cheah Kok Keong