RIP Ong Ah Keng: ‘Godfather’ of Tampines Rovers

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Suresh Nair

THE ‘Godfather’ of Tampines Rovers Football Club is usually referred to as an icon “oak” tree after his initials ‘Ong Ah Keng’.

His passing at Changi Hospital on Saturday didn’t come as a surprise because of his prolonged ill health, wheelchair-bound after a succession of strokes in recent years. But the awesome grassroots work he did for one of Singapore’s oldest football clubs will always be remembered and acknowledged by family and friends, players and officials.

The 79-year-old Mr Ong is mourned by wife, four children and eight grandchildren. His body is resting at Block 498N Tampines Street 45 Pavilion, Singapore 529097, with cremation set at Bright Hill Crematorium at Bishan on Wednesday.

He genuinely symbolised the “oak” tree with great strength, durability and wisdom associated with the sacred tree, which also evokes success, force, power, influence and stable health.

“He was true like the oak tree, he stood firmly on the ground, with family, friends and football, rooted in the origins of his own existence,” says family friend Robert Tan.  “The constant need for protection and help is also expressed in it and that was Ah Keng, who was the icon for the stable growth of his family and football team, which were most important to him.”

Businessman Mr Ong, famous in the sand and quarry business in the 1960s and 70s, generously supported Tampines Rovers, founded in 1945 and today, the East Coast-based club ranks as one of Asean’s oldest football institutions, with its home ground at Our Tampines Hub (OTH), the first S-League club to play within a shopping mall.

TRUE PASSION

Justin Morais, one of the Rovers’ founder-members, recalls how Mr Ong regularly came for the Tampines Rovers training sessions and matches in the 1970s. He says: “It’s not just the money but he showed his true passion for the club with his presence.

“He knew what was happening on the ground, from the form of the players to the financial health of the club and he unfailingly played a major role in firing up team-morale. He was an extraordinary man who always led from the front.”

Former Tampines President and FAS (Football Association of Singapore) Council Member George Pasqual adds: “You’ll lose count of the players he personally helped, nurturing them from unknowns to be Singapore heroes.

“He gave so much of himself to football and in terms of financial resources, it was immeasurable how much he sustained Tampines Rovers during the tough times in the 1970s and 80s. He’s genuinely the shining light and in passing, he’ll never be forgotten for his awesome generosity. May your good soul rest in peace.”

Quah Kim Song, the star-spangled Malaysia Cup striker of “Kallang Roar” fame in the late 1970s, hails Mr Ong as a “genuine football guy whose passion in football is second to one”. He praises: “He will be sorely missed by the older generation of footballers and fans. We’re very indebted to this football gentleman who nurtured numerous footballers that went on to play for the Lions. He was always an inspiration.”

Pasqual recollects how Mr Ong relished “promoting youth football and nurtured so many young players up the ranks to international football”. Goalkeeper Edmund Wee, who later played professionally in Hong Kong, was one of his favourites.

INVESTED IN YOUTH FOOTBALL

“He invested a lot in youth football, where Tampines was the undisputed youth champions for many years,” says Pasqual. “He was kind of the ‘Pied Piper’ who was generous with sponsorship and his genuine support for the club endeared players and officials to do their best for him.”

Johana Johari was a schoolboy international, together with Fandi Ahmad, who played in the Lion City Cup 40 years ago. He remembers how Mr Ong “personally coached him as a 15-year-old…gave us money and boots”.

“Mr Ong was the first who spotted me when I was playing at old Woodbridge Hospital field. He’d squat on the field and watch me practice and correct my mistakes. He fine-tuned my ball control, running with ball and quick turnings and he dared to include me in the Under-18 team (which went on to be champions) at 15 years,” says Johana, who later coached S-League Hougang United in 2013 as a AFC Pro Licence coach.

“Another awesome memory was how Mr Ong personally prepared hot tea for the players. We weren’t allowed to drink anything cold. He took care of us like his own sons. We benefitted from his sincere kindness. He was really a fatherly figure, who was always prepared to go the extra mile.”

Former Cabinet Minister Mah Bow Tan (National Development Minister from 1999 to 2011), who led Tampines Rovers in 1996 when the S-League started, says Mr Ong “loved football and was totally dedicated to Tampines Rovers”.

DEDICATED TO CLUB

“I first met Ah Keng when I wanted to invite Tampines Rovers to join the S-League as a founding member. He agreed straightaway. He loved football and he was totally dedicated to his club,” he says. “Over many years, he laid the foundation for Rovers to become one of the most successful and best supported clubs in Singapore football, producing many great players for Singapore like Quah Kim Song.

“I last met Ah Keng at a tribute march last year involving Rovers players, past and present. He was frail and wheelchair-bound. But the passion for football was still in his eyes. We have lost one of the true pioneers of Singapore football.”
LTC (Retired) Chris Wong, among the founder-members of the newly-minted Tampines Rovers Alumni, hailed Mr Ong as an “absolute icon who had a very big heart for the players and officials”.

“I was just a schoolboy in the mid to late 1970s when we trained and played at the old Woodbridge Hospital field hoping to make it to the Tampines’ youth ranks,” he recalls. “At that time, we heard so much of Ong Ah Keng who was the ‘father figure’ and extremely generous in helping a lot of the players financially.

“I never met him personally until (Quah) Kim Song organised a golf dinner to help raise funds for Mr Ong early last year when he wasn’t in good health. I was also proud to have had Mr Ong grace a TRFC Legends game. which I organised at the Padang in March last year.”

The Padang date at the Singapore Recreation Club (SRC) was the last time Mr Ong was seen in public as he had difficulty in mobility and wheelchair-bound.

“He was so pleased to meet the veteran players and officials. Almost everyone went up to him to offer their appreciation for his immense contributions to the club and wished him a safe recovery from his illness,” says former Singapore midfielder Somoo Manoharan. “Mr Ong almost single-handedly fired up Tampines Rovers in the 1970s and 80s to be one of the stalwart and oldest football clubs.”

SALUTE FROM RIVAL CLUBS

Even rival clubs saluted the football-fanatic Mr Ong. Ex-Singapore striker Redza Naim, who played and coached Kaki Bukit Sports Club, recalls how Mr Ong tried to lure him over to play for Tampines Rovers.

“I remember I was his favourite right-winger and whenever we met in the National Football League (NFL), he would say: ‘You very fast…can play for national team…very fast Malay right-winger’. I was motivated,” recollects Redza.

Mr Ong also spurred him to pick up golf after football and Redza attained a credible handicap of 10. He says: “When he met me at the Executive Golf Course, along Upper Seletar, where he was in the management, he further encouraged me. He was very approachable and friendly for a top-class businessman and he really cared for footballers.”

Lions defender Robert Sim remembers how Mr Ong “saved me from a serious career change, which would have gone wrong”. The Malaysia Cup defender-stalwart of the 1970s says: “I was already a Shell (petroleum) employee in the late 1970s. And Jebsen & Jessen were recruiting players to form a team to play in Germany.  I was tempted to join them. Mr Ong intervened and advised me to stay put in Shell. I’m grateful to him for his advice because that project didn’t materialise.”

Singapore Ex-Internationals manager Richard Wong describes Mr Ong as the “perfect footballer’s footballer”. He explains: “Despite his famous businessman status, he was on the ground, fraternising with the players with a special heart for youth development. He nurtured so many players to be international stars and that’s why he’s hailed as the ‘Godfather of Tampines’. An accolade he really deserves.”

P N Sivaji, former Lions coach now in Myanmar, who handled NFL champions Changi Constituency SC in the early 1980s, singles out Mr Ong as a “very smart and shrewd player-manager”.

He says: “He knew how to get the best out of the players by looking into the off-the-field needs, too. If it is financial or family or work matters, he helped without blinking an eye. I know many players were saved out of very tight situations. He’s a very good football man, adored and respected.”

FAVOURITE TAKING POINTS

Former Straits Times Sports Editor Godfrey Robert reminisced how “football and golf were favourite talking points” with Mr Ong.

“I started playing golf through his encouragement in the mid-1990s when he was managing the Executive Golf Course at Mandai. He not only offered the media free games but helped us with club selection and also gave us tips on improving our game,” says Robert, now an editorial consultant.

“He enjoyed our company. For once after our rounds, we would chit-chat about football. He was passionate about the game and spoke with emotion and deep attachment having been involved in so many capacities with Singapore football.”

He says Singapore has lost a “great football administrator who provided yeomen service not only for Tampines Rovers but the national game as well”.

The biggest salute from Robert: “Ah Keng had a great thinking mind and would always talk about taking Singapore football to new regional heights.”

RIP Ong Ah Keng. The ‘Godfather’ of Tampines Rovers Football Club was, true to form, referred to as an “oak” tree after his initials ‘Ong Ah Keng’.

Remember the oak tree and never forget the late Mr Ong, who genuinely symbolised immense strength, durability and wisdom associated with the sacred tree, which also evokes success, force, power, influence and stable health.

Wake arrangements: The late Mr Ong’s body is at Block 498N Tampines Street 45 Pavilion, Singapore 529097. Cremation set at Bright Hill Crematorium at Bishan on Wednesday.

Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who was a Board Member at Tampines Rovers when the S-League started in 1996. He knew the late businessman Ong Ah Keng from the 1970s.