By Suresh Nair
PASSION is a seven-letter word deep-seated in Associate Professor Ho Peng Kee as he plays a pivotal role in promoting Singapore football.
Now retired from politics, the former senior minister of state (law & home affairs), who was formerly the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) president, continues to score goals as the FAS adviser, supporting the Lions, even during a recent international friendly match in Myanmar.
He believes that to be a true fan requires the living experience of football. It is not about being a mere spectator. It is about being a participant. Using his role-model experience, he says that attending away games is an important ritual for fans involving a number of psychological and logistical challenges.
He has a defiant stance against “fair-weather supporters”, those who only attend matches occasionally or when their team is doing well.
A genuine football fan, he says, is one who “attends both home and away games without fail”. “Wear apparel that reflects your support,” he adds. “At the games, cheer vociferously in unison with other supporters. Come whether the game is important or not. Keep coming whether or not the team is winning or losing”.
In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Singapore, 59-year-old Ho pours his heart out on the importance of fan-atical support in making football the No 1 sport in Singapore.
Question: How do you see your role as a fan, or even as a VIP fan, in supporting the Lions, as you did recently in Myanmar?
Answer: Fans must be passionate in their support. Don’t be there just to show your face. Be there to make a difference by making your presence felt in a positive way. An indelible memory I have is jumping up from my seat, shouting in sheer joy, in the VIP box in Bangkok Stadium in 2007, right next to my Thai hosts, who sat glumly beside me, when (striker) Khairul Amri took the ball from near the halfway line, ran almost half the field and let fly with a venomous shot that curled into goal.
That equalizer won Singapore the Tiger Cup for a consecutive time as we triumphed in the first leg in Singapore. I was then 30 months into my FAS presidency.
How do you view the inconsistently-toned support for Singapore football?
Our fans like to see winning teams. But, really, it’s when our teams don’t do well that they need passionate fans to spur them on, to get them going. Fans should remain loyal and stick with the team through thick and thin. This way, there is real joy when the team wins some honours at the end of the season, because you were there to lift their spirits up when they were down.
Your thoughts on the contrasting fan support in the MSL (Malaysian Soccer League) and S-League?
I think it’s understandable that the level of passion and support for the S-League teams differs from that for the Lions XII. Whatever FAS or the authorities call the Lions XII, a club team, fans see them as a Singapore team.
The Malaysian state teams see them as a Singapore team. So, there is really no comparison. I will not be worried at the different levels of support. Key is for each S-League team to press on in reaching out to potential supporters in their “hinterland”, surrounding constituencies, neighbouring polytechnics, ITEs and private schools, foreigners living here (Japanese for Albirex Niigata and French for Tanjong Pagar (which has four French players).
Obviously, fan support for the 17-year-old S-League is declining. What more can be done to draw back the crowds?
Attendance at this year’s S-League games has increased by 20 per cent. compared to last year. So, there is promise. I’ve attended about 20 S-League games this year. The atmosphere, at the better games, has been quite good.
What we need are better playing fields so that the football can be played at an even faster pace. The S-League together with Singapore Sports Council (SSC) is working on this.
At some games, I’ve sat on the other side of the pitch from across the VIP stand, the lower stands which are nearer the field of play. The feeling is quite good because you are more absorbed into the action. Now, many clubs send their players to the shopping malls and hawker centres to publicize their home games. Every little bit counts. So, I’m optimistic about the S-League.
Your view of the fanatical fan support, a la ‘Kallang Roar’ of the 70s and 80s, compared to the whimper-like support now? Any reasons for the lack of rousing fan support?
The “Kallang Roar” will need a rebuilt Kallang Stadium, aka The Sport Hub, to reverberate once again. That will come if our Lions XII continue their good form and run, complemented by a rising national team under new coach Bernd Stange.
The fan support at Jalan Besar for the crucial Lions XII games has been heartwarming, portending better things to come when the Sports Hub is built. The key is to continue nurturing and developing our various age group teams, which under Zainudin Nordin (current FAS president) have been doing well.
What, in your opinion, are the most important value-adds of a die-hard football fan?
Attend both home and away games without fail (unless exigencies call). Wear apparel that reflects your support. At the games, cheer vociferously in unison with other supporters. Come whether the game is important or not. Keep coming whether or not the team is winning or losing. If opportunity arises, encourage the players, for example, shake their hands, hug them, send them a card, cheer them when they are on the move – and all the more so, if they are losing their games!
Were you a fanatical football fan during your teens? Please recall one or two of the most memorable matches you’re seen as a fan.
I’ve watched many Malaysia Cup games at the National Stadium. I recall the likes of Arshad Khamis, V. Kanisen, Mohd Noh, Arumugam (the ‘Spiderman’ goalkeeper), Soh Chin Aun (The ‘Towkay’), Dollah Salleh, the Bakar brothers from Penang. I remember standing right at the top of the National Stadium at one of the matches soaking in the entire atmosphere. It was great!
Please trace your football playing moments. I believe you were a striker and enjoyed scoring goals.
No, I was not a striker, a bit short for that. My favourite position was right or central midfield. I’ve captained every team I’ve played with and the midfield was the best position to be at. I am not particularly skilful with the ball, no mazy runs like Quah Kim Song, but an aggressive midfielder who tries to win the ball and then spread it around, more like Billy Bremner of Leeds United.
A memorable moment? Learning that the offside rule does not apply in seven-a-side games! Playing for National Junior College (NJC) against Raffles Institution (RI), I raised my hand to the referee thinking that he would blow for offside when an RI player, whom I was marking, scored a goal.
I still remember the referee shaking his head and saying: “No offside”.
How fanatical is the Ho family, being footballing (or sporting) fans?
I courted my wife through sports. She played badminton for Singapore University (SU). I played football for SU. We were at the Biennial Inter-varsity Games (BIG) games in Jakarta in 1976. I started showing my interest in her then. Between my wife and me, we played the following sports competitively when younger, track and field (she won a gold medal in high jump, representing Singapore Primary Schools against Malaysian schools in Penang in 1966), badminton, netball, biddy basketball and rugby.
We have three sporty girls, now aged 30, 26 and 20. They represented school, college, university in games such as netball, basketball, football, softball, table tennis, touch rugby and athletics. As you know, I believe strongly in the value of sports in inculcating positive values in our young people and in bonding families. My family and I live it!
From your political years, who were the members of Parliament (MPs) and/or ministers who were football fans? The most memorable politician-footballer?
There were many, some more skilful than others, but all very passionate.
Yatiman Yusof played despite a heart problem. Abdullah Tarmugi was not that mobile, but sent his son to strengthen our MPs’ team! Lee Yiok Seng tried hard and injured himself. Others like Leong Horn Kee, Davinder Singh, Loh Meng See, R Ravindran and R. Sinnakaruppan sportingly donned their gear when called upon. A great bunch!