SINGAPORE’S highest-ranking international football official Lim Kia Tong died Wednesday of a sudden heart attack. He was 69.
Ranked as Deputy Chairman of FIFA Disciplinary Committee, the FAS President’s death was completely untimely, only just a fortnight before the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) Congress at the Raffles Country Club.
Lim Kia Tong, with more than four decades of legal practice and who headed the criminal department at Hin Tat Augustine and Partners, became the first elected FAS President when his Team LKT beat Bill Ng’s Team Changers (I was part of this team) in 2017. He was re-elected unopposed four years later and, according to football circles, he was expected to continue the leadership.
Unlike his predecessors like the famous late lawyer Nadesan Ganesan, who was credited with the “Kallang Roar” in the 1980s, or the football-playing ex-Member of Parliament Zainudin Nordin, Lim Kia Tong came from a low-key non-football position in 1999 as a FAS Council Member and eight years later, he rose to be the FAS Vice President.
But what surprised the fraternity was the way he died in his office, totally unexpected and extremely rare for a lawyer who seldom even missed a court hearing. I was told when the magistrate found him missing in court, alarm bells rang, and they later found him collapsed by his office table.
“He never showed any physical setbacks and even if he had, he kept it very low key,” said former international defender Razali Saad, a FAS Vice President. “He was truly a team player and worked behind the scenes to lift Singapore football, especially at the grassroots level.”
I’ve known Kia Tong in close quarters, although we stood in differing teams during FAS elections about six years ago. But the partisan rivalry never affected our friendship, as he lived up to his rousing reputation as a genuine gentleman. Matter of fact, the bondship grew closer as he closely interacted with my only son, Sanjay, then a journalist with The Straits Times.
I recollect Kia Tong telling me that when he first met Sanjay, he was impressed with his sharp-witted yet humble demeanour. He later reminded him that if he could come half to his father’s journalistic repute, he’d make a rip-roaring writer. (I must confess that I was really flattered by the editorial comparison).
Personally, what I admired Lim Kia Tong was his absolutely low-profile moves as he wanted to bring up football from the bottom to international levels – which was not a starring gesture with the neighbouring ASEAN countries whipping their way to catch up with Asian giants like South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Former Asian Football Confederation (AFC) general secretary Alex Soosay describes him as a “workaholic and dedicated his time to football immensely”. He added: “He will be remembered in the AFC as a disciplinarian and a very strict disciple of the rules of football, you can never compromise with him.”
Former SNOC Coach of the Year Jita Singh praised Lim Kia Tong for his “umpteen behind-the-scenes actions to assist players and officials”. He added: “He had no sporting hangovers, and he was always looking at the positive end to improve the game, right from the bottom. He knew he was fighting a very uphill challenge, but he never moaned and groaned, but worked diligently towards a long-term goal.”
In my opinion, Lim Kia Tong boldly made his mark off the pitch when he lifted the life bans of ex-FIFA referee Thiru Rajamanickam, who was deregistered from the FAS Referees’ list in 1994, over the match-fixing allegation, and national striker Kannan Kunjuraman. Rare to daringly give them another chance and to return to football, for which I know they’re very grateful.
RAPPORT WITH CLUBS
Another feather-in-his-cap was his closest rapport with the S-League and NFL (National Football League) clubs, as he genuinely tried to muster ground support, which appeared to be lacking in recent years. But the real strategy to lifting demoralising standards at grassroots levels still remains a mystery.
I would rank Kia Tong as someone who dared to be different and ever prepared to try radical approaches to lift the sport from the very bottom as he felt, without fear or favour, the grassroots foundations must be bolstered, especially at age-group levels. This may appear to be a very tall order, although FAS general secretary Yazeen Buhari, a former FIFA referee, is thickly involved in doing major spadework at the primary and secondary schools and junior colleges.
Kia Tong’s body is lying at the Singapore Funeral Parlour, Level 5A, Tulip Hall, at 91 Tampines Link, Singapore 528746. The FAS has also arranged for a tribute space in the FAS lobby of Jalan Besar Stadium for those who’d like to pay their respects.
He may have helped to launch the book “ROAR” recently. But Lim Kia Tong knows that his demise may not have the terrific football howls. But he will be revered as the genuine gentleman, who worked unselfishly behind the scenes to lift the sport, once unparalleled in the 1970s and 80s with the legendary “Kallang Roar” in tow.
Rest in peace, Lim Kia Tong. Hold your head high. You gave it your best shot.
The biggest salutes must go to you for the discreet ways you steered the football ship in the right directions over the past decade, and in holding Singapore’s flag at the global level at AFC and FIFA.