Go with a smile!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Malaysia Cup and the Quasi-Singaporean

Malaysia Cup days. Ah, the good old days. Everybody’s talking about the good old days.

It’s funny, because during the intervening 17 years that Singapore was not part of the Malaysia cup, the causeway seems to have grown wider. First, there was the Asian Financial crisis. JB had gotten much more dangerous. People still go to JB but ever since 1998, the place seems to be full of scary Indonesian gangs rampaging through JB and slicing and dicing Singaporeans. It seems standard practice to chop down a business rival by ordering a hit job on him when he’s going there on his weekend golf trip.

I still remember when it was possible to receive RTM channels on TV. Now we don’t get that anymore.

And most significantly, no Malaysia Cup. Of course, when Singapore travelled to the other club sides in the region, it was a charming experience. Water logged pitches. Lights that didn’t always work. Witch doctors casting spells on the goalpost. (There was 1 match against Perlis where the Perlis goal mouth seemed to lead a charmed life.) But Malaysia was not a foreign country. Even if they weren’t our brothers, surely they were our cousins. And behind all that animosity, I’m sure, given all the entertainment value of meeting a Singapore side,
It was genuinely wonderful being everybody’s favourite enemy.

To be sure, the 80s were a wilderness for the Malaysia Cup. Singapore didn’t win a single Malaysia Cup in the 80s, or get into any finals. There was the ignominy of knowing that your best, most talented striker Fandi Ahmad was winning Malaysia Cups for Pahang and Kuala Lumpur, or that Sundram was winning one with Kedah.

That aside, everything changed with Abbas Saad. He, together with Alistair Edwards, brought us into the final in 1990. Then he moved to Johor and helped them win in 1991. By 1992, Singapore got relegated into the 2nd division. But in 1993, all our stars returned. Malek Awab, Fandi Ahmad, V Sundramoorthy, Abbas Saad, Alistair Edwards. That year, we got into the final, but we lost to Kedah. I remember a semi-final of that year, where we came back from 0-2 down to beat Pahang.

And in 1994, there was the double. No more to be said about that. However, after that, Singapore was banished.

I suppose, people who lived through the 60s and 70s must have had many years of Malaysia Cup memories. For the younger folk like me, the romance barely lasted 5 years. At least my sister had been to one fantastic match where Singapore stuffed Perak 6-1.

So this Malaysia Cup thingy, is it going to work? Here’s something I spammed on a friend’s facebook page.

“It's funny that Abbas Saad and Jang Jung were considered more Singaporean than Daniel Bennett who actually grew up here. I don't know why. Maybe they are more "us" because they are our comrades against the Malaysians. Maybe because we were a club side in the Malaysia Cup. Probably because we saw them on TV all the time. Maybe if we saw Precious Emuejeraye enough on TV and learnt to pronounce his name the way we learnt how to pronounce sas-wa-di-ma-ta-da-su-ki we would accept him as Singaporean.

What is clear is that the Malaysia Cup had a powerful branding, possibly now displaced by the English Premier League, that even international success in three - THREE Tiger Cups was not able to overcome apathy to our local football scene. When you are that successful and people don't recognise you it's time to pack up and go home.”

OK, so I was wondering, why did Jang Jung and Abbas Saad have so much appeal, as compared to the foreign imports in the 2004-2007 national team? Why was Abbas Saad a star, as compared to Daniel Bennett? Then over the weekend, I saw a picture of the 1990 Abbas Saad, the young, sexy, and bare chested teenage heartthrob Abbas Saad on the cover of the New Paper. It was as close as you can get to gay porn on the cover of a major Singapore media publication. And then it hit me.

Abbas Saad and Jang Jung were very well accepted in Singapore because they are quasi-Singaporeans. Abbas Saad may have been an Australian, but he was of Lebanese descent. He could very well pass off as a Singapore Eurasian. He had a Muslim name, which meant that he was a quasi-Malay.

Jang Jung was a Korean. But Koreans are similar enough to Chinese people. And he wasn’t a “country bumpkin” Chinese person who finds that life outside the village is strange. He was an urban quasi-Chinese. It wasn’t very difficult to make the adjustment.

Compare him to Alastair Edwards, who gave us a middle finger after scoring a goal against us. He was never really accepted in Singapore. Because he’s an angmoh. And if you are an angmoh, you’re never really part of mainstream Singapore society. Expats in Singapore who are angmoh instinctively know that, which is why there is such a big divide between them and the locals. That’s why they never really get accustomed to local culture. Because they know that Singaporeans may be deferential and polite to their faces (or not – Chinese people are less polite than Koreans, Japanese, or Vietnamese. We are the least polite race among the East Asians.) but there will never be a willingness to accept them as our own. OK, we’ll make an exception for Daniel Bennett, after all he’s gone through NS like the rest of us (I should hope!)

But Precious Emuejeraye, Agu Casmir, Aleksandar Duric, Itimi Dickson and even Mustafic Fahruddin don’t really make the cut. Technically, Mustafic Fahruddin is from the same stock as Abbas Saad, but probably he doesn’t have Abbas’ charisma.

The exception to this rule is Douglas Moore. Maybe there are reasons. Douglas Moore is a New Zealander, so maybe he’s almost Asian. Maybe you accept an angmoh if he’s a boss. Especially if he’s a capable one. Which is probably why Raddy Abramovich is probably the most popular guy in the National football team.

The other reason was that there was constant television coverage. In the Malaysian cup, all our opponents are Malaysians, who are by definition quasi-Singaporean.

The biggest threat to the Malaysia Cup, however, is the English Premier League. Recall that the first 2 seasons of the EPL coincide with the last 2 seasons of Singapore being in the Malaysia Cup. It could well be that even if Singapore played on in the Malaysia Cup, we would see first hand the ignominy of EPL superseding the Malaysia Cup fever. That would not be pleasant. Better now, if we fail, that we have the excuse that it’s the 17 years that smothered the Malaysia Cup fever.

When I see the list of Malaysia Cup champions in the interim, I see a lot of unfamiliar names. Like:
Selangor (expected),
Perak (expected),
Brunei (huh?),
Terangganu (wtf?),
Petaling Jaya (who’s that?),
Perlis (puny little Perlis?),
Kedah (expected),
Negri Sembilan (puny little NS?),
Kelantan (they’ve never won before).

So instead of the usual suspects (Pahang, Selangor, Sabah, Sarawak) we might find that many teams which have been minnows all along have risen to the fore. Maybe there’s an explanation for this? Maybe there are rules that stipulate that all teams must field players that are native to the state? Maybe some rich sultan is behind the smaller teams? We won’t know unless we get to see the Malaysia Cup matches.

And most importantly, it’s a big shame that we don’t see the Singapore National team playing. This would be just the U-23 team, for starters. But if it’s possible to have a Singapore - Malaysia Super League, with SAF, Home, Tampines, Woodlands, Geylang, Hougang and Balestier in the Malaysia Cup, that would be really interesting. Just one suggestion – call the super league whatever you want, but don’t ever rename the Malaysia Cup. There is no substitute for that brand.

In the end, will we have the glorious days of old, where there was the Malaysia Cup fever, or will we have another failed venture like the S League? I have a feeling that it will be somewhere in between. That it will prove to have an atmosphere better than S League in the long run. But that media coverage of the EPL will be so much better, and quality of the football will be so much better that – let’s put it this way. It is not only that Singapore has a lot of foreign talent. But we built our economy by inviting MNCs into the place. Basically our economy has been a foreign economy for years. The mentality is that if the foreigners can do it better, let them do it. That’s why subconsciously, we will never be world champions at football.


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