Tian YiComment

LIONS IN THE TIGER'S DEN

Tian YiComment

With a two-legged World Cup qualifier coming up between neighbours Singapore and Malaysia, it's time to look at the history of an eventful fixture.

March 1, 1958. The Federation of Malaya team walk out at the months-old Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur, led by their star turn Edwin Dutton. They are about to confront a familiar foe, Singapore, but this time feels different. This time they are an independent nation meeting Singapore, then still a colony of the British empire from which Malaya had emancipated itself.

By a quirk of the tangled history of these two countries, Malaya’s 5-2 victory that day was masterminded by two names now legendary in Singapore’s footballing history – Choo Seng Quee and Rahim Omar.

Choo, the man known throughout Singapore as ‘Uncle’ and the nation’s most revered coach, had in 1958 just taken charge of Malaya. Celebrated and feared in equal measure, he remains the only man to have coached the national teams of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

A voracious devourer of the diverse tactical styles emanating from Europe and South America in the 1950s, Choo was also a cunning motivator and inspired almost unreasonable loyalty.

Then there was the mercurial forward Rahim, Singapore’s wayward star who skipped training with the justification that he benefited more by working out on his own, disappeared on the eve of matches and challenged stone-chucking fans to fights. A player so talented that the president of the Singapore Amateur Football Association (SAFA) on more than one occasion personally dragged him from the billiards saloon to the Jalan Besar Stadium, minutes before kick-off. Upon which Rahim, louche and ambling, would proceed to dismantle the opposition.

He had always been indulged by SAFA officials – one story goes that the general secretary of the association bribed Rahim’s opponents at the billiards table to lose so that he would be in a good mood for the match ahead. But Singapore’s Footballer of the Year in 1954 finally fell out big time with officialdom in 1955, and quit the national team.

Rahim moved to Seremban in Malaya for work in 1957, and playing for Malayan state teams became the scourge of Singapore in the Malaya Cup. Soon he was soon pulling on Malayan colours, international representation at the time being predicated largely on residency.

Choo and Rahim, coach and player. Both men had learnt their trade and honed their craft on the Farrer Park fields, Singapore’s famous spawning pool of football talent. Now they faced their homeland on foreign soil, wearing foreign colours.

Singapore shot out of the blocks and went ahead after five minutes at the Merdeka Stadium, courtesy of forward Arthur Koh. Koh himself would nail his colours to the Malayan mast in 1959, moving to Selangor in the hopes of becoming part of a Malaya team rising high under Choo. Koh did eventually don the tiger striped jersey of Malaya, but back in 1958 Rahim equalised for Malaya off a penalty in the 14th minute, before Koh restored Singapore’s lead in the 22nd.

Malaya pulled back on level terms just three minutes later, through ‘Raja Bola’ Abdul Ghani Minhat. Ghani put Malaya 3-2 up five minutes after the break and Singapore crumbled, conceding another two Rahim goals in the 62nd and 65th minutes.

The next day, the two teams played another friendly with Malaya coming out 3-1 winners. Wong Kong Leong, who would go on to play in the Australian league, scored two and Aziz Ahmad one for Malaya, while Singapore’s sole reply came from Majid Ariff’s chip over Malayan keeper S. Lourdes.

R. B. I. Pates, the Englishman who was chief coach of the Singapore Amateur Football Association and trained the team, said: “We have no excuses for our defeats. We were beaten by a better team.” He insisted though that the Lions had matched Malaya for large parts of both games.

Later in 1958 Rahim played for Malaya at the Asian Games in Tokyo, having somehow obtained special dispensation to do so. By Asian Games rules, he was ineligible for any country other than his homeland after turning out for Singapore at the 1954 Games. But the telegram from the Asian Games Federation stated simply: “Footballer Rahim Omar can play for Malaya stop”.

Before becoming the first player to represent both Singapore and Malaya at the Asian Games, Rahim also starred for Malaya at the first Merdeka Tournament in 1957. By 1959 he was back in Singapore and playing for the Lions in the Malaya Cup.

Typically, Rahim left the football stage in style, scoring two as Singapore beat Perak 3-2 in the 1964 Malaya Cup final. At 2-2, having scored and missed a penalty, he put the ball into the net straight from a corner only to have it disallowed.

Seconds later, Rahim repeated the feat, and again the referee ruled that the ball had gone out of play first. Determined to cock a snook at officialdom, in extra-time he went for goal from a corner for the third time. The ball sailed in, the referee gave up and Rahim had his winner.

Uncle Choo meanwhile remained in charge of Malaya until the country joined with Singapore and became Malaysia in 1963. He kick-started the country’s golden age of football, winning two Merdeka Tournaments, a gold at the 1961 South-East Asian Peninsular Games and a bronze medal at the 1962 Asian Games. Choo also trained and inspired the next generation of Malayan coaches, who would bring the nation to Olympic qualification in the next decade.

His heart remained south however, and Choo returned home after Singapore and Malaysia carried out their political divorce in 1965. A series of clashes with SAFA officials however meant that his spells with the national team in the late 1960s and early 1970s were measured in brief months.

Choo remained largely on the sidelines, grooming teenage players at Farrer Park and writing copious articles on the finer points of football for newspapers and magazines rather than leading the Lions.

Only after N Ganesan had become the president of SAFA in the 1970s did Choo regain his much-desired position of national coach. His magic season of 1977 is cherished in Singapore football history, with the Lions surprising Malaysia and Thailand in the World Cup qualifiers before being edged by Hong Kong. Choo’s team then brought the Malaysia Cup back to Singapore for the first time in 12 years, prompting public delirium.

It was a campaign in which Choo had literally laid his life on the line. During the World Cup qualifiers, he’d accidentally cut his foot with a razor. Immersed in plotting Singapore’s path, Choo ignored the wound while it turned septic. He said: “The thrills and excitement of big tournaments numb pain. And it’s only after everything is over that you feel it once again.” 

A fall in the dressing room at the Merdeka Stadium during a Malaysia Cup semi-final against Selangor caused the infection to worsen. Still Choo’s mind was affixed only on the Cup.

A Singapore player, Lim Teng Sai, said: “The only time we ever saw his swollen leg was when he showed it to a player who was not running for the ball. (Choo told the player) if I can walk around with a leg like this, I don’t see why you can’t run with your limbs both in good order.”

By September 1977, after his side were 3-2 victors over Penang in the final, gangrene had set in on Choo’s wound. He had to have his leg amputated to the knee, with the surgery complicated by his diabetic condition. On his hospital bed, Choo’s heart stopped thrice.

Out of hospital in November, Choo immediately looked to the football field. “Though I’ve lost a leg, I’ve not lost my head, enthusiasm and spirit,” he said. There was no fairytale return to the Singapore job however, and Choo died after suffering kidney problems in 1983. To the end, he kept his voice ever-present in the local football scene, urging his wisdom on young coaches and players.

Peter Corthine, who had trained under Arthur Rowe as a youth at Tottenham Hotspur before turning up in Singapore with the British army and playing for the city-state, said of Choo in 1957: “Seng Quee is in a class by himself. I strongly believe if Seng Quee was in England he would be wanted by many professional clubs as a coach. Comparing their methods and his, I think he has a wider knowledge, covering continental methods as well as those used in other countries.”

Seven years after his mentor Choo’s death, Rahim Omar passed on after a heart attack. Thus closed the chapter of the Lions who dwelled in the Tiger's den.

To read more have a look at the excellent Style Mesti Ada here

IBWM is open to everyone to share their stories. If you'd like to submit an article on any topic, please contact us.