COMMENT: Will football and politics in Singapore finally get a divorce?

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Football Association of Singapore (FAS) president Zainudin Nordin. Photo: Red Card

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist and an ex-sports officer at the former Singapore Sports Council. In 1999, he was among the core group of journalists who helped launch Channel NewsAsia, where he covered sport for several years. Follow his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports for his views on sport in Singapore.

FIFA's confirmation
that it told the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) early last week to revise its constitution could be the trigger for a tidal wave of changes in the organisation that governs the most popular sport among Singaporeans.

But whether the FAS will become vastly different depends on the outcome of open elections, which FIFA has said will be held for FAS office bearers once the constitutional revision is complete.

FIFA frowns upon the lack of independence in the selection of FAS office holders, who are appointed by Singapore's de facto sports minister. The FAS has tried to make its case publicly but to no avail.

Although the minister's appointments must be approved by a majority of FAS members, FIFA considers the FAS process tainted by third-party influence.

Similarity with Beijing-backed election plan for Hong Kong?

Perhaps FIFA views the FAS appointment/election process the same way Hongkongers perceive a recent proposed electoral reform for the former British colony.

Since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the city's top politician has been picked by a "heavily pro-Beijing nominating committee".

The Beijing-backed election reform would have given Hong Kong voters the right to elect their chief executive, although their choices would be restricted to a list of pre-approved candidates.Since candidates would have to be screened by Beijing before they are allowed to appear on the ballot, some have compared such an electoral system to the meaningless elections in the former Soviet Union.

One may consider such "meaningless elections" appropriate for the FAS. As far as international football is concerned, the only opinion that matters is that of FIFA, much like on the football pitch where only the referee's decisions count.

Given FIFA's zero tolerance for third-party influence, and regardless of what the FAS thinks of its own procedures, the FAS must play ball with FIFA and proceed with a constitutional revision, to avoid being red-carded.

The dreaded FIFA red card

In recent years, FIFA has shown the red card to the national football association in Brunei (2009), Cameroon (2013), and Nigeria (2014), suspending them from all international football activities. The common factor in all three cases is government interference.

Brunei's government had dissolved the country's national FA, essentially removing top Bruneian football officials from office, and replaced it with a new association. The sultanate's suspension lasted for 20 months.

Cameroon was suspended for 18 days in 2013, while Nigeria's suspension lasted only nine days in 2014.

Currently, Indonesia is under FIFA suspension because the Indonesian Sports and Youth Ministry has ousted the country's national FA amid an unresolved row over which teams are eligible to participate in the Indonesian Super League.

What the FIFA/FAS issue is NOT about

Since the late N. Ganesan stepped down as FAS Chairman in 1982, Singapore's football chief has always been a ruling party politician. The only exception was when the late Hsu Tse-Kwang, a former Singapore tax commissioner, helmed the football body from 1991 to 1994.

But it must be emphasised that in all its correspondences with Yahoo, FIFA never once mentioned that politicians are not allowed to run the FAS.Apparently, FIFA is more concerned about how a person (politician or not) is selected to be a football official, not his occupation.

Open elections in FAS

Will open elections in FAS lead to a tsunami of changes or just minor adjustments? Much depends on who ends up replacing Zainudin Nordin as FAS President, as well as who the other key office holders will be.

Will they be forward-looking individuals who aren't afraid of making radical changes to bolster the Republic's biggest, yet faltering, sport? Or will they be overly conservative individuals who are bereft of workable ideas to restore pride to Singapore's national sport?

Football should be free of politics. Talented individuals who will always work for the best interest of the sport, rather than those who use football to pursue some sociopolitical agenda, should take the field.