If we don’t tolerate kids and let them play freely, Singapore will pay the eventual price

Discouraging kickabouts at void decks and street soccer courts leads to bad optics and obesity, stunts improvisation and risk-taking

children's leg playing football with sandals on a paving stone

IN THE 1990s, I had my football kakis and we had our Wembley. It was Block 174, Toa Payoh Lorong 1. The void deck. They were mostly upper primary ragamuffins. I was an ang moh ragamuffin in his 20s. They had excuses. I didn’t.

But no one called the police. Our improvised games were quiet and mostly respectful. Play was stopped for passers-by. A brash half-volley once clipped a young woman’s shopping bags, but I was living with her at the time. Occasionally, the police wandered over. They just told the boys to go home. They told me to get a grip. They pointed out that I was old enough to be the kids’ father. Mathematically and geographically, that really wasn’t possible.

But I’m smiling now at the memories. I scored some beauties on that void deck.

Nostalgia is always a tricky business. The mind airbrushes the miserable bits, but those void-deck football games were early highlights of my Singaporean experience. The relationships were mutually beneficial. The kids improved their football terminology. I improved my Singlish and learned every variation of “white man” in every local language and dialect.

Of course, those days are long gone and void-deck football is just about done. Free spaces for sports are in short supply in Singapore. So is tolerance.

If you haven’t read the recent spate of stories, the dystopian imagery will suffice. "No football" signs. Basketball hoops hidden behind metal contraptions seemingly borrowed from the Spanish Inquisition. Closed street soccer pitches. Abandoned playing facilities and bulldozers at Turf City. The glittery bits of Singapore may resemble the futuristic elements of Blade Runner, but our forlorn sports venues can feel like the prologue of a Mad Max movie.

As spaces get smaller, tolerance levels get lower

To recap, a barricaded void deck and a no-football sign at Woodlands went viral and a Bedok street soccer pitch has been closed for months, after residents complained about the noise, leading to a spirited public debate, all of which are nothing new to anyone with a passing interest in recreational sport here. These issues were addressed in my first book, back in 2001, highlighting our unique Huxley-an social experiment, which piles us high and (occasionally) keeps our tolerance levels low.

So what has changed in the last 20 years? Well, Singapore’s playing spaces have got smaller and more controlled. And we’ve got bigger and more controlled, none of which is a cause for celebration.

On a recent visit to the UK, I took my nephews to a local park to play football. The cost? Nothing. The emotional and physical value? Priceless and so on. This isn’t a credit card commercial. Basically, we benefited from the proximity of available space and the spontaneity of the game itself.

Let’s take the first issue. Available space. We don’t have much, do we? Turf City, which closed last week, offered at least 30 different types of sports and recreational activities. Soon, it’ll be a glassy collection of condos with names like “Park Life” and “Oasis”, as every development continues to sound like Brit indie bands from the Nineties. Limited recreation will then come within the exclusive confines of air-conditioned gyms.

Turf City, like Farrer Park, Bishan Park and the lost fields around Buangkok, Sengkang, Tampines and Sentosa, offered assets beyond size. The facilities were mostly away from residential areas. Noise, spontaneity and freedom – arguably the prerequisites of any half-decent sport – were tolerated. Some came with an admission fee. Some didn’t. But they fostered a sense of community, risk-taking and improvisation, commodities that are already at risk among our tuition-stuffed kids.

If you wanted a game at Bishan Park, you had to ask. My first kickabout in Singapore was at a former school in Kim Keat. The school field was deserted on a Saturday morning so we asked and played. When the impudent urchins at my Toa Payoh void deck wanted me to join in, they asked. Their audacity was as cheeky as it was impressive, calling on the estate’s novelty ang moh to make up the numbers and then mocking his ability to play like C-3PO.

Paediatricians and pedagogists have long championed spontaneous free play. Its improvisational nature builds resilience and flexibility, along with trickier skills like sharing, negotiation and conflict resolution. A little over the top? Have you ever played void-deck football? Good luck trying to convince opponents, i.e. random strangers, that a “goal” was the right side of the bike racks.

Improvised games may give youngsters a chance against AI

The void-deck football match was a masterclass in free play back then, building confidence and establishing authentic communities. Today, our manufactured sandboxes continue to shrink. Sporty, creative zones are designated and require registration. Wanna play? Sign here. Fancy a kickabout? Join the waiting list. Even our spontaneity is controlled.

A defence for such control is a child’s safety. Kids aren’t monitored or protected at the void deck is the obvious argument. At SCAPE or the Singapore Sports Hub, someone is always watching, or nannying, because that’s what a small, vulnerable nation really needs - brittle, risk-averse children. I used to watch feisty kids chase after a ball on the void decks, eager to steal possession. Now I watch domestic helpers chase after kids in shopping malls, eager to wipe their noses.

At least they’ll catch them. In 2021, Singapore’s obesity rate rose to its highest level since 2010. The Ministry of Health’s National Population Health Survey also found that fewer Singapore residents engaged in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week - the recommended level prescribed by the World Health Organisation.

So we’re getting bigger, our free playing spaces are getting smaller and on the rare occasions that we do improvise a game, a handful of complaints leads to the venue being shut down, which curtails the development of real-world skills for younger generations. Improvisation and risk-taking aren’t the answers to everything, but they might give youngsters half a chance against AI.

And optics matter. Viral stories about boarded-up venues play into the hands of those who are sport-intolerant, or view communal activities as a stain on their housing estates, or believe that competitive sports should be left to a handful of affluent individuals from a select pool of (often elitist) sports. We know such views exist, but should they dominate the conversation?

Maybe we still need room for others, to nurture a rugged, cheekier nation, one that is resourceful enough to improvise a game with strangers and tough enough to make fun of an ang moh’s awful tackling. Because if we don’t let the kids play, freely, independently and spontaneously, then Singapore will pay the price.

Improvisation and risk-taking aren’t the answers to everything, but they might give youngsters half a chance against AI.... If we don’t let the kids play, freely, independently and spontaneously, then Singapore will pay the price.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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