Saturday, February 03, 2007

Singapore-Thailand Clash

Singapore's Mustafic Fahrudin scored the controversial penalty, after an unprecedented walkout by the Thai football team in the emotionally charged game in Singapore last Sunday. Singapore beat Malaysia to reach the finals. Pix source: The Straits Times

All eyes will be on the second leg of the soccer finals in Bangkok tomorrow night between Singapore and Thailand in the Asean Football Championship. Singapore is leading 2-1 following the controversial penalty and the unprecedented walk-out by the Thai football team in protest last Sunday.

Tension is running high, amidst the controversial win and the strained bilateral ties between the two countries. Bilateral ties had been strained by a series of events in the last one year -- Singapore government investment arm Temasek Holdings' purchase of national asset Shin Corp from former Thai PM Thaksin Shinawatra, street protests over the non-payment of tax by the vendor in the deal, the military coup that ousted Thaksin, Temasek's blunders in Thailand, Thai unhappiness over Thaksin's 'private' visit to Singapore, and spying charges levelled against Singapore.

Against this backdrop, security will be stepped up considerably at the Bangkok stadium, which will host at least 2,000 Singapore fans. The two sides will do their utmost to help avert a clash of their fans. A clash of the fans would be an unfortunate and unforgettable personification of the clash between the two countries.

It would be extremely unfortunate if bilateral dealings affect people-to-people relationship. It will truly be sad if football saga does imitate real life, as captured in this tongue-in-cheek article in Bangkok newspaper The Nation today.

Football saga imitates real life
Singapore's dodgy soccer win fires talk of eavesdropping, use of foreign nominees

Even Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont was curious to know whether Temasek United Football Club had used underhand tactics to win the first leg of the Asean Football Championship. The Thai national team lost 2-1 to the Temasek team in a highly emotionally charged atmosphere.

"Were we cheated?" the PM asked reporters yesterday. He had missed the match broadcast from Singapore on Wednesday night.

The latest clash between Thailand and Singapore has turned into a political issue. It comes hot on the heels of deteriorating relations, with the Kingdom suspecting that Singapore is now able to listen in on its calls because the former prime minister sold control of ShinSat, the sole national satellite company, and the country's biggest mobile-phone firm (AIS) last year to Temasek Holdings, a state investment firm in the city-state.

Army chief and coup leader Gen Sonthi Boonyaratglin voiced concern that Thai military information was no longer secure because control of key telecommunications firms had been lost with the controversial Shin deal.

"You pick up the phone and it goes to Singapore," he reportedly remarked. The military installed government is also afraid that the sale of ShinSat might enhance Singapore's capacity to eavesdrop on calls here. Premier Surayud said they were looking into whether Thailand may be able to buy back control of the firm or if a new satellite needs to be launched.

The joke going around the Thai team is that their game plan might have been "discovered" by their opponents prior to the match.

After all, how come the Singaporeans knew that Thai star Kiatisak Senamuang would be absent from the game? And how did the Singaporeans players know just to mark Thai midfielder Dassakorn Thonglao, who became the most frequently fouled play by his opponents? Mmm ......

Well, the loss was not entirely attributed to Malaysian referee C Ravichandran's decision to award that hotly disputed penalty to Singapore with just nine minutes remaining.

Was the referee, like Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian leader, just trying to drive a wedge further between Thailand and Singapore, knowing the penalty would drive us nuts?

A more deserving question may be how the Singaporeans managed to respond so well to our game plan.

But, what's done is done. The Thai team lost and Thai football fans are now left hoping their team can win the second leg on their home turf - on Sunday.

Looking around the pitch though, the Thai national team won't enjoy a huge advantage in the second leg as the physique of the Singaporeans suggests they're in a different league.

Although the title of the tournament described it as a competition for the Asean region, the appearance of some Singaporean players conjured up an image of nominees - as they seem to come from all over the world.

Take the Caucasian-looking guy with the pierced-nose - the tall Mustafic Fahrudin, who scored their winning goal. Fahrudin, formerly Serbian, rewarded his adopted country handsomely with victory from the penalty spot. In fact, Fahrudin is far from the only nationalised player for Singapore. Exceptional skill was not the factor that made Precious Emuejeraye stand out from the crowd. Emuejeraye is black, originally from Nigeria, and towered over everyone on the pitch. Daniel Bennett is not Singapore-born either - but another imported player from the UK wearing Singaporean colours. A fourth - Si Jia Yi - was once Chinese, but is now Singaporean.

These players were influential in providing the backbone for their team's performance. Temasek Holdings has been accused by some of using Thai nominees to acquire control of Shin Corp on behalf of foreigners. And when it comes to football, the Singaporean team has shown the world it can use foreign "nominees" to improve its playing strength.

There is nothing wrong with this. But the next challenge for Temasek is how to truly nationalise Shin Corp without being caught using local nominees. Or… maybe that's just sour grapes.

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