During my brief stopover in Singapore, the national Men’s XI played host to Hong Kong down at the Jalan Besar Stadium. An entertaining affair between two of Asia’s wealthy micronations finished 1-1, Singapore taking a long time to find a deserved equaliser.
Singapore opted for technically-competent, youthful players focusing on attractive Football. Their ball control was superior to that of the Hongkongers (yes it’s correct), whose player selection philosophy seemed to focus on size and strength, something that, let’s be honest, East Asians are not exactly known for. As such, the Hong Kong starting XI was filled with big lads whose parents were clearly either Scottish or West African. However it must be noted that the Singaporean team was also diverse; men with Malay, Chinese and Indian roots played very effectively together on the night.
I sat a few seats away from the Singapore national fan group who wrongly mistook me for a local and tried to “recruit” me. This demonstrates Singapore’s diversity; a white guy is not considered foreign. Small in numbers but large in ambition, the group was as equally as diverse as the players. The complicated and organised drumming was very reminiscent of the South East Asian Football culture shared between Indonesia and Malaysia, but many chosen chants were those commonly heard across Europe. Their rendition of Depeche Mode’s “I Just Can’t Get Enough” was a personal favourite.
This was the famous Kallang Roar of Singapore.
The Singapore National Museum of Sport is small in size but comprehensive in records and artifacts on show. An entire chapter is dedicated to the Kallang Roar; the tangible fervour Singaporeans reserve for the national Football side. Kallang, the neighbourhood a couple of kilometres away from the instagram-ready Marina Bay, is the location of the Singapore National Stadium. But the roar? Well, compared to its South East Asian neighbours, Singapore’s impressive sporting history is just as rich and ethnically diverse as its modern population, and twice as curious.
Go back several hundred years and “Singapura” was little more than a swamp, home to probably around 200 people. In 1819 the British established a settlement on the island due to its convenient location between the resource-rich islands of the East Indies (Indonesia), Malaya, China and the Indian Ocean. By 1830 Singapura was an integrated member of the British Empire’s “Straits Settlements”; a collection of British colonies scattered across what we now call Malaysia. The military protection and superior technology introduced by the British presence in Singapura were attractive to economic migrants in the 19th century. Singapura saw far higher immigration from notably the Chinese and Tamils than other Malayan Sultanates did. As early as the 1830s, Singapura was more ethnically diverse than the surrounding Malayan territories were. Singapura quickly found itself culturally and politically distanced from other Malayan states that remained outside of direct British political control for far longer, a legacy that lives to this day.
Sports clubs run by and for specific ethnic communities began to flourish in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Singapura’s ever improving infrastructure facilitated opportunities and the settlement’s diversity resulted in a large variety of sports being pursued by inhabitants. Membership to many sports clubs was limited to those belonging to the “correct” ethnic community at the time. Admittance policies have since relaxed, but what matters to us is the observation that organised sport very quickly became an integral part of Singaporean culture that pervaded ethnic background. Chinese, Malays, Indians and Europeans all participated in sports in a way that was not seen in neighbouring territories. This explains the historic Singaporean taste and enthusiasm for Football, among other things, that we observe when we look at the Kallang Roar.
At the time of independence from the British in 1963, Singapore was part of the Malaysian Federation along with the Malayan Peninsula and the territories of Sabah and Sarawak. But in 1965 Singapore was effectively “kicked out” of Malaysia on the grounds of disagreement of how the adopted political model should look. While Malaysia and Singapore both boast large Chinese, Indian and Malay populations, the population of the Malaysian Federation is predominantly Malay. Malay culture therefore takes centre stage in the country’s politics; the constitution declares Islam to be the country’s religion and the ruling Monarch periodically rotates around the ruling Malay Sultans. The Straits-Chinese of Malaysia contribute to commerce and trade, but they are obligated to observe Malay dominance in the realm of politics. Han Chinese-dominated Singapore however did not agree to these terms. Singapore was duly expelled from the Malaysian Federation.
As we have seen, British colonialism contributed greatly to the unique ethnic make-up of Singapore’s contemporary population. The country’s various ethnic communities found themselves in a position to participate in organised sports in their leisure time, creating a sport-orientated culture that would later express itself in fervent support of the national Football side, as that diverse population helped the city-state realise its independence from Malay-dominated Malaysia. While members of specific ethnic communities within Singapore may gravitate toward certain local league Football clubs, enthusiasm for the national starting XI transcends ethnic divisions. But while the Singaporeans may be more sport-interested than their neighbours, the country’s small population size is detrimental to the country’s Footballing prowess.
A country of only 5 million people will always struggle to produce a Football team capable of beating those from far more populous countries. At time of writing, Singapore stands in 172nd place in FIFA’s world rankings, immediately behind neighbouring Malaysia and 41st of all Asian teams, if you include Russia, Turkey and Palestine. Japan and the two (possibly soon one) Koreas stand out as the Asia’s current strongest Footballing nations. In future decades, we will see the emergence of politically charged China, giant hooligan-hotbed Indonesia, internally disruptive Myanmar and the Philippines, proud Vietnam and growing Malaysia as competitive Asian Footballing nations, as each country successfully overcomes current economic, political and demographic obstacles that compromise Footballing ability.
While Singaporean Football may have benefited from the country’s irregular start to life, its neighbours are likely to produce more effective Footballers in the near future. Singaporeans will continue to display a healthy appetite for Football, but they will find themselves having increasingly little to roar for.
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