The year was 1981. Favourites Singapore had just suffered a 4-0 defeat to Selangor in the Malaysia Cup football final. Days later, the New Nation newspaper reported Singapore coach Jita Singh being informed before kick-off that “five Singapore players had sold the match.”
12 squad members -- including a 19-year-old Fandi Ahmad -- and Singh were questioned by the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau (CPIB). Also investigated were spouses of the players and sports reporters. The probe, however, could find no evidence of bribery. Later that year, the Football Association of Malaysia expelled Singapore from the Malaysia Cup.
This was to be Singapore’s first large-scale brush with match-fixing, brought to light by New Nation’s page one exposé. In reward for breaking the story, veteran journalist Suresh Nair was hauled out of bed at 2.00am and whisked to the CPIB headquarters, as he enthusiastically recounts over email. Thirty-two years on from a night of lost sleep, the former hack and Football Association of Singapore (FAS) Class One referee bears no grudge against the CPIB. In fact, he stands by the agency’s widely-criticised stance on the match-fixing saga currently engulfing Singapore.
“My sources tell me that Dan Tan is a mere ikan bilis in the underworld match-fixing empire," said 58 year-old Nair, referring to the mystery match-fixer that European law enforcement agency Europol believes is hiding out in Singapore.
Earlier this month, after years of simmering allegations, Europol pinpointed Singapore as a nexus of worldwide football rigging activity and Tan as one of the masterminds. According to The New York Times, investigators believe Tan is responsible for a sizeable chunk of nearly 700 "suspicious" matches worldwide.
Singaporean police have since been goaded by the likes of Interpol to clamp down on betting syndicates and active riggers supposedly based in the country. But Nair argues that the local authorities are right to demand hard proof.
“In my view, the revelations were premature as they refused to name any suspected matches, players, officials or match-fixers. So it remains unclear how much of the information divulged is new or has already been revealed in trials across the continent.”
"It's easy to point an accusing finger (at Singapore). Just because Europol cries foul... doesn't mean that we’re overnight the bad boys," he said.
What about the bad boy on every wire agency’s lips now -- Tan?
Tan was first fingered by fellow Singaporean Wilson Raj Perumal, a convicted match-fixer last detained in Hungary. Nair describes the two of them as "low-rung guys... squealing their trade-secrets just to take a crack at each other."
With a blow of his whistle, Perumal has sent European authorities scuttling down Tan's trail for the last few years. Interpol also has an international warrant out for his arrest.
But Nair is dismissive.
"If Europol offers concrete evidence that’s sustainable in a court of law, Singapore, in my view, will hand over Dan Tan, to a country with a proper extradition treaty. None of these criteria, as I understand, have been met.” He thinks local police are more interested in "the big boys” rather than “ikan bilis” like Tan.
One man who agrees with Nair is Ralf Mutschke, security director of football’s governing body FIFA.
“Everyone is talking about Dan Tan, and Dan Tan syndicates, and Dan Tan here and Dan Tan there," Associated Press reported Mutschke as saying. "If we kill Dan Tan, then you will have no match-fixing? No, I think it's not as easy as this."
Football fraud: a many-headed snake
Nair, too, thinks it’s impossible to wipe out match-fixing altogether.
“Match-fixing has run for decades, if not centuries. The widespread nature of the organised crime syndicates involved makes them hard to track down and prosecute... a single fixed match can involve up to 50 suspects in 10 different countries.”
He contends that till this day, global policing institutions have yet to find a foolproof solution. Nair recalls a conversation with a “convicted bookie”, who told him if “you cut off one ugly head, many others keep springing up. It is an uncontrollable disease."
It is a disease that feeds another. Mutschke’s predecessor, Chris Eaton, is convinced that match-fixing serves as a means to an end – feeding the Southeast Asian gambling market.
“There’s no will to regulate gambling houses in (the region). There’s a lack of commitment... government oversight is almost non-existent,” he told Reuters.
Ex-Singapore national goalkeeper Eric Paine tells Yahoo! Singapore that gambling is a worldwide disease, but concedes it is more rampant in Asia.
Recalling an incident at a local coffeeshop, he said: “Two Chinese men who were at a table in the front saw two sparrows perched on a phone cable. They then took out S$10 each and bet on which one would fly off first. I couldn’t help myself laughing.”
In the second part to this story, we dive deeper into gambling in Singapore, and deal with the "kelong" and the "referee kayu" of our football lexicon. Read it here.