There is probably some level of excitement over the news of Singapore’s re-entry into the Malaysia Cup competition amongst the older football fans who have since 1994, been starved of an annual football tournament that brought a nation together. It was in supporting the Singapore team bringing people from all walks of life, as many as 70,000 of them, on the terraces of the National Stadium and many more who in the comfort and safety of their homes, felt one with those in the crowd. It was in lending support to what had effectively been the National team, and in the experience of the numerous lows and the few highs when the pinnacle was reached, participating singing and chanting both on the stands and at home, that fans wholeheartedly stood as one, as Singaporeans and football fans first.
The 1994 season which was to turn out to be the final season for Singapore in the Malaysia Cup, was one during which the more highs than lows were experienced. It was a season that had commenced with the uncertainty of the gaping hole left in the coaching department by the departure of Ken Worden as a coach just a week before the tournament had started, had as the days progressed, turned out well, the pre-tournament efforts of Worden proving pivotal as the fitness levels of the members of the squad improved by Worden carried the Lions through winning the league and finding themselves pitted against their archrivals and bogey team Selangor in the semi-finals. The semi-finals played on a home and away format saw Singapore overcoming Selangor and knocking on the door of a cup that had in the previous 13 years proved to be an elusive target.
For a whole generation of players, it was an opportunity to end the drought, twice in the 1990s having lost to Kedah at the old Merdeka Stadium. This time around, a new arena beckoned – the 81,000 seat Shah Alam Stadium. It was one that the Lions had done well enough in to see off the threat posed by Selangor whose home was the Shah Alam Stadium. Many in the team had not tasted success, the last coming in 1980 when the skipper of the 1994 team, Fandi Ahmad scored the winning goal. Amongst those who had not won with the Singapore team was a certain Malek Awab, a diminutive midfielder who was once told he was too small to play the game competitively. Malek had since his introduction to the competitive game as a fifteen year old through the youth ranks of Farrer Park United, grown in stature on the pitch and had become one of the more recognisable players both on and off the pitch, plying his trade in Kuala Lumpur, before coming back to play for the Singapore Malaysia Cup team in 1994. I had an opportunity to interview Malek, who I was a big fan of as a Memory Ambassador for the National Library Board as part of the Singapore Memory Project.
Malek had come a long way since his early encounters with the game which included seeking permission to leave early from school on match days to vend “drinks, keropok, kuaci” on match days, longing to be that guy on the pitch his customers were yelling their support for. He had, in his first Malaysia Cup season in 1981, the experience of reaching the final only to lose at the final hurdle, in a game he could not influence having spent the 90 minutes on the bench. It was for him, a chance to win the cup in Singapore’s colours, having previously won it with Kuala Lumpur.
There was an air of quiet confidence within the team, having played well in the lead-up to the final despite the hiccups of seeing Michael Vana hauled up to answer questions on possible match fixing and promptly jumping bail and strongman in defence Jang Jung being suspended. The team travelled up to Shah Alam the day before staying at a hotel close to the stadium, and arrived at the stadium to a sea of red – three quarters of the stadium had been filled with Singapore supporters, some 50,000 of them in a crowd of 81,000 in the stadium. There was none of the antics of supporters on some of the travels around the Malaysian states – Malek recounted one incident in Kuching, Sarawak when spectators let a gunny sackful of cats (kuching being Malay for cats) during the warm-up. Malek knew that he and the team just had to do it for all those supporters who had made the journey to Shah Alam and had placed faith in the team to deliver.
The game itself was all a blur for Malek – he can’t remember much of what happened on the field. What he could recall was how tense the game was, despite Singapore scoring the first goal through Abbas Saad early enough in the first half. The second half opened with Pahang pressing for a goal, hitting the underside of the bar before Singapore scored a second 8 minutes into the half through an on fire Abbas in a counter attack. The team welcomed that goal and certainly the many supporters in the stands and those who like me, watched it live on the television welcomed it to. With Pahang very much focused on trying to get a quick goal, spaces were left at the back for Abbas and Fandi to exploit which resulted in Abbas completing his hat-trick just 12 minutes later and with a quick fourth goal, all that was left was to hold out against a visibly deflated Pahang side. When the final whistle did come, the magnitude of the occasion finally got to Malek. He broke down, thinking to himself that he had finally in the twilight of his career, won the cup in the colours of the team of his home country – it was the first time he had done it, and was possibility the last opportunity for him to have won it. Having his hand on the Malaysia Cup and holding it high for all to see, was a feeling for Malek that he can’t describe, but one that meant a lot to him and to the thousands of proud Singapore fans in the stadium that night and watching back in Singapore on the television.