SINGAPORE football will lose an exemplary sportsman-sports hero when Kok Wai Leong says goodbye later this month at the Jalan Besar Stadium headquarters.
Sports, or football, of the highest order, in discipline, teamwork and administration, simply ran in his blood.
From his schoolboy days at the elite Raffles Institution where he was an unparalleled javelin record-breaker (his national javelin record at 63.32m set in 1973 still remains unbroken!) to a two-decade career at Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), where he retired as Lieutenant Colonel to a 15-year stint with S-League club SAFFC, where he was general manager and the most successful manager in S-League history and his last FAS (Football Association of Singapore) post as Director of S-League Operations, he was a soft-spoken record-breaker of many sorts.
Modestly working behind the scenes and always keeping away from media glare, Wai Leong was military-personified, in every sense of the word. He was a rousing disciplinarian of the highest order, noted for being among the first to come to FAS at 8.00am every working day and giving his best shot at work, play, family or whatever he did.
From the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, general secretary Datuk Windsor John Paul sent me this SMS: “Kok Wai Leong is a rare breed of sporting personalities. He distinguishedly served from club to national levels and we need more dedicated servants like him, who always serve the game unselfishly in the back room.”
Former AFC general secretary Datuk Peter Velappan, the longest-serving from 1978 to 2007, who from 1963 to 1980, was also the FAM Assistant Secretary, during which he introduced professionalism in Malaysia, adds: “Kok (Wai Leong) is a professional manager and far-sighted. A real loss to FAS and football development. Good luck to him.”
WEALTH OF EXPERIENCE
Wai Leong, who joined the FAS in 2012, took over the premier S-League reins when S-League Chief Executive Officer Lim Chin left in March this year. Lim Chin, a retired colonel and former SAF Chief Artillery Officer, says: “Wai Leong has contributed immensely to Singapore football. As General Manager of SAFFC (now Warriors FC) he led the club to many honours and made it one of the top clubs.
“As S-League Director of Operations , his wealth of experience and knowledge was most beneficial in helping to formulate policies and making key decisions. With his ‘can do’ spirit he was the one we turn to for the ‘mission impossibles’ like orchestrating a mass display or setting a Singapore record with 1,000 footballers in synchronised dribbling.
“He was a pillar of strength in the office and very well liked by everyone. I would never have been able to manage the S-League for five years without his support and advice. I like to sincerely thank him for his friendship and support and wish him well.”
The only setback to Wai Leong’s lifestyle and career, which shocked the football fraternity, was his recent battle with heart attack, which left him on a prolonged medical leave after a major operation and prompted his early retirement from the football scene.
Former SAFFC Chairman, Brigadier-General (BG) Lam Shiu Tong says: “He’s super passionate about local football and football development. His insights stemmed from his years of experience are often accurate, even though they may be painful for others to accept.”
When Wai Leong left SAFFC after a 15-year stint with the S-League club, BG Lam praised: “We’re indebted to Wai Leong’s dedication, commitment and sacrifices for the club. On behalf of all members of the SAFFC management committee (past and present), staff, coaches and players, we thank Wai Leong and wish him success in his future appointment as Director of Operations, S-League. He will continue his passion and devotion in developing local football to another level of excellence.”
Perhaps the finest feather-in-his football career was his accolade as the most successful manager in S-League history. Under his watch, the Warriors won seven S-League titles (1997, 1998, 2000, 2002, 2006, 2007 and 2008), four times as first runner-ups (1996, 1999, 2001 and 2005) and three-times Singapore Cup champions (1999, 2007 and 2008)
A branded name in Singapore football, Wai Leong said when he left Warriors to take up his FAS appointment: “It has been a thoroughly satisfying and rewarding time at SAFFC and the successes would not have been possible without strong support from the management, my colleagues and the team, not forgetting the fans.
“But, it is time to move on and, as I bid farewell to the Warriors, I’m looking forward to contributing more to the S-League and Singapore football in what is probably the final phase of my working career. Goals, Guts Glory to the Warriors!”
Personally, I recollect Wai Leong confidentially sharing with me his behind-the-scenes encounters at SAFFC where he had to handle sometimes-warring national players, keeping the dressing-room discipline in tight check and even discreetly tackling bookies who hounded his star-spangled players.
Former SAF Warriors head coach and ex-Lions coach Vincent Subramaniam says: “I learnt the ropes of the highest disciplinary and man-management skills from Wai Leong. He served FAS with dignity and pride. He rode through difficult times when the S-League was in the shadows of the Malaysia Cup. But like a true soldier he fought on. He feels he needs to pass on the baton for a fresh face and fresh ideas. I wish him well in his new endeavours.”
‘SUPER MAN MANAGER’
SNOC Coach of the Year 1981 Jita Singh, who won the Malaysia Cup in 1980, hails Wai Leong as a “super man manager who knows how to get the best out of his staff, officials, coaches and players”. He adds: “He was an extraordinary stalwart at Warriors. His choice of teams, in the office and on the field of play, and getting the very best out of them says it all for Wai Leong being the most successful S-League manager. I’m sad to see him go.”
Wai Leong was praised for “achieving altruism in our professional league…we need more professionals like him to serve the football fraternity”, says former Home United honorary general secretary Muhammad Azni.
He says: “Of all FAS and S-League figures, Wai Leong is the face we always loved to see on the field. He is a good servant and leader to many of us in the league. In his own fashion, he bridged the S-League clubs with FAS. He’s there to listen, to collaborate and at the same time to get the clubs to stay align with S-League objectives and programmes.
“His omnipresence and friendship contributed to the soul we always sought for in running the S-League, season after season. Not everything was achieved but he always stood vigil to serve both the FAS and the management boards of the S-League clubs.”
He adds: “He’s there when we needed him. He can’t be blamed even though we have not achieved all that we aimed for. For his unselfishness and strength in wanting to make S-League a success, I salute him for his effort to achieve altruism in our professional league. We need more professionals like Wai Leong to serve the football fraternity.”
FAS Head, Competitions Aloysius Vetha describes Wai Leong as a “gentleman with a honest heart who never was afraid to speak his mind”. He adds: “Principles were his key mantras and always he had the hearts and support of all staff due to his fatherly approach. Personally, I’ve learnt many things from him which has shaped and developed me.”
Former SEAP Games hockey gold-medallist Arul Subramaniam, the team’s vice skipper, salutes Wai Leong as a “gold-medal achiever”. He says: “Wai Leong was a long-time SEAP Games friend and SAF colleague. He’s a sincere friend who will go out of the way to help you and give you suggestions. He is very firm in his dealings but a friendly jovial character. As a sportsman and an astute javelin thrower, he puts his heart in training diligently. Truly, a gold-medal achiever.”
As I end this tribute, I’m reminded of what Wai Leong told me when his S-League club garnered seven S-League championship trophies since he first came on board as the club’s general manager in 1998 – with four back-to-back titles from 2006 to 2009.
SUCCESS TO TEAMWORK
Very humbly, he attributed the success to teamwork.
He added: “I take pride that we work together as a team at SAFFC. This very strong virtue of the SAF has been imbued every team official and player. Although teamwork does not guarantee winning championships, at least we know we are on the right track.”
Besides managing the daily operations of the club professionally, without fear or favour, Wai Leong, in particular, concentrated on the welfare of his football players as he believes that a happy team is a winning team.
“We want to make sure they are well looked after, that they get their salaries on time and are focused on training and the matches,” said the avid supporter of Manchester United, who likened the running of the SAFFC to that of running a unit in the military.
“It’s the fighting spirit, the discipline, and the teamwork – that spirit of playing for each other and fighting to the end. They must want to do well. And if you are down, you must get up and continue. It’s the determination. So these are all virtues and values of the SAF which are applicable to the club,” he said.
FAS President Lim Kia Tong also gave the thumbs-up, too: “We wish Wai Leong all the best in his future endeavours. He has been a big part of Singapore football and we are grateful for the years of service he has dedicated to the football fraternity in Singapore.”
As he walks towards the sunset, on the 125th anniversary of FAS, the oldest Asian Football Confederation (AFC) affiliate, 65-year-old Wai Leong is in high spirits although Singapore is lowly ranked at No 170 in the FIFA rankings.
He is optimistic about what the future holds for Singapore football.
“In the long term, I’d like to see Singapore football come up to a higher level and be able to compete with the rest of Asia,” he said. “I relished the experience of having the SAFFC play against J-League giants Kashima Antlers and Gamba Osaka because that’s when you find out whether you can compete at that level. We must always set high standards.” – SURESH NAIR.
- Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who has known Kok Wai Leong for three decades and hails him as an exemplary Made-in-Singapore sportsman-sports hero.