SOMETIMES we take football for granted. Even more, the fiery elements of friendship as these form the closest everlasting sporting and lifestyle bondships.

I had a serious, yet sincere, lesson in ‘The Art of Friendship’, which was the eye-catching theme of the 10th anniversary celebrations of Gibraltar Crescent Football Club. They called the Tuesday ‘May Day’ celebrations at Rainforest Sports Complex at Turf City, “Rockers’ Reunion” after the club’s nickname “Rockers”.

Gibraltar Crescent hails from the famous heartlander of Sembawang, in the north-west corner of Singapore, where from the 1950s, produced some of the outstanding Singaporean footballers, from the legendary Quah family of (the late) Kim Swee, Kim Siak, Kim Lye, Kim Song to  Varadaraju ‘Gondol’ (the father of V Sundramoorthy) and Malaysia Cup heroes of the 1970s like M. Kumar, Surash Anandan, Syed Mutalib, Bernard Norbert and in the 1990s, Noh Alam Shah, Toh Choon Meng, S. Ramoo, Tahir Bujang and Wong Yew Kong.

 “Football can just be a passing fade of life but friendship is absolutely an everlasting spirit,” says Stephen Rajah, the key event organiser, who believes that the frantic pace and casual attitudes of modern life have made real friendship a rare experience.

“The theme of ‘The Art of Friendship’ shows how making true connections can greatly enhance one’s life. The bondships we have sustained offer a simple but effective ‘rules of connecting’ with action points to help everyone put each rule into practice in daily life.”


From the little streets in Sembawang and Naval Base emerged clubs that bore names of the neighbourhood like Gibraltar Crescent, Wellington Road, Delhi Road, Admiralty Road and Pakistan Road. Rousing home-based football examples are Sembawang Sports Club, Delhi Juniors, Gibraltar Crescent, Junior Athletics Association, Sembawang Tamils Association, Woodlands Wellington and Pakistani Football Club.

“They formed the ecosystem of the Sembawang football trademark and we want to sustain this friendship and bondship with the annual reunions, usually held during the May Day weekend,” says Rajah. “Regardless of club affiliations, we want the Sembawang fraternity to cherish the “art of friendship” which is more important than football.”

Rajah’s Gibraltar Crescent, mentored by insurance-businessman Yow Tian Bey, rose from non-league football in the 1980s to move up the ladder through the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) Islandwide League and then to National Football League, reaching its peak when the “Rockers” finished third in the NFL (National Football League) First Division in 1991.

But with the emergence of the professional league in 1996, Gibraltar faded away after the club merged with Sembawang Sports Club to form Sembawang Rangers, billed as the “King of the North”  with the nickname of “Stallions”. The new club lured in some of South-east Asia’s finest footballers as well as regionally-reputed coaches like former award-winning national coach Jita Singh (S-League 1998 ‘Coach of the Year’) and former Thailand defender Vorawan Chitavanich  (S-League ‘Coach of the Year’ 2004, 2005 and 2010).


In Rajah’s words, “friendship is one of the soul’s purest and greatest pleasures, but no matter how many friends you have, and how close you think you are to them, you probably aren’t aware of the tremendous spiritual importance of true friendship”.

“I’ve read from famous authors that that it’s actually spiritually dangerous to let friendships remain on the superficial level that all too many people settle for nowadays — doing no more with their friends than going shopping or watching a football game together. “

He maintains that when you take friendship for granted and don’t give it the care it deserves, you turn your back on a God-given source of spiritual vitality, joy, and comfort.

Rajah, who also played for Singapore Indians in the Bardhan Cup in the 1980s, adds: “So by organising the ‘Rockers’ Reunion’, 10 years in a row now, I want to show how to transform superficial friendships in the Sembawang ecosystem, regardless of club affiliations, into soul-nourishing relationships, bringing them from shallowness and frivolity to a deep communion of mind and heart — a communion that will become for you (and for them) a means for spiritual growth.”

The Sembawang and Naval Base backyards were like a “Little Brazil” although the media focused attention to other parts of Singapore like Farrer Park and Jalan Besar. Rajah recollects:  “During the 1960s onwards, right through to the 90s in Sembawang, we aroused the interests of thousands of young footballer. The extraordinary fanaticsm was like a ‘Little Brazil’. I know about 14 to 15 ex-national players from Sembawang alone, who made exemplary marks in Singapore football.”

One such player who learnt his game on the streets in northern Singapore in the early 1990s is former Singapore international Noh Alam Shah, who was talent-spotted as a kid in his neighbourhood.  He went on to be 2005 S-League ‘Player of the Year’ and won the S-League 100-goals special award the same year.

“I never went to football academies as a kid growing up,” says Alam Shah, who even played professionally in Indonesia for East Java-based Arema FC at one point. “I’m pretty much a street football guy.  While other kids were busy studying, I would be at the void deck playing football. That changed my life in football.”

He won the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship in 2005 and 2007. At the 2007 competition, he was the top individual scorer and was named the ‘Most Valuable Player’ of the tournament. He is overall top goal-scorer in AFF Championship history, with 17 goals. Notably, he scored seven goals in an 11–0 win for Singapore in the 2007 AFF series. This was not only a record win for the Singapore national team, but also a record number of goals scored by an individual player in an ‘A’ international game for Singapore.

Another “Rockers” hero is former Singapore defender T Aravinthan, the first footballer to ever make the transition from being a player in the S-League to being a FAS referee and a AFC Referee Fitness Instructor.

Amazing with two careers in football even though he started his refereeing career at  the late age of 35. But it allowed him to see both sides of the football-overview because, by his own words, “I was a nasty player, very nasty, a very dirty player”.


But he proved his worth with the whistle as was honoured with the S-League ‘Referee of the Year’ award in 2008 – the first FAS Class One referee to win the No 1 accolade. He says: “I stepped down in 2010 to become a fitness instructor and mentor and scout for the younger referees and that’s my way of paying back to football.”

Former Singapore defender Bernard Norbert, renowned for his articulate sliding tackles and who played and coached Tampines Rovers, recollects the “British Naval Base League where we learnt a lot from the British naval men”.

He says: “The crowd support at Deptford Ground was fantastic. The folks finish work at 4.00pm, and within an hour, they would pack the football fields. And in those days, in the early 60s and 70s, we even had the Sembawang League, comprising to some 12 teams. Just before that, the British Naval Base, had their own league.”

He recalls famous national-class players like “Quah Kim Siak, Quah Kim Lye, Vivian Roberts, Munusamy, Rajoo (Sundramoorthy’s father), Eapon Carlos, Sudheesan and Suresh Anandan, Rajamuthan, Seng Fok, M. Kumar, Quah Kim Song, J. Masilamani, Ellumalai, V. Khanisan, Bernard Harison, Sasikumar, T. Aravindthan, Sundramoorthy, Devaraj, Manickam, Somu Manoharan and Subash who benefitted by participating in both the leagues. We learned a lot from the British.”

Rajah, whose son Shannon plays professional football with five-times S-League champions Tampines Rovers and was recently included in the national team, sums up the May Day bonding with heartfelt words: “The younger generation needs friendship to keep them from error and to teach them the ways of the world. The older folks need friendship to care for them and support them when their bodies fail to weakness.

“Perhaps most surprising, friendship is not only important to the individual, it is necessary for the continued existence of the state.”

He urged the Sembawang fraternity to support the “Rockers’ Reunion” and to “keep all personal differences aside” as they learn the value-added principles of the ‘Art of Friendship’.

Rajah says: “Football and friendship are a potent chemistry that will always last and something we can offer to inspire the younger generation. I promise to keep this ‘Art of Friendship’ spirit alive every year on May 1.” – BY SURESH NAIR


  • Suresh Nair is a Singapore-based journalist who lives in the northern football heartlands of Sembawang and after attending Tuesday’s ‘Rockers’ Reunion’ he realised that serious and sincere sporting connections always run deep – in football and friendship.
- Advertisement -