| Jagdesh Singh | Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia | 25 Oct 2015 | Asia Samachar
By Jagdesh Singh
Every once in a while, the silky haired Santokh Singh is spotted in a Punjabi event, eliciting excited murmurs from those within the vicinity, reliving stories of yesteryears that make him the legend that he is. He was, after all, a demi god to so many football crazy Punjabis and Malaysians in the 70s. Born in Setapak, Santokh played for the Red Giants Selangor FA from 1972 to 1985, winning 9 Malaysia Cups as their fearless leader and captain. He was also at the forefront of Malaysia’s national team, playing alongside the late Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun and R. Arumugam. Legend has it that his partnership with Soh Chin Aun was the most solid defense in Asia at that time. Santokh was inducted in the Olympic Council of Malaysia’s Hall of Fame in 2004. A beacon of pride for all Punjabis in the region for decades and still endeared today.
Many felt this heroic and proud baton of his was passed to the rightful successor when Serbegeth Singh graced the pitches in the late 80s. ‘Shebby’ was the clean dashing defender for Kuala Lumpur FA, winning the Malaysia Cup three years in a row from 1987 to 1989. He also played with Negeri Sembilan FA and Pahang FA before ending his career with Perak FA in 1996. His career in domestic football lasted eighteen years from 1978–96. He won every domestic honor, including the Malaysia Cup, Malaysian FA Cup and League Championship.
Both were tough no nonsense defenders, with the tenacity and ‘never die’ attitude, emboldening the general perception Malaysians had of the Punjabi and Sikh community. This further exacerbated the pride we had for them because we were given the respect of our attitudes as a society, for our traditions and heritage. “Itu Singh gagah dan berani”.
And then there was no one. After almost 3 decades, there was no Singh called out from the stands or in front of the television in the same breath of pride as Santokh or Shebby. Many say it was a symptom of a wider problem where the dearth of players from minority races in Malaysia was a huge engulfing one.
This isn’t exactly a conundrum for the Punjabi society as a whole but the question has been asked many a times at many a social gathering around the country for the years of absence.
Absence of a household footballing hero hailing from the same society that produced Santokh and Shebby. Absence of representation for our society to showcase our attitudes, our traditions and heritage of fearless bravery in the local sporting arena. Hence, the question will inevitably pop up during social gatherings when an inkling of football is mentioned.
Let me just put out a disclaimer here and just say that getting to the root cause to answer this question will need a proper structured research initiative in the School of Social Science. My observations here are very subjective and bears no resemblance to anything definite.
The typical response that I normally get when skirting around this question is that it’s a systemic problem. Policies, or rather best practices, have been put in place for only certain sections of our Malaysian society to further produce players that make the elite cut in our country. And quite often the tone that follows this response to the question is rather of a defeatist one. “What can we do now?” But when you probe a little bit deeper, then you start to see gray areas that color this response.
Yes, it’s probably true that these best practices in place proliferate biasness towards these sections of the society at an early stage in the players’ lives. In primary schools, followed by secondary schools and later in tertiary schools, students are chosen to represent their schools, with the schooling system being the only legitimate platform to launch these players into scrutiny amongst the footballing community. These same students are then given access to coaching that enhances their athleticism and their footballing skills, which they carry along with them as they mature as players throughout their schooling lives. Avenues to this sort of coaching outside of the government schooling system environment has been far and few, especially in the rural areas, even until today.
Meanwhile, since the 80s, the Punjabi society began to mature economically in the Malaysian landscape, children were provided many luxuries that a normal middle class family can afford. Classroom supremacy was prioritized, with parents pushing their offspring to strive to be the better students amongst their classmates, where sports would be sidelined or even sacrificed. Even if sports were to be encouraged, the more individualistic sports that the middle class could pay for were explored. Athletics, Football and Hockey took a back seat for these Punjabi boys and girls. The rough and tumble of playing with their more rural friends in the football ‘padang’ slowly faded away. The passion to pursue playing football or hockey competitively fizzled out in this new generation.
So, it was systematic but we didn’t fight to be part of the system. We just changed our priorities and were contended to not producing new heroes because we wanted a better future for our children, in every economic sense. Our never die attitude wouldn’t have a human representation on the footballing arena for now but time will tell. Perhaps the next generation would have a reboot on priorities with more holistic values, and another Singh or Kaur can make us proud again.
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