Harpajan Singh Dhillon: Singapore’s first turbaned Sikh referee

In 1969, Harpajan reached the pinnacle when he was appointed a FIFA referee. To him, it was also a personal accomplishment as he became the only turbaned Sikh referee in the world then, and would go on to be so for several years more.

| Singapore | 22 Nov 2016 | Asia Samachar |
Harpajan Singh, first turbaned Sikh referee
Harpajan Singh, first turbaned Sikh referee

Singapore has always been a football loving nation. Be it a match between Manchester United and Liverpool or a match between Singapore and Malaysia, thousands of Singaporeans will watch these matches with avid and undivided attention. Often times, they remain oblivious to the unsung hero of any match – the referee. These are the men who are responsible for presiding over the game from a neutral point of view and making on-the-fly decisions that enforce the rules of the sport. Singapore had its fair share of great referees throughout its short sports history. Mr Harpajan Singh Dhillon, Singapore’s first turbaned Sikh referee, counts among one of them.

Harpajan was born in Singapore in 1934. He began his education at McNair Primary School. However, his studies were disrupted by the Second World War. Following the war, he resumed his education at Rangoon Road Primary School. He then enrolled at Victoria School.

After his GCE ‘O’ Level examinations, Harpajan wanted to further his studies. However, faced with pressure from his parents to find a job, he decided to join the police force. As the interview for that job was some months away, he took up teaching instead at Bartley Primary School in 1954. Besides teaching, he was also in charge of the football extracurricular activity (ECA).

After eight years, he was transferred to Telok Kurau West Primary. Again, he was put in charge of the football ECA. While at Telok Kurau, he had his first taste of success when his team won the ‘A’ Division and post-primary titles. During this period, Harpajan was encouraged to go for upgrading courses so that he could better manage the team. One of these courses was a referee course and, in 1962, Harpajan received his Class 3 Referee Certificate.

His subsequent school posting was to Serangoon Garden Technical School where he continued to play a big part in managing the school football team while refereeing matches in that area. One of the star players in his school was his captain, Mr Samad Allapitchay, who went on to captain the Singapore national football team for many years.

While refereeing for the schools, he also refereed the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) matches. The experience was extremely useful. Between 1962 and 1967, Harpajan was upgraded several times and reached the rank of Class 1 Referee. However, Harpajan wanted more and decided to become an international referee. This accreditation could only come from the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing world body for all national football associations, which also manages and sets guidelines for international referees.

In 1969, Harpajan reached the pinnacle when he was appointed a FIFA referee. This was a huge accomplishment for Singapore as Harpajan was one of Singapore’s youngest FIFA referees. To him, it was also a personal accomplishment as he became the only turbaned Sikh referee in the world then, and would go on to be so for several years more.

Harpajan was the Honorary Secretary of the Football Referees’ Association of Singapore (FRAS) for about 10 years. While FAS chose the referees for all the matches, FRAS ensured that all referees had equal opportunity to officiate a match.

In 1975, Harpajan became President of FRAS. During his tenure, he implemented several measures to improve the quality and standard of referees as well as to enable them to have greater representation in FAS. One of the key initiatives was ensuring the referees had sufficient referee assignments. During that time, the bigger teams only preferred a selected few referees. As a result, some referees hardly had any assignments in a month while some had as many as three or more assignments. Harpajan and his committee members addressed the imbalance and ensured that all registered referees had at least two assignments a month.

img_20161111_174513On top of that, Harpajan strongly believed that the referees needed to be well trained and they had to know the rule book from cover to cover. He organised frequent courses and quizzes for the referees within the organisation. FRAS also competed with other national referee associations to see how the Singapore referees fared against their counterparts from neighbouring countries such as Malaysia and Thailand. His leadership raised the standard and profile of FRAS as it became a more professional and well respected outfit.

During the 1960s and 1970s, it was not uncommon for players or fans to assault the referees due to their unhappiness over their decisions. Harpajan himself was assaulted or confronted by unhappy players. One significant incident happened during his refereeing of the match between Malacca and Selangor in the Malaysia Cup 1976. The latter side was led Malaysian’s football captain, Soh Chin Ann. His unhappiness with a decision by Harpajan resulted in him deliberately kicking the ball at the referee. Although he regretted his decision afterwards, Chin Ann was banned from football for a year. Harpajan felt that the decision, though harsh, was necessary as it showed the players that they could not accost the referees and expect to get off lightly, regardless of whoever they were.

During his presidency, FRAS worked closely with FAS and other football associations to ensure that the referees could do their job in a safe environment and supported the idea of firm but fair punishments for infringements. On his part, Harpajan took the effort to conduct lectures for the players on the laws of the game so that they could better understand the referee’s decisions during matches. Such efforts helped to drastically reduce the assaults on referees.

In 1984, Harpajan decided to retire from refereeing after years of outstanding service. He was 50 years old then. As a result of FIFA’s age restriction of 50 years for international referees, Harpajan could not referee any international tournament. However, he could have continued refereeing locally but he chose to hang up his boots. By then, Harpajan had created a national and international reputation for himself. He had refereed in major tournaments such as the Olympics qualifiers, World Cup qualifiers and the Asian Cup in 1974.

One of Harpajan’s most unfortunate moments as a referee was when he was excluded from the referees’ list for the Asian Games in 1982. He had high hopes as he had been performing admirably at the point in time. However, while he was refereeing a match during the Southeast Asian Games in the Philippines, he badly injured his ankle. In an effort to recover as soon as possible, Harpajan pushed himself hard during rehabilitation. Unfortunately, in spite of his best efforts, he was not able to recover in time and had to miss the Asian Games and with that, the opportunity to put another tournament in his already impressive list.

Regarded as one of the finest pioneer FIFA referees during his era, H S Dhillon, as he is affectionately called, refereed numerous international games in Singapore and abroad. As an international referee, he was strict but firm and fair. Being an elite referee, he was bestowed with numerous awards and accolades, which he truly deserved.
He was elected president of FRAS which he led for almost three decades. Under his able leadership, FRAS flourished to even greater heights.
His distinctive, eloquent personality and historical role created a legacy that endures till the present time.

-Mr K S Maniam Former Class 1 Referee and Former Secretary, FRAS

Today, Harpajan finds the game of football and refereeing a totally different proposition. The array of technology available as well as the updated FIFA and FAS guidelines put a lot more pressure on the men in the middle but these have also enabled them to have greater support in making the correct decisions. At the same time, the football field has become a safer environment for referees since there are cameras all over the stadium.

The introduction of additional referee assistants and goal-line technology has only made the task of the referee more efficient. However, at the end of the day, the referee must ensure that he is the right man to officiate the match. In this respect, a good referee must have the 3 ‘Fs’ – Fit, Fair and Firm. He or she should always be fit and healthy so that he or she is always abreast of the play. The decision should always be unbiased and there should be no personal affiliations during a match. Lastly, the referee should always anticipate the fouls and mete out firm but fair punishment.

Harpajan took the path less travelled by most Sikh sportsmen then when he decided to focus on football instead of hockey. As a referee, he was extremely dedicated and hardworking, and he was always ready to represent Singapore when duty called. He not only created history as the first turbaned Sikh referee from Singapore on the world stage but he also changed the face of refereeing in Singapore. Well, hockey’s loss was football’s gain – and it certainly gained immensely from this man in black!

[This article is courtesy of SINGAPORE AT 50: 50 SIKHS AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS, a book published by the Young Sikh Association, Singapore (YSA) in conjunction with Singapore’s 50th birthday]


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