Turning full circle: Family man Collin Chee opens up on abrupt departure from Singapore football and coming back with Dads for Life
JPF sat down with one of the most compelling figures in local football to discuss his time as Singapore national team manager, his various football-related businesses and that failed Sporting Afrique venture… "I lost a substantial
JPF sat down with one of the most compelling figures in local football to discuss his time as Singapore national team manager, his various football-related businesses and that failed Sporting Afrique venture…
“I lost a substantial amount that is good enough to buy a small HDB flat,” he shared.
Collin Chee had promised JPF a no-holds-barred interview on his football story and he truly kept to his word. The businessman was referring to the failed Sporting Afrique venture which made global headlines 13 years ago.
Inspired by France’s cosmopolitan 1998 World Cup winning squad, an ambitious Chee had decided to start up Sporting – a team made up of players with African descent – to participate in the 2006 S.League (now rebranded as Singapore Premier League) season.
The idea was to make the competition more exciting and possibly unearth some talented players that can be naturalised to represent the Singapore national team.
“Back then there was a target set by Goh Chok Tong for Singapore to qualify for the World Cup in 2010,” recalled the 52-year-old. “Being a huge lover of Singapore football and a small-time businessman, I ask myself how can I contribute and make people remember my effort.”
“Nine out of the 11 starting players of that France team were African players… Even (Zinedine) Zidane is Algerian! When I was chairman of Tampines Rovers (Sports Club) in the NFL (National Football League) Division One (in the late 1990s), I always have intake of African players like Nathaniel Naplah and Gaye Alassane. Then there are players like Itimi (Dickson) and Agu (Casmir) playing in the S.League.
“So I proposed to (then Football Association of Singapore president) Prof Ho (Peng Kee) the idea of Sporting Afrique and they approved. Without much financial support, I – this small little fish – just jumped into a big ocean.”
Singapore National Team 1995 (Photo: Collin Chee)
It all started in promising fashion for Chee and Sporting as a partisan full-house crowd – which included a strong continent of African supporters – turned up to inspire them to a 2-1 win over Woodlands Wellington in their first home match at Yishun Stadium.
The Flamingos were ranked amongst the top four teams after six rounds of matches, but things soon turned pear-shaped three months into the season with reports emerging that the majority of the players were receiving just S$100 per month as opposed to the S$1,600 per month stipulated in their contracts.
It was said that S$700 was deducted for food and S$800 was accounted for accommodation – all 22 players lived in a semi-detached house with five to six players sharing a single room. Those unsettled players had contacted UK news site BBC anonymously, which drew international attention to this matter.
Chee was, however, keen to rebutt those claims of alleged ill-treatment of his players as he shared with JPF his side of the story.
“A local paper put the headline – SLAVERY,” he revealed. “Slavery? Do you know Albirex (Niigata (S)) players have to pay to play here? There are players who I pay quite well like Harrison Muranda, who later went on to play in Vietnam – they get about $800. For those players who were not that good but had some potential, I pay them $100 to $300 (per month).
“I took care of their daily meals, topped up their EZ-Link cards, paid for their phone bills… Everything from even toilet paper to boots, I paid for them. Only their medical fees are accounted by Singapore Sports Council (now Sport Singapore).
“Many of them had no clubs when they came over. Some of them got stuck in countries like Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia after getting cheated of their money by agents. Basically I paid their transfer fees to get them over. I told them upfront that we are not a rich club and that this is a platform for them to move up to better things – just like the Albirex model.
“It pained me to see players who kneeled down and begged me for a chance, then turn around and say ‘this is the guy that conned me here’. They forgot they were conned in other places and it was me who paid money to bring them here.”
The off-field issues did not end just there, with the club running into cash flow problems even before the halfway point of the season. As a result, Chee resorted to bank loans and mortgaging his house in order to keep the ship afloat.
Revealing that he fell into mild depression during that tough period, the former model and actor did not pull any punches about his failings as he attributed it to his ‘mismanagement’.
“I can’t blame anyone – I screwed it up,” he admitted. “I did have a team of good people but I was always trying to do everything on my own. I was always a one-man show when I managed Tampines in the NFL and when I was running my own company, so I guess that was built in me.
“That’s when I learnt that it’s completely different when you want to run a professional football club. When you jump into a big ocean, you are facing the sharks. This is a different ball game altogether and you need to micro-manage. I should have got in professionals to help me.
“Expenses gradually went higher and we soon ran into funding problems. Sponsors who are supposed to do progressive payment pulled out…. Those who patted my back and called me ‘brother’ all just disappeared.”
The tough period
Push soon came to shove, but a prideful Chee was determined not to see his project end in premature fashion.
“With four and a half months left to go (in the season), I was given a choice to wind up the club,” he revealed. “Most of my committee members told me to end things and send the Africans back home. But because the national news was on it, I didn’t want to ‘lose face’ and be the first club that can’t finish a season.
“I have to thank Prof Ho who stood by me at that time and told me ‘let’s finish the season’. So from June to October that year, I was basically going around to beg for money every day to raise funds and clear my own ‘shit’.
“I did this dinner and dance at Ang Mo Kio and was trying to sell one table at $5,000… Someone senior from FAS also helped me to make contact with this managing director of a very big company, who could be a potential sponsor. But I was told to just leave my proposal there by his secretary as he was not around. Three days later, I was told that again that he went overseas and will only come back in a few days’ time. I tried to follow up a few times, but never even got to meet him.
In those desperate times, a beleaguered Chee got enlightened on the importance of family ties – a point which he neglected previously while he was trying to make a name for himself in the business industry.
“I had to separate the players into different houses and start to provide food regularly for them,” he shared. “Those food were cooked by my parents. I still remember my dad and mum have to go the market everyday to buy the ingredients.
“After one week, they asked me ‘how long are you going to do this ah?’ I told them ‘at least four and a half months’. I know they do not agree with my idea, but you know parents being parents – they always help you whenever you are in trouble. My wife also stood by my side when I was so down.
“That’s when I knew all is not lost and you see who your true friends are. I will tell anyone right now ‘when you’re spending so much time outside, always remember your family members are the ones quietly backing you behind’ – not those who drink beer with you and call you ‘brother’.”
Eventually Sporting managed to complete the season, but only finished ninth out of 11 teams – well off their initial target of a top-three finish. The bulk of that squad then returned to their respective countries while a few of them secured contracts in other Southeast Asian countries.
Chee had still harboured hopes of Sporting participating in the following season in 2007 with a revised format and change of management, but the club’s application was rejected by the FAS. That brought down the curtain on the club as they were eventually dissolved.
While things clearly did not work out, Chee was keen to learn from this episode and come out from it a better person.
“Have you taken a roller coaster?” he asked. “When I was young, I closed my eyes and I told myself ‘I’ve completed this ride’. But in this journey, it’s not right that I close my eyes. I made sure I opened my eyes throughout, see the scary parts and learn from it before completing this round.
“Like I said, I cannot blame anyone but myself. I thought I knew everything (about the football industry), but hey man, it’s a bloody big world out there. God must have pitied me for all the shit that I’ve gone through because I managed to transfer out nine players and recouped about S$2,000 to S$3,000 for each player.
Describing it as ‘the best thing that happened to me’, Chee insisted there were no regrets over starting up Sporting Afrique – just like how he did not look back when he gave up a promising acting career to focus on his biggest passion in his 20s.
An aspiring football player in his teenage years, Chee was advised not to pursue the sport competitively due to childhood asthma. Blessed with dashing good looks, he then dabbled in modelling upon finishing National Service before joining local talent show Star Search in 1993.
Although he did not make it into the top three in the overall category, he impressed enough to get a contract with Television Corporation of Singapore (now called Mediacorp) and had starring roles in a couple of local serials – while doubling up as the Singapore national football team’s assistant manager on a volunteer basis.
He would, however, call it quits in 1996 following an infamous incident on the set of renowned local dramas series Teochew Family that casted him into the national spotlight a year prior.
“I screwed up big time until it was out in the papers,” he revealed. “I was one of the leads in that show with the likes of Zoe Tay, Hong Huifang, Chew Chor Meng and the veteran Hong Kong actor Kenneth Tsang – who was super critical of me to the press.
“There was this time when I NG-ed 30 over times until the cameramen from Hong Kong shouted at me ‘Yao mor gao chor? Film yong sai! (Cantonese for ‘What’s wrong with you? Film all finished already!)’
“It was a stressful time for me and Tsang initiated to have supper with me one-on-one after that indoor scene. That was when he asked me this question ‘Do you want acting for your life and it to become your rice bowl?’
“I answered him that I wasn’t so sure because I’m also assistant team manager (TM) for the Singapore national team. He told me to pursue this dream if football’s what I wanted and off I went. A lot of people were telling me that I should have stayed at Mediacorp, but I was spending a lot of time travelling around with the national team when they were paying me – which wasn’t fair to them.
“I did also realise thereafter that I didn’t really like acting because you have to convince yourself to be in the role and it’s not easy.
During his days as Singapore’s Team Manager (Photo: Collin Chee)
Off he went
A recharged Chee then focused his attention and energy solely on football. Aside from his roles at FAS as national team assistant TM and national age-groups TM, he also founded Talents and Models – a sports event company which was converted from a modelling company – and Wembley Steak House – a restaurant with football concept that was based in Northpoint.
“Back then, Singapore football was booming and the S.League was beginning to come up (in 1996) so me and my partner decided to switch the modelling company into a sports event one,” he shared. “With my connections in football, we managed to do the launches for clubs like Tiong Bahru United and Tampines Rovers.
“For the Tampines launch, we had the players all coming in (to greet the fans) on Harley-Davidson bikes. We also organised the testimonial match for David Lee, Fandi (Ahmad) and Malek (Awab) at the National Stadium. Those were S.League’s glory days thus I had no regrets leaving Mediacorp to do this.
“As for Wembley Steak House, all our steak was football-related… We got Sir Bobby Charlton fire steak, Brazilian Samba steak and even Kallang Wave – which is basically 16 scoops of ice-cream. We have a TV that screens football…So when there are M-League matches, we could have more than 100 people turning up although the sitting capacity is just 80 so some of them have to stand outside. So we are making good money through football at that time.”
Chee never gained any significant monetary benefits during his time as national team assistant TM, but gained much satisfaction from learning from the legendary Patrick Ang and working with talented players that went on to lift Singapore’s first international trophy in the 1998 Tiger Cup.
“You know why I wanted to become TM? During the Malaysia Cup days, I saw this guy sitting on the bench wearing a jacket. I was wondering ‘Wow who’s that wearing jacket so smart one? Steady leh!’” he quipped. “Someone told he’s the manager. From there I look up to this guy and I aspire to be like him.
Catching up with former Singapore’s national coach Barry Whitbread in Singapore, 2018 (Photo: Collin Chee)
“I clicked very well with then-coach Barry Whitbread and that batch of players like Fandi, David and Malek. I had a lot of respect the main team manager Patrick Ang – he and the late Kwek Leng Joo were the ones who started the S.League from a two-dollar company and knew how to connect with businesses.
“Sometimes when Patrick is busy, I will stand in as TM. I was also the TM for the Singapore Under-23s when we played against England Under-23s at the old Jalan Besar Stadium, with the likes of Yazid Yasin and Indra Sahdan playing against players like Emile Heskey and Michael Owen.
“Back then, we have little to no pay because we are just volunteers. People even have to pay to get into football. There was even this occasion, Asia Youth Cup qualifier in Malaysia, when I took out about S$4,000 out of my own pocket to get the Singapore Under-19 players track suits, t-shirts and running shoes because our apparel sponsor pulled out from the sponsorship.”
Chee would eventually leave FAS and conclude his other business ventures in 1999, but wasted little time in setting up new football-related businesses in the form of TouchWood – an official football pub for Liverpool supporters based at Maxwell Road and Football Update – a bilingual magazine publication that focused on providing tips for punters.
“You see everything that I did was swaying towards football,” he said. “Punters’ Way – the horse-racing publication – was my partner and they survive through stats. So I came up with idea of Football Update and started giving them out at S.League stadiums.
“A senior journalist came to me and told me in front of everybody ‘only stupid fools will read statistics’, but we lasted till 2006 while other football magazines lasted only for a short time. Why? Business is all about timing. We came out a year after Singapore Pools launched football betting.
“Me and my partners managed to sustain it because we kept the publication at black and white and refused to go colour. But I’m an outdated guy and I wasn’t prepared for the rise of technology. So we lost the battle to online publications and decided to wind it up in 2007.”
Collin releasing his Autobiography Book, Roots – Memoirs From Two Cities in 2016 (Photo: Collin Chee)
Leaving football altogether
Of course Chee was then embroiled in that Sporting Afrique saga and decided to leave the football scene altogether in 2007 to start afresh at almost 40 years of age. He managed to secure a job at international head-hunting firm SearchWorks, but soon got a rude awakening call.
“For the first time I went back to the workforce after being self-employed for so long,” he shared. “I felt so ‘shiok’ when I first got this job – Republic Plaza 36th floor and wearing jacket…. Then my GM Low Chee Sang asked me ‘do you use Microsoft Windows?’ I just stunned there and asked him ‘what is that ah?’ There’s this male colleague who immediately laughed at me and asked me ‘which stone age did you come from?’
“It was a good learning lesson for me. When I was self-employed, I hire people to solve my problems. I wasn’t hands-on enough to understand the overall operations of the company. For example at Football Update, I knew how to market the product but I was nowhere near in terms of distribution, printing or even sourcing for paper.
“I realised I played such a small part and I thought I was ready to do a big thing. That was my first day at work and honestly I went to the toilet to cry. I told my wife I will not let anyone laugh at me in that manner again.
The transition to a whole new industry harder than expected as Chee revealed he was ‘almost sacked five months into the job’, but he persevered to find a specialisation in the hospitality sector and eventually led his team to top the company’s sales charts.
“Boss sat me in his office one day and said ‘we like you so much, but I cannot fit you’ – that was hurting”, he revealed. “I was the first to come in every day at 8.30am when it’s supposed to start at 9am and the last to leave, even on weekends I come back.
“That’s because I was still learning how to type a simple letter and took longer than usual to send something to the client. I secured my first deal because I was working till 10pm every day. While I was taking the lift down one day, I spoke to this lady whom I’ve met many times in the lift.
“From our conversation, I got to know that she was working for Hong Leong Group and named-checked their chairman who is Mr Kwek Leng Joo. We exchanged contacts and she called me the next day telling me Mr Kwek wanted to meet me. That’s why I always believe that hard work pays off.”
Leaving for Indonesia
After almost three years in the job, Chee then packed his bags for Medan in Sumatra, Indonesia in 2009 – accepting an offer to set up a marketing department in food distribution company PT Alamjaya Wirasentosa – and slowly disappeared from the Singapore football radar.
He enjoyed a hefty pay package there, but the time away from his loved ones made him realise what meant the most to him as he eventually decided to return to Singapore in 2015.
“I have very good bonuses in Indonesia… I have driver, have house, but there’s one thing money can’t buy – quality bonding time with family,” he shared. “There’s this one night into my fourth year there when my sister called me and told me my father got admitted into hospital because he couldn’t breathe.
“I panicked and thought ‘Am I going to lose a father?’ Worse still, it was during a three-week period each year where I have to send my passport to Jakarta and couldn’t leave the country but fortunately his condition was not so serious.
“In 2011 when I had a work break, me and my dad went on this father-son bonding trip to Bali because my wife said ‘you don’t know your father too much’. I realised I never had a close look at my father and now his hair has turned all grey. So we two men just spent 5D4N together and I got to understand him better.
“Medan is quite near to Singapore and I come back quite frequently… Whenever I’m back, I tried to be close to my four children (aged 16 to 21), but they’re not reacting and take me like some sort of a stone-age guy. To be honest, I wasn’t around in their growing up days so I didn’t expect them to warm up to me.
“I met many established multi-millionaires in Indonesia, there’s one who even got a personal helicopter. There was one night, after a few drinks with a well-respected businessman, when he started to pour out in tears – he was telling he don’t trust their wife, claim that his children don’t love him and all the people around him are asking for money. I look at him and thought ‘even if I’m so rich one day, so what?’”
An unexpected return to football
Fate would have it that Chee would be reunited with football shortly after his return home. A former player had contacted him in regards to forming a social football team for Dads For Life (DFL) – a national movement initiated by the Centre of Fathering to inspire and involve fathers to be good influences in their children’s lives – and the rest was history.
While it is not comparable to his heydays when he was at the forefront of Singapore football, he has found much more satisfaction in inspiring fellow fathers and helping to foster stronger family ties.
“I completely never touched football in six years in Indonesia until this!” he chuckled. “But I stepped in and never looked back.
“When I was with the national team, we were treated like VIPs… During the Dunhill Cup in Malaysia, I was given a personal bodyguard and our team bus always got police escort in front of us. When I was running my own club, beating or thrashing opponents was my biggest satisfaction.
“But now I feel this is this the greatest feeling to be able to help families and open the heart of another father. At DFL, we’re always encouraging fathers to spend time with their kids. Many times we got thrashed in games because we’re playing against young fathers like 20 plus to 30 years old, but at the end of the game sometimes those opponents come and shake our hands – telling us that we’re doing a great job. I learnt that it’s about gaining respect from people, not just about winning or hammering people.”
Since August 2017, Chee has held a full-time job as a partner with international trade company Alliance Experts but his focus in life remains largely about his family. He and his two sons had recently started up Spikes of Love – ‘the world’s first durian community’ where people come together to sample durians.
“Now my life got two round things – one is football and one is durian!” he joked. “Everything I do now, I want to involve my family. My kids may not be ready now, but I’ll do the job and help them to get ready.”
His ‘pocket may not be as thick as before’, but nothing beats having a closely-knit family for Chee.
“Now my children love me much more,” he shared. “My eldest son is now in NS and he calls me every night to update me about how’s he doing. Quietly in my heart, I knew I’ve achieved something. I will not trade this for anything else.
“Whatever comes my way, this is a life that I do not and will not regret – not because it is glorious or successful, but because I am true to myself.”
Article: Junpiter Futbol/ Kenneth Tan