FAS vice-president Tan wants to revolutionise primary school football
Like so many Singaporeans, Bernard Tan is a football fan.
He wants a pack of Lions he can be proud of.
One of four vice-presidents at the Football Association of Singapore (FAS), Tan believes the upcoming Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cup will be tough, but says the national team can do well on home soil.
But he is already plotting for the future, and is putting together a blueprint to create a "great national team" 10 years from now.
Tan and fellow FAS vice-president Edwin Tong have been charged to put together a bid for Singapore to host the Under-17 World Cup in 2019 or 2021, and the mission is to build a team that are good enough to qualify for the tournament on merit, even if the Republic does get the nod from Fifa to stage the tournament here.
To do that, Tan's biggest priority is to expand the base by getting more primary school kids to play more football.
Speaking to The New Paper earlier this week, Tan said: "At the last World Cup, there were four countries - Uruguay, Costa Rica, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia - that have a smaller population than we do.
"I came into this assignment with a lot of hope that a smaller country can punch above its weight and the examples are there. The trick is how do we organise ourselves and get the system moving in the right direction, and of course, resourcing in the proper way.
"The teams that we have today are products of things we did 10 years ago. There's nothing I can do significantly to affect the state of the national team today.
"What we do in this (FAS) council affects the national team 10 years from now. We are going to build the structures for the team 10 years from now.
"Obviously it's important to get the performance today, its important to give (national football coach Bernd) Stange and his team the resources to do as well as they can with this current team.
"But if we want to build a significantly better team, the work starts with what we do today."
Tan was formerly president commissioner of PT Bank DBS Indonesia and is now president of the commercial business group of ST Kinetics.
He joined the FAS last October and has been on the board of Sport Singapore (previously the Singapore Sports Council) since 2006.
Citing a startling statistic, Tan said it is crucial they grow the numbers in terms of kids playing the sport for Singapore to have a chance of creating a formidable football team that can do battle with the continent's heavyweights.
In a survey of 100 primary schools, conducted by Sport Singapore's Football Task Force, 47 per cent of kids want to play football but only 5.9 per cent actually do.
If there are 36,000 kids at each level, that means there are only 2,000 young footballers in each cohort, an unacceptable figure for Tan, who wants to at least treble that percentage for the Lions "to stand a fighting chance to punch above its own weight".
Tan was a former Chief of Armour, rising up to the rank of Brigadier-General.
He was awarded the President cum SAF Scholarship, as well as the Lee Kuan Yew Postgraduate Scholarship.
He is a go-getter and is clearly determined to fix the problem and get more boys and girls playing football from a very young age.
"Basic technical skills in football are fixed before 12, I believe this to be so," he said.
"By 12, roughly you can tell who can make it, who will not. You won't get it right 100 per cent, but you can tell.
"Maybe for sports like bowling and shooting, you can still learn (the skills) after 12, but there are certain activities you need to start young and it is harder to learn proper techniques when you are older, for example swimming or playing the piano.
"Similarly for football, the basic movements are ingrained by 12.
"It's not that we don't have kids who want to play, but only 5.9 per cent do. How do we change that? That is the first big question.
"If we can solve that question, then we are on our way to having a great national team 10 years from now."
A husband and father of three teenage boys, Tan is obviously a busy man.
But he spends his free time poring over football literature, hoping to find ways Singapore can adopt systems used by other small-but-successful nations.
Tan has bounced ideas off the Ministry of Education and will soon make a serious pitch to launch a pilot programme in primary schools next year that will get possibly 15 per cent of children playing football and will involve parents, coaches and volunteers.
"Most of the developed (football) countries expect kids to play 35-40 weeks a year.
"Teachers here will tell you term time is only 40 weeks. But we can play during holidays, too," he said.
"Let's say we block off five weeks each for mid-year and final-year exams, I'm left with 30 weeks.
"Can I have five weeks of the holidays, maybe two weeks in the June holidays and three weeks in the December holidays? So I think a 35-week syllabus is doable.
"I want the kids to reach the magic 10,000 hours of practice, but we are not going to reach that.
"So let's try to get lower primary school kids to play 1½ hours on a weekday and 1½ hours on a weekend per week.
"This will form a base of a lot of active kids playing football."
And it's not just mindless, unsupervised kickabouts that Tan is proposing. He also wants a revamp of the primary school football season.
"Primary-school seasons at best last from one to three months," he said.
"For the teams that get knocked out early, their season lasts just one month, and they play just three games in a group of four. This is wrong at so many levels. At lower-primary level, at least, you should play to improve, play to have fun.
"If all that matters is to make the next round, you'll do nonsense like taking advantage of the big kid you have who can shoot 30 metres or play high balls for him to head it in.
"But this advantage will disappear when he is 14 and then what do you have left? He has no fundamental skills. You play to win, but you develop absolutely no skills.
"Kids need regular games to develop fundamental skills and a particular style of play so we need the season to be longer. I would like to see a kids' league that runs eight to 10 months a year which allows children to have fun but also develop their skills by playing often."
Tan knows that a football programme of this scale requires lots of coaches.
He loves numbers, thus his banking background, and he knows this venture will be costly.
In his estimation, which allocates one coach to 15 kids at a cost of $150 per session, and planning for two sessions per week, it would cost $700 a year for a child to keep up with the 35-week syllabus.
Assuming he achieves his target of reaching out to more than 15 per cent of primary school pupils, that would be around 36,000 kids at a total cost of more than $25 million.
"That's a large number, but we can look for sponsors, schools and parents to chip in one-third each, such that every kid pays just $3 per session," said Tan.
"That's the kind of money we want to have in order to promote kids football. What I'm trying to do is to get the grassroots going, and that's the first thing we ought to be working on.
"We need our stakeholders to come in and we are hoping that over the next few months we will be able to get into a position where we can launch a pilot programme and get participating schools to come in and open up football to a much wider audience."
Even as he agreed there could be hurdles down the road like National Service or further studies, Tan held firm to his belief that a wider base is paramount.
"It has been shown that Mindef can make exceptions," said Tan, who cited swimmer and Olympic medal-prospect Joseph Schooling.
"We are working on it, but the onus is on us to produce the exceptionally talented players who can then be strongly considered as the exceptions."
He needs stakeholders - the Government, Sport Singapore, schools, clubs, parents, volunteers, sponsors, coaches, players and fans - to be on board the same ship.
"The job of the FAS is to build winning teams at all levels - senior, Under-23, Under-21, Under-19, Under-17 and youth teams," he insisted.
"It's our job to build winning teams, but it is not the effort of just the FAS alone. It is also a national effort. If we want our team to take a step up, we all need to take a step up, too.
"In Birmingham county alone, there are 30,000 volunteers running grassroots football. We need that same spirit."