'Who was the best Quah to have played for Singapore?'
There was still over an hour to go before kick-off.
The National Stadium, packed with a record 60,000 crowd, was already a cauldron of detonating noise.
Quah Kim Lye and his teammates were walking towards the imposing Kallang venue, ready for the 1973 South-east Asian Peninsular (SEAP) Games football semi-finals against South Vietnam.
Suddenly an excited pregnant lady approached him, pleading, "Lye, I want to get in."
A flummoxed Kim Lye was lost, momentarily.
Taking pity, he called out to M. Kumar and two other teammates and helped the pregnant lady up a wall and into the stadium at a time when security was lax - the policemen were absorbed in the goings-on inside the stadium.
"We played football with passion and pride. We played the game for ourselves, the country or club, and, as importantly, for fans like that lady," said Kim Lye.
Now, 73, and having chalked up about 20 years with the Singapore team, Kim Lye reflected on football in an interview over lunch at Beach Road on Tuesday.
He beamed: "I've been busy with the Lunar New Year house spring-cleaning over the last two days, but since you want to talk about football, and the SEA (South-east Asia) Games, I've made time for that.
"Football has been my pastime, then serious indulgence, a passport to my only job, a national sporting career, and, in fact, life,"
Then he joked: "It's probably the only thing I do right, right?"
Nobody can argue with that.
FAMILY OF FOOTBALLERS
Born into that famous family of footballers, Kim Lye was the fifth of Quah Heck Hock's sons to don national colours, after a historic trend started by No. 2 brother Kim Beng in 1952, followed by Kim Swee, Kim Choon (briefly) and Kim Siak.
After him came the speed demon Kim Song, who also brought the Quah football chapter to a close in 1983.
Ironically, eldest brother Kim Thuan dreaded football but enjoyed golf, and youngest brother Kim Tiong shunned football and was a national track athlete with a SEA Games gold and silver medal to boast.
Sisters Theresa, Doreen and Rosa also played football for the Singapore women's national team.
It has been 40 years since Kim Lye hung up his boots, but just like he was to the pregnant lady fan, he remains a recognisable face - during the one-hour interview five passers-by walked up to him to greet him, one Indian man even ad-libbing: "You play football, good; nowadays bad."
"It's fans like these who provide the bread and butter for footballers," Kim Lye said.
"Without these cheering fans who pay to watch us play, we find it hard to raise our game and perform. We owe them a big gratitude."
Perhaps then, he and the rest of the 1973 SEAP Games team owe a big apology to the 60,000 paying fans and more at home for that heartbreaking semi-final loss to South Vietnam.
Singapore were leading through Kim Lye's goal in the 61st minute but Vietnam swiftly equalised two minutes later due to a defensive error in the hosts' rear ranks.
And in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, Singapore lost 5-3 on penalties and missed out on the final, which Burma won by beating South Vietnam 3-2.
Kim Lye could only watch the last 10 minutes from the bench after he suffered a left knee injury and was replaced by Lee Teik Ngee.
"I was in tears at the final whistle. I couldn't believe what I saw. I was already thinking of headlines about me after the goal.
"Mind you, I had retired from football and was out for almost two years. I came back mainly because of my wife Shirley's plea, for a national cause."
He elaborated: "I was resting at home, in my Toa Payoh apartment, not far from what was going to be the 'heartlands' Games Village comprising four point-block flats.
"Suddenly there was a knock on my door. In walked then national coach, Englishman Michael Walker, and my brother Song.
"Mike asked that I return to the team for the SEAP Games because of my playing experience. I was already 31 and was almost two years away from the game. I was reluctant to get back.
"Not after the bitter disagreements with the FAS (Football Association of Singapore) two years prior that made me quit the game.
"But Mike and Song were persuasive. Finally, Shirley convinced me that I should return, especially because the Games was in Singapore.
"And I agreed, but turned down the offer to be captain, which was then given to Seak Poh Leong.
"Subsequently I found myself working hard at training to get myself back to my former great form."
It was Kim Lye's scoring form - he was Singapore's topscorer for the 1973 SEAP Games with three goals - that carried the Republic into the semi-finals.
The sad ending to the Games pained him so much that he used to have nightmares about the semi-final, especially because he was in a helpless situation on the bench during the penalty shoot-out, his knee in bandage.
Can the current Young Lions squad win an unprecedented SEA Games gold for Singapore this June?
"I wish, because like my 1973 team, they'll be playing in a new stadium, but at the same venue.
"But I don't think so, certainly not going by their performances in the build-up matches.
"We have been very disappointing but, hopefully, they'll pick up," he replied.
Kim Lye played for another year and helped Singapore reach the semi-finals of the Malaysia Cup where Singapore were knocked out by Penang, a crunching tackle by Malaysian international fullback Namat Abdullah in the away leg putting paid to his knee again.
The last two years of his comeback could have been sweeter for Kim Lye, who was a loyal employee with Singapore Pools for 32 years before he retired in 2002.
But the grandfather of three believes football, a game he "inherited" from his older brothers while he was a kid at Canberra Primary School, gave him some great moments.
Like when he scored a hat-trick (the other two goals came from Kim Swee and Majid Ariff) in the 5-0 victory over South Vietnam in the 1966 Asian Games when the Republic needed that tally to qualify for the quarter-finals.
Like when he played for coach Kim Swee, with brothers Kim Siak and Kim Song in a Malaysian Chinese Football Association Cup final against Perak and scored five goals in the 8-0 record whitewash.
The inevitable question next: "Who was the best Quah to have played for Singapore?"
Said Kim Lye: "This question always crops up from friends when we the family members are together. Even from those days when we used to meet up at dad's place at Kampong Wak Hassan in Sembawang every Sunday and at Lunar New Year gatherings.
"It's still been talked about at our Sunday meetings at the late Thuan's (oldest brother) terrace home at Sembawang Hills Estate or at youngest brother Tiong's apartment at Toa Payoh.
He added: "That's a question not for me to answer. I believe each of us had a speciality.
"Fullback Beng was dogged in his defending, winger Swee was known for his brilliant headers, forward Choon was stylish with great dribbling skills, midfielder Siak had good reading and great vision, winger Song had lightning pace and dash.
"And, importantly, I knew how best to put the ball in the net."
No doubt, not all his relatives and friends will buy that answer.
Yesterday, when the Quahs meet at Tiong's apartment for yet another Lunar New Year gathering, other family members, or friends, would have raised the subject.
Whatever the verdict, everyone will agree that Kim Lye and his siblings provided yeoman footballing service to Singapore, an exciting 31 years in all.
For that, we salute them.
I was in tears at the final whistle. I couldn’t believe what I saw. I was already thinking of headlines about me after the goal.
— Quah Kim Lye on the 1973 SEAP Games semi-final defeat
The SEA Games in Singapore is 104 days away. Thirty six national sports associations are going full steam with their preparations for the biennial event. The New paper will put you — our readers — in the mood with insightful stories about the goings-on as we build towards the June showpiece. As the nation celebrates Chinese New Year, we feature three athletes who left their mark as Singapore’s SEA Games heroes.