Singapore Sports Hub Pitch Fiasco: The Untold Story

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist. He worked at the former Singapore Sports Council before covering local and international sports for Channel NewsAsia for several years. Like his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports for commentaries on sports issues that matter to Singaporeans.


By Michael Y.P. Ang

What’s happened in Singapore football, off the pitch, the past few days was more intriguing than even the most fiercely contested S-League match.

Few would have expected another football flip-flop, just days after last Saturday’s S-League announcement about the reversal of a recently introduced age-discriminatory policy.

But the TODAY newspaper, with its Nov 26 front-page headline “National Stadium to switch to artificial turf”, reported that SportsHub Pte Ltd (SHPL), the company managing the Singapore Sports Hub, was about to re-lay Singapore’s most famous football ground with an artificial turf.

The paper found itself making a U-turn 24 hours later (links to its original story have also been removed), carrying a correction in its Voices section to announce that its artificial-turf report was wrong, or at least premature.

Thanks to the hard work of stadium ground staff, the Kallang turf is less sandy now than during the Brazil-Japan match last month, but SHPL has yet to fully resolve the pitch problem. An artificial turf is among different options being considered and discussions are still ongoing, according to a spokesperson.

But the glaring issue remains, after years of planning and construction and billions thrown into the project, why and how has it come to this?

Three lingering issues

A Nov 27 Straits Times report shows that SHPL will bear the cost of providing an ideal pitch, but who will foot the bill for the $1.5 million spent on new lighting equipment for enhancing the quality of the problematic pitch?

Under the public-private partnership between the government and SHPL, Singaporean taxpayers are on the hook for the Sports Hub’s construction and operational costs. Would taxpayer money be required to fund the cost of rectifying a problem SHPL should have prevented in the first place?

Secondly, why was SHPL CEO Philippe Collin Delavaud’s subordinate, COO Oon Jin Teik, the one facing the media and making apologies last month? Isn’t it unfair to the former Singapore Olympic swimmer, who joined SHPL only a month before the stadium’s June reopening?

It would have been more appropriate for the Frenchman, who’s been at the helm since 2010, to be in the public eye during a crisis.

Workers maintain the pitch after a soccer training by Brazil's national team ahead of their friendly soccer match against Japan in Singapore October 13, 2014. The New Zealand Maori's non-cap rugby test against the invitational Asia Pacific Dragons in Singapore next month is in doubt as the hosts battle to repair a problematic pitch at their new National Stadium. The surface was laid in May but lacked an appropriate bedding period and has been re-seeded four times, staff said on Monday, as they try to cope with the demands of hosting so many different events in a tropical climate. The sandy pitch, with plenty of bare patches, will host Brazil in a soccer friendly against Asian Cup holders Japan on Tuesday, with organisers of the Southeast Asian soccer championships voicing concerns about Singapore's ability to part-stage their event in late November-early December. REUTERS/Edgar Su (SINGAPORE - Tags: SPORT SOCCER RUGBY)

Thirdly, why was SHPL’s senior director of stadia Greg Gillin, the person overseeing the pitch installation, working on a major overseas project during the crucial final months of construction at the Sports Hub?

Within three months of joining SHPL in April 2013, Gillin was hired as a pitch consultant for the Indian Super League (ISL). The Australian soon became a frequent flyer to India, visiting ten sports centres, eight of which were eventually selected as ISL stadiums.

This year, from May to October alone, Gillin “made around 120 visits to the eight venues”to ensure that they met international standards.

To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with engaging in external work. But puzzlingly, Gillin was spending time away from Singapore when he himself had expected “teething problems” at the rebuilt National Stadium.

The ISL kicked off on Oct 12, and there’s been no pitch fiasco reported in India. Why was Gillin able to do so much and so well for eight stadiums overseas but not for the only stadium he is responsible for in his full-time job?

The Straits Times reported on Oct 14 that “The Sports Hub have flown in overseas consultants such as Alex Garbea, who was responsible for … the best field at the recent World Cup in Brazil”.

Is it logical that the Sports Hub’s own pitch chief was consulting overseas while the Sports Hub was forced to hire foreign consultants to find solutions to its own pitch problem?

Such a fiasco would have been unlikely had Sport Singapore been chosen to manage the National Stadium. After all, it has an outstanding record of running Singapore’s largest sporting arena for 37 consecutive years.

Ultimately, the question should be: “Is a public-private partnership like the one at the Sports Hub the best way to build and operate a cluster of highly important, public sports facilities?”.

We should find an answer quickly, because like it or not, we’re stuck with the arrangement for the next quarter-century.



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