Winston Lee’s charmed existence in the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) has finally come to an end after 18 years, nine of them as its general secretary. It was an end that even the master operator could not have scripted. Still, he somehow managed to survive even after eight months into a police investigation over accusations of misuse of funds. And finally, when the governing body of Singapore sport (Sport SG) tightened its funding screws on the FAS, he must have sensed the end was in sight.
Lee’s durability in FAS was planned and executed meticulously. He worked his way into the good books of his bosses in the FAS Council and won over the media with his understated style, affability and charm. I spoke to two sources who gave some fascinating insights into how Lee managed to pull off his spectacular rise from marketing and communications director at FAS to the CEO of the S-League and finally to Singapore football’s top administrator.
The two sources I spoke to shared their insights into Lee’s survival master plan. “He was so powerful and so adept at micromanaging that nearly nothing could be done without his go-ahead,” said one source. Another said: “He was hardly in the limelight. That was his magic, like the CEO who managed to hide behind the chairman of a company.”
Lee, 52, knew a story-hungry media’s fault line and exploited it to the full. The source said that Lee made it a point to make sure his name hardly made to print, especially when issues were boiling. “Even when he does speak, he usually asks that he isn’t quoted directly and that we say that the quote is from FAS.” He was very media friendly and would talk to journalists on an off-the-record basis. “And when he wanted a favour, he would say: Do me a favour and clarify this point.”
Lee’s honeymoon began to unravel after businessman and Tiong Bahru Football Club chairman, Bill Ng, dropped a bombshell in April regarding a donation of $500,000 the latter made to the FAS. The money was for the Asian Football Confederation, of which Lee became a vice-president two years ago. Lee says he asked for that money because the FAS president at that time, Zainudin Nordin, told him to. The investigation will hopefully unearth the why, where and how of that controversial donation. The donation rocked the football fraternity and gave Singaporeans a peek into how FAS was managed. First, the donation was not cleared with the FAS Council and second, such a large sum went to an outside organization at a time when Singapore football had the need for that kind of money. The issues of transparency and a cosy culture at the top levels of management became the subject of corridor talk.
Even then, Lee stayed on as general secretary until he resigned a week ago. Why the FAS Council allowed it is still a mystery, especially in a Singapore where a suspension is usually the norm. Hopefully, FAS will learn the lessons and tighten its procedures and never allow a repeat of the Winston Lee affair. But a FAS press release announcing Lee’s resignation was full of praise for him and his contributions; not a hint was made of the investigations and how the football administration has fallen into a mess because of the allegations. It looks like the lessons have to be imposed on FAS by Singapore’s governing body of sports.