They took on the Manchester United of teams, and brought home the National Championship.
Eleven boys, one Volkswagen Beetle and one dedicated teacher. It was 1972. The teacher were shuttling the kampong boys from one part of Singapore to another to play football. It was a great adventure since the mainland is not a familiar place for these scrawny boys from St John’s Island (Pulau Sekijang Bendera), only 11-12 years of age.
St John’s Island English School was one of the two English medium schools on the Southern Islands. At any one time, it housed only 100-120 students.
But that didn’t stop former teacher and coach Choo Huay Kim, 68, from wanting to train the best football team in Singapore. Choo was born on St John’s Island in 1946, then known as on Pulau Sekijang Bendera. Back then, St John’s Island was a quarantine station. There were no doctors on the island – only two midwives, one of whom delivered Choo .
I feel for the island boys, because I was an island boy myself.
Choo Huay Kim, teacher and football coach, St John’s Island English School (1966-1976)
Choo received his education from mainland, waking up in the wee hours everyday to take the ferry and bus. In 1963, he joined the teaching profession. Three years later, he was posted back to his birthplace – St John’s Island – where he taught for the next 10 years.
When they became National Champions in 1972, and it was a big thing for the islanders.
Choo Huay Kim, 68, teacher and football coach at St John’s Island English School
Going to the mainland for competitions wasn’t a given – it was a privilege earned with determination and hard work.
Hussein ‘Eddy’ Ibrahim recalls that training under Choo was no walk in the park. Every morning the boys would wake up before sunrise to run barefooted by the beach, and sprint zig-zag up the infamous 45-degree slope.
Being poor islanders, every aspect of their sport went back to basics. Even the player numbers were sewn on personally by their parents – onto their own t-shirts, no less because no one could afford new jerseys.
Some games we scored 22-0.
Hussein Ibrahim “Eddy”, former St John’s Island English School football vice-captain
Despite being pint-sized islanders, these boys more than made up for it with their agility and skill on the pitch.
In fact, when Pesta Sukan – a sports festival conceived by the then Ministry of Culture in 1964 – opened at Jalan Besar stadium in 1972, his boys were invited to play the curtain-raiser match with St. Michael’s School (now St. Joseph’s Institution Junior).
Choo went on teach at St John’s Island English School until it was closed down in 1976. When asked how long he would have stayed as a teacher there, he answered, in a matter-of-fact manner: “It was a paradise. I would have stayed there forever.”
We were up against St. Michael’s School – the ‘Manchester United’ of schools back then – and it was not going to be easy. All of us were tiny islander boys.
Hashim Daswan, St John’s Island English school footballer