Chess in crisis in Singapore?

FEBRUARY 4 ― Last week, the Singapore Chess Federation (SCF) held an Extra-Ordinary General Meeting which was called by over 50 chess personalities past and present, many of whom were practically a living Who's Who of Singapore chess.

Among them were former SCF presidents and exco, World Chess Federation (FIDE) titled players including national champions and members of the national team.

This was unprecedented especially when the incumbent SCF exco was hardly six months into its term. However, several of its exco had already resigned and they are still without an Honorary Secretary.

In the region and for much of the world, SCF was the model of an excellent national chess federation, boasting its own office, a large staff including national team trainers and healthy surpluses.

What went wrong? It started with long-time SCF President Ignatius Leong, also the incumbent FIDE General Secretary and founding ACC (ASEAN Chess Confederation) president throwing in his lot with 13th World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov at the FIDE Election held in August 2014.

This proved to be a disaster after numerous missteps made by the Kasparov-Leong ticket against a career Russian politician who won in a landslide.

With this, the chess world was never going to be the same and the state of FIDE and world chess today fully confirms that it is now all about geo-politics and authoritarian rule even as a new generation of hangers-on have emerged to take the place of some of the older deadwood in FIDE.

Leong, like Kasparov, was formally banned by FIDE from holding office and participating in any official FIDE event for two years.

From what I understand after talking to many who attended, the EOGM was called over a number of issues but these were not addressed by the incumbent leadership despite repeated promises by its president to do so. Instead,  a vote was rammed through as quickly as they could and the incumbents won by a 2-1 margin.

This was very disappointing not only for those who called for the EOGM but others who attended with an open mind.

It is not a problem if the support was real for the SCF leadership but it seems that on receipt of the EOGM notice, they went on a recruitment drive to bulk up their support, something I immediately predicted would happen  when the notice was first published.

At the same time, many who sought to renew their membership had their applications rejected or put on hold.

Perhaps the blog post from a complete neutral, Dr Hsu Li Yang, a strong International master in his time who is also a former national champion, describes best what happened at the EOGM. When I asked him on Facebook how the shocking treatment of IM Tan Lian Ann, a Singapore legend of the game who is still giving time and money for chess, could happen, this was his polite but damning answer: 

“The heckling was when he first stood up to speak, Peter Long. Of course Lian Ann is experienced and he made a joke (about old men needing beauty sleep if I remember correctly) to defuse the tension. Then he asked the SCF committee to answer a point of integrity ― whether they were willing to proclaim that they had not accepted new members since the EOGM letter of requisition was received (since many membership renewals failed to take place). And the committee chose to keep silent.”

It is indeed alarming for Singapore chess that they now have an exco that does not include a single chess player, instead it is made up almost entirely of parents. And when the chess community took it upon themselves to get together to do something for the game they had devoted huge amounts of time and money to, they did not even have an opportunity to debate issues which was the point of the EOGM.

Chess is very much, maybe too much, about children nowadays and as I have pointed out before, what I have seen change is the emergence of newly activist parents willing to take over and run national chess federations and this SCF is conclusive proof.

There are some who argue they don't know enough to succeed but there are always opportunists who will latch on.

One somewhat frustrated feedback I got was that for too many, the EOGM was about bringing Leong back into SCF. They could not understand how anyone could believe that when he was banned by FIDE for two years, but then again the issues raised for the EOGM never got a hearing.

It did not help either that present too at the EOGM was FIDE Vice President D.V. Sundar as the so-called FIDE observer. This is quite unprecedented and in fact would be construed in many countries as interference in their affairs. It does seem that FIDE is still obsessed with Leong who has been very much part of them for too long and so are siding with anyone they believe is against him, hence its extraordinary backing for this exco.

But it is not about Ignatius Leong, his time is over and the EOGM was not called by him. Both sides are in agreement that a different leadership and perhaps direction for chess in Singapore is needed.

SCF is certainly now in full-blown crisis with the chess players and the parents on opposing sides but the reality is that both need each other to succeed. In fact in many cases the lines are blurred as their individual roles change over time.

It is for Singapore to solve but it is certain that an exco based on exclusion and without having earned a real mandate is not going to have a happy ending.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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