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In Memory of Dollah Kassim, the ‘Gelek King’ (1949-2010)

By Mark Wong, Oral History Specialist

Retired national footballer Dollah Kassim was interviewed by the Oral History Centre in 2003. Nicknamed ‘Gelek King’ for his dazzling dribbling skills, Dollah was a footballing icon of the 1970s, a period considered the golden years of post-war Singapore football. This was the era when Malaysia Cup excitement hit fever pitch, especially after the opening of the National Stadium in 1973, and members of the national team became household names and celebrities of the day. Dollah was famously vice-captain of the legendary squad that brought the Malaysia Cup back to Singapore in 1977 - the first Cup victory since 1965.

National Stadium olden days
Source: Ministry of Information and the Arts
Mass display during the opening of the National Stadium, 21 July 1973

Born on 13 March 1949 to a family of six boys and two girls, Dollah literally grew up with and around football. He not only played the game with his brothers, but also lived in a footballing community with famous neighbours, as he revealed in his interview with Oral History Centre:
All my brothers… after school (they are all in the morning session) so evening time after our homework we have the time. We are not far away from Farrer Park. Farrer Park produced many good players so I am proud to be from there. Then every evening we go down to Farrer Park to play so, I think, that’s how we love the game so much… The neighbours that I had were all involved in sports. Like George Suppiah was my immediate neighbour followed by M Ganesan, the former Chairman of FAS [Football Association of Singapore] and of course in front of my house was the great Uncle Choo Seng Quee. So, you can imagine they are all football people. How can I not play football?”

This early exposure honed his prodigious talent. Even as a young boy, he stood out among his footballing mates. In 1959, the Primary 3 Dollah became the youngest member of the Rangoon Road Primary School football squad - even though he admitted that, physically, he was not quite ready.
“I was [plump]. I have the photograph. My missus said, ‘How can you this fat boy play?’… I was, I was. Then as years went by I became smaller and smaller maybe because of too much of exercise. I was selected because I played at the inter-house competition. Last time they had inter-house and I shone, I played very well, to tell you the truth. For a Primary 3 boy, I think, the teacher was so shocked. So, [he] called me to join the school. Dribbling; that was the plus point. For a schoolboy to have the talent, skill to hold a ball, dribble, I think, that’s how the teacher saw and said, ‘You must be in the school team.’”

Dollah’s description of his primary school footballing experience is telling of an age in which expensive equipment mattered little compared to the pure joy and passion of the game:
“I know my jersey was yellow in colour, my shorts was brown - my school uniform - we don’t have proper [shorts], played barefoot in the school field -school tournaments were all barefooted in my time. Now, primary schools also use boots. My passion for the game was great…. I had a dream. I want to be a better player. My mother said, ‘Are you sure you could play for the country?’ - so discouraging - ‘Your body like that’ - kind of negative, very negative, but I know deep inside her heart she would love her son to play for the national team. So, in the end I managed to make it.”

In Serangoon English Secondary School, Dollah captained his school football team, which became Serangoon District champion. Dollah was extremely active in sports and besides football, was also an athletic champion, excelling in jump events. As for his studies, Dollah shared:
“I am an average student so I didn’t really think of having all ‘A’s. To me, I think, at that time having a pass is more than enough. Schooling to me is just, we have to go, must have the basic. But sports came along. So I think, just nice.”

Such was his passion for football that while still in secondary school, Dollah formed a football club with his family and neighbours. Based at the old Farrer Park field, many future national players got their head start at Burnley United, including Samad Alapitchay, Jafar Yacob, Lim Teng Sai, Lim Cheng Yip, S Rajagopal, Mohamad Noh, Zainal Abidin, Edmund Wee, Quah Kim Song, Lim Tien Jit and Lim Chew Peng.
“In the year 1966, the boys from my neighbourhood came around with the idea of forming a football team. So, I managed to talk to my father and my brothers [and] they agreed to put their strength together and we formed that Burnley United. They boys were all from one area; Farrer Park area and we had a good, strong team. We played friendly matches. At that time we were all barefooted, without boots and then in ’68 they had the FAS Youth Tournament, so Burnley United competed. And it so happened that we were the champions and then I was selected for the Singapore Youth Team and also the National Team in that year. I can remember at one stage we were playing in Malacca for Singapore in the Malaysia Cup. Out of 11, 10 were from Burnley United except one and that one was Jita Singh. The ten, the rest from the goalkeeper to [forward] all from Burnley United.”

Burnley United was initially coached by Dollah’s brother, Ahmad Nazir, and later, the legendary “Uncle” Choo Seng Quee, who quickly identified the teenage Dollah’s extraordinary talent.
“[‘Uncle’ Choo] realised that I do possess an extra in terms of my ball skill. I can hold the ball without any problem. I can accelerate as fast as anybody on the field and I can pass the ball very accurately. I could just put the ball where he wanted the ball to be which I think is what he saw in me at the beginning stage. So, he was around, he helped me a lot, he made me a better player. He improved my skill tremendously. So, I am happy that he was around at that time.”

Under Choo’s guidance, Dollah’s skills improved and the teenager began to get more exposure. In 1968, the 19-year-old was called up to play for both the national youth and senior teams. Dollah played his first match for the national team in an away Malaysia Cup match against Negri Sembilan, winning 3-1. This was an auspicious start, although Dollah recalled that at the time, Malaysia Cup fever had not hit Singapore yet.
“I played the game till the end. We won but at that time the Malaysia Cup was not a big thing. I think all this fanfare of the Malaysia Cup came to Singapore only after ’73 when the National Stadium was built. Prior to that the games were all played at the Jalan Besar Stadium; so the fever was not there. So, as I said, when we were in the national team prior to ’73 there was no big hoo-ha. It’s just you are in the national team so be it, nothing great. Of course as a player you benefited. I benefited in the sense that I learnt a lot from the senior players. I had the chance to travel here and there. But once the National Stadium was built the Malaysia Cup was brought to Singapore, to National Stadium right? I think the fever came back in ’74. After that, wah, the fever was great, everybody talked about Malaysia Cup, nothing else. So, we were also like big time pop stars at that time. Well [received] everywhere we went.”

One of the defining moments of Dollah’s career was the 1977 Malaysia Cup victory, in which the national team brought the Cup back to Singapore after 12 long years. The team had made it to the finals the preceding two years, but had lost to Selangor in both. The 1977 team, led by no-nonsense coach Choo Seng Quee, managed to keep their discipline and focus, coming from behind to beat Penang 3-2.

Road view
Source: Singapore Press Holdings
Causeway jam caused by hundreds of football fans driving up to Kuala Lumpur for the Malaysia Cup final between Singapore and Penang, 1977

“During the final there was something that maybe not many realised. Throughout the game we were, in a sense that, the game was quite even but I dare say we won the game, it was because we were much fitter in a sense that we prepared better than the opponent. When we held them to a draw we knew the signs were coming because most of them were down with cramps and we were still strong on the field. That shows we were much fitter. Then the thing that happened, that many didn’t realise [was that] we were down 2-0. Uncle Choo took out the Captain, Samad Alapitchay, and S Rajagopal and they were all good players you know. In the changing room during halftime and he took the band for me, so I was the Captain. I was pretty nervous. When we were in the changing room it was so quiet, nobody dared to open their mouths except him. We were all so worried.

[That] we could come back from behind, it simply shows that spirit, the mental strength that we had because with Uncle Choo, he’s a very good motivator. He speaks to you, he expects that you can turn the car upside down. That kind of fire he wants in you, he instilled into you that kind of fearless feelin that you feared no one. To him a game is like a war, you know, either you kill that guy or that guy kills you kind of mentality. So, we were all fired up. So, mentally, physically - everything - we were prepared; tactically also we were prepared.”

Quah Kim Song scored the winner, and when the final whistle blew, the Singapore fans at Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur (KL) erupted in a great frenzy.

“’Electrifying’ is the first word I can say after the finals when we won the game, you look at the celebrations; the jubilation from the Singapore crowd was fantastic. We could hardly move into our hotel in KL. It was so crowded. The whole night long we had to entertain [the fans who came to our hotel, we talked, we sat down, they wanted to know, took photographs, signing autographs, that was really wonderful. That was in KL itself. Can you imagine when we were at the airport? Wah, marvelous… well received all the way from the airport to Jalan Besar Stadium. [At the] airport, the airport workers itself already - a throng of them. I was carried, I was lifted. Even in the papers, it came out - the photos. Then from Paya Lebar Airport straight to Jalan Besar Stadium, we were paraded; wah, unofficial motorcades!”

The Singapore team continued to make it to the finals of the next four Malaysia Cup finals, losing three times to Selangor and winning once in 1980. In 1981, the 32-year old Dollah hung up his national boots to go into coaching. A match was specially organised with the Japanese team, Hitachi, for Dollah to announce his retirement.

“We won 3-1; I scored one. The game was normal but at the end of the game it really touched me where both sides lined up in two lines just to greet me. Well, I was so touched really and I handed over [a gold medallion] I cried, honestly, at the National Stadium the boys were sad. They [knew] I had been there for so long because I was the link, you know, from the ’60s to the ‘70s football.”

Dollah also shared on why he decided to retire from the national team:

“In fact only this I could say honestly to you, I would love to continue but as I said I don’t want to be disgraced on the field. I have my standards; I have made up my mind. There was no going back. No doubts I knew that was going to be my last appearance at the National Stadium. I would love to be there more but I cannot go back on my word. I love to play but I know I don’t think I can perform better than what I was performing. That’s the reason why I wanted to leave.”

Dollah’s national career spanned from 1968 to 1981, a rich period in Singapore’s football history. Dollah and his team mates gave Singaporeans something to be proud of. After his retirement in 1981, Dollah coached the Lion City Cup Team from 1981 to 1983. On 4 October 2009, Dollah collapsed while playing in the Sultan of Selangor’s Cup friendly match between former Singapore and Selangor veterans. He fell into a coma, passing away on 14 October 2010. Tributes immediately poured forth from all quarters, to a man who gave his all to his sport and nation.

Dollah Kassim in jersey
Source: Singapore Press Holdings
Dollah Kassim at Farrer Park Athletic Centre. This photograph was taken in 1983, a year after he retired from international football.

Dollah Kassim practicing football
Source: Singapore Press Holdings
Dollah Kassim (right) and Quah Kim Lye (left) training at Farrer Park Athletic Centre, 21 December 1983

To listen to the complete oral history interview with Dollah Kassim, please visit National Archives and quote the Accession No 002793 (11 reels or approximately 5 hours). The transcript is available.