A Southeast Asian explains the Cardiff situation

See all the ads behind? Except for Puma, all of these in Malaysia are His.

See all the ads behind? Except for Puma, all of these brands in Malaysia are His. Except the Visit Malaysia bit.

It’s 2014 and F Marinos win the Emperor’s Cup. Woohoo.

Well, 2013 ended in some sobering, bit pessimistic note for Asian football. Kagawa didn’t do well in Manchester United (he has not scored any goal in the league this season). Korea qualified – barely. Australia have no one to take over Cahill and Bresciano. And Southeast Asian football is sleeping. Yet, by the end of the year Japan defeated Belgium – both teams are now popular with hipsters, Son Heung-min is promising and Kim Bo-kyung and Ki Sung-yong had their 15 minutes of fame (they did cancel each other when Sunderland met Cardiff), and Australia…is optimistic as ever. Americans groaned at the World Cup draw. Australians grinned.

I regretted saying that Malky Mackay would be fired due to erratic judgment (i.e. perceived insubordination) instead of bad results. Last season, when Cardiff was still in the Championship, I made the analogy based on the case of Steve Kean (who resigned on September 2012). Turned out the same thing happened with Mackay, even when Cardiff was not on the serious danger of relegation (consider what happened to QPR last season. Harry Redknapp is still coaching them).

So, Cardiff and QPR are both owned by Malaysian tycoons. One Chinese, the other Indian. Football fans outside Asia talk about Vincent Tan on weekly basis, while Southeast Asians are more familiar with Tony Fernandes and his delightful airline deals. The way Tan and Fernandes manage their image in UK are same with the way they manage their business in Malaysia.

Like in any other Southeast Asian country, the economy in Malaysia is run by the patronage system. The Malay elites, many of them aristocrats, look after Chinese and Indian businessmen. After a big anti-Chinese riot in 1969, a half-Indian half-Malaysian MP called Mahatir Mohammed argued for affirmative action for Malays, who he saw as victims to British classical colonialism and Chinese economical colonialism. A non aristocrat, he was seen as an outsider. But he became the Prime Minister a decade later and like other governments in Southeast Asia, pushed for privatization and entrance of American and Japanese franchises.

“Vincent” Tan Chee Yioun was a young businessman with right friends – Mahatir’s nephew and brother in law. Starting from car trade deals and access to company boards, his big break came in 1985 when the government permitted sports lottery (betting) for non-Muslims.Tan got Sports Toto without any tender (auction and proposal from competing bidders) process. This video is a portfolio of Tan’s holdings in Malaysia, which includes Wendy’s and 7-Eleven. As an Asian, I’m horrified with this North Korean style Glee. But it’s normal in parts of Asia.

Tony Fernandes, on the other hand, presented a more British image. A protege of Richard Branson, he worked in the music industry in Britain and Malaysia (including Virgin and Warner) before buying AirAsia and turned it into Asia’s first successful budget airline in the image of Virgin airways (attractive and casual stewardess, hip and youthful ads, ala carte flight amenities). Fernandes is not a taipan in the fashion of Tan, but like every other rich guy in Malaysia, he has to have good relationship with the government – the Barisan National coalition and its core, the UMNO Malay supremacist party.

John Duerden went to Malaysia to talk with football people about Tan. He found English coaches who said Malaysian football bosses are all like Tan, Malay ministers who said he’s alright, and Malay journalists who said they just relayed stories from UK instead of writing their own.

So where’s the Chinese Malaysian voice in this story? First, Malaysian football is like that – the clubs are owned by state governments or government bodies. Most of the domestic players are Malays, with some Indians and very few Chinese thrown in (Arabs by default are seen as Malays or Muslim Indians). Urban Malaysians have little interest in domestic football and Chinese Malaysians certainly watch Barcelona and Manchester…City..United? instead of Selangor. The best teams in Malaysia are from eastern and northeastern states with big Malay population, anyway.

In short, Tan’s cake in Malaysia is Wendys – his football business has to be outside Malaysia. His ambition in owning Cardiff is to make profit, while hoping that some Malaysians and Singaporeans would support it like some Asians support Tottenham, Manchester City, or Everton. More importantly, the Malaysian government needs him to fund the BIG ad which you can find on a red Cardiff shirt. So Tan gets the money and the Malaysian government gets the pride. Nevermind the boos from Bluebirds fans, as they don’t get reported in Malaysia. First the newspapers still need 7-11 ads. Second, Malaysians really cannot care about Cardiff the way they cannot care about QPR.

Along the way, of course, Tan’s big ego causes him greater exposure than he wants in Britain (Cardiff, of course, is a Welsh team). He could just let Mackay got the applause. But that’s the way he (and other tycoons) lives in Malaysia – he has to become God just like Kim Jong-un and the other dead Kims. If you could stomach the video above, you could see that he’s so used to hear other people saying they cannot live without him. I really cannot believe he expected the Cardiff supporters to cheer him – did Mancunians ever cheer for the emirs or the Glazers? Did Chelsea supporters ever say thank you to Abramovich? No, and the owner needs no thank – it’s the players, the manager, and the staff who need to be thanked.

So I guess what’s wrong with Vincent Tan is that he has this dream that Cardiff has to be like Kuala Lumpur. His part of Kuala Lumpur (not UMNO’s) where staff bow down to him. There have been comparisons between him and Carson Yeung, and as a Chinese I wonder if they are both awful like that because they are both Chinese tycoons. Little emperors of China who think they own the world. While in Hong Kong and Malaysia there are a dozen more like them. Again, I believe the decision to buy Cardiff City does not come only from Tan who wants profit, but also from the Malaysian government who wants advertisement and prestige (just like Qatar with Barcelona and Azerbaijan with Atletico Madrid). Asian. Football. Bloody hell.

There you have it folks. I believe some Malaysians take Vincent Tan as a shame of the nation, but most Malaysians, or any other Asians, don’t care. There are dozens like him in the region, Cardiff is not a big team, and no matter how much Malay elites privately despise Chinese – let alone a tycoon – they do not say anything bad about him. After all, he’s doing his job for the country (not).

Phew, all this writing saved me the pain of watching Kagawa playing terribly. He really has lost it.

UPDATE: Turns out Tan owns Kedah FA and also changes its color to red. If blue was the color chosen by Cardiff City more than a century ago, then green and yellow reflects Kedah’s strongly Islamic heritage. And mind bogglingly, it can be changed into the very Chinese red. More interestingly, the chairman of Kedah FA (playing in second tier Malaysian Premier League) is the son of Mahatir.

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