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Putting S'pore on radar of world sport

THE BBC wanted to know how much money he really had. Sky Sports television inquired about his intentions. The Scottish Sun newspaper simply wanted to know his personal history, and how his surname was pronounced.

In a matter of days, S-League club chairman Bill Ng has gone from an elusive face in Singapore football to one of the most sought-after figures in British sport, after he was unmasked as one of the bidders for ailing Scottish football giants Glasgow Rangers.

Mr Ng is now a front runner in the race to own the 141-year-old football club, which went into insolvency last month following tax disputes. Judging from the media frenzy, he is also the man who has put Singapore back on the radar of world sports.

The only question is: Will it be for the right reasons?

Rangers are Scotland's best supported team, alongside their fierce rivals Celtic. The Glasgow club, once Uefa Cup Winners' Cup champions, have 54 Scottish league titles - more than any other club in any top-flight league in the world.

Now in financial ruin with debts potentially rising past the £130million (S$261 million) mark and facing the threat of liquidation, the Glasgow powerhouse have found an unlikely ally from Singapore, a country which has never made much of an impact in global football.

The Republic - once accused by Fifa of housing an 'academy of match-fixers' - has a national team ranked 158th in the world, out of 205 countries. The S-League, in which Mr Ng owns the Hougang United franchise, is a modest competition with equally modest attendances.

There is still some way to go before the five-man Singapore consortium led by Mr Ng can plant their flag at the summit of Scottish football, but their journey there could help score a crucial goal for Singapore's branding.

Whether he likes it or not, Mr Ng - a director of private equity firm Financial Frontiers - is now the country's most high-profile football ambassador.

If he succeeds where billionaire Peter Lim failed with his bid to buy Liverpool in 2010, he could pave the way for wealthy Singaporeans and major local corporations to take bolder steps into world sport.

There are benefits too, for our young footballers.

When Malaysia's Berjaya Group took over Cardiff City, the club in the second division of English football, two years ago, they put in place a multi-year youth development scheme targeted at 100,000 children in Malaysia. Cardiff's coaches will also be training their Malaysian counterparts.

Mr Ng is eyeing a similar model, one that could reap immediate benefits for the national youth team, which clinched a bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games.

Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, a Singaporean could play in the Scottish Premier League (SPL), and follow in the time-worn footsteps of Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy, who were the last local footballers to ply their trade in Europe.

But the sword swings both ways.

Failure to cough up the cash required to buy the club would be embarrassing. Even if he does succeed in his bid, the British media and Scottish fans will pounce if he does not make good on his promises to revive the club.

His motives are already being scrutinised. A debt-laden football club with limited global reach does not sound like the best investment choice for a former stockbroker who made his fortune based on shrewd decision-making.

The takeover will cost his consortium at least £20 million initially - a costly punt for a club with a reported base of only 5.5 million fans around the world, compared to the 350 million who follow English champions Manchester United.

There are other problems to contend with. The honey pot for Rangers is the millions a club gets through television rights by qualifying for major European competitions, such as the elite Uefa Champions League.

But this could vanish if Rangers lose their European licensing as a result of their current financial state.

Even the Scottish league's television deal with British broadcaster Sky is dependent on the health of Rangers and arch-rivals Celtic. Should either drop out of the top division - a distinct possibility for Rangers should they be liquidated - the deal could be terminated.

Rangers are a risky bet at best, and Mr Ng - who has put up his own money to run Hougang United - will know that football investment rarely pays.

Even the hugely-popular English Premier League struggles to stay out of the red - 16 out of 20 clubs recorded losses last year, collectively close to half a billion pounds. With lower budgets and entertainment levels, the SPL can only be considered its poorer cousin.

So why would a Singaporean with limited knowledge of the British football industry want to gamble against the odds?

Mr Ng insists he is a lifelong Rangers fan - a claim which has been met by cynicism from the club's fanatical supporters.

Some speculate that his bid is simply a publicity stunt. Others are suspicious of this fiercely-private individual, who has kept a lid on his financial package for Rangers, his true net worth and the identity of his mysterious partners.

In Glasgow, trust is in short supply.

Rangers fans were already taken in once by the previous owner Craig Whyte, who sank the club deeper into debt despite the grand promises he made when he took over last year.

Fan support also translates to fan dollars in season tickets and merchandising - and that will be a critical revenue stream should the TV money dry up.

As former Rangers chairman Alastair Johnston said recently, 'fans have the tap that turns on the oil'.

It is appropriate then, that Mr Ng has been cast in the role of a prospector, who will have to convince creditors, administrators and a distrustful Scottish public that he deserves to assume one of the most powerful positions in Scottish sport.

Whether he succeeds, it is imperative that he does it the right way - and for the right intentions.

nsanjay@sph.com.sg