For most Singaporeans, the name Malek Awab will bring back memories of a time when Singapore football was at its greatest peak. To the man himself though, Malek was just an ordinary footballer making a living out of the one thing he was passionate about - football.
I had the opportunity recently to sit down with Malek over a cup of teh tarik as we talked about his life, from his childhood to the glory days, to his secrets to success and to what he has been up to since retiring close to two decades ago.
Malek Awab had always been in love with football since he could first remember.
When he was 15, his friend helped him get a job selling ‘kuachi’ (sunflower seeds) at the old National Stadium during football matches. It was a job that Malek took very seriously.
He recounted having to walk around the stadium shouting ‘Drinks, Keropok (crackers), Kuachi’ during matches. Sometimes, the crowd shouted at him to get out of the way because he was disrupting their view of the game.
But Malek was undeterred by the crowd’s rowdiness.
“It was during that time [selling kuachis] that I dreamed of becoming a professional footballer,” Malek recollected on the moment he decided to make football a livelihood.
However, his journey to become a footballer was not as plain sailing as one would expect.
When Malek was in school, he was told that he was too small to play football. In fact, Malek started his sporting career playing badminton first.
“The teachers in school did not select me because my body frame was too small. I couldn’t join the combined school team as well,” he explained.
“I really just wanted to get out of school actually, so I played badminton when I couldn’t play football,” Malek said cheekily.
His badminton stint did not last very long as his then-classmate, Syed Anwar, brought him along to try out for the Farrer Park United youth team one day.
“The best part was, when he [Syed Anwar] roped me in; I got selected, but he didn’t!” Malek exclaimed before he burst out laughing.
It was during that time that he was spotted by then national coach Jita Singh, who brought him in to the national team. Malek remembers that date clearly: October 13, 1980.
As they say, the rest is history.
Mr. Four Lungs
It is a little known fact that Malek was known to be one of, if not, the fittest player in the national team at that time. With fitness being a key component of development for the current national team (as claimed by current Singapore coach Bernd Stange), I had to ask Malek what the secret to his fitness was.
But Malek humbly denied that he was the fittest player. He did, however, share the secret to his incredible stamina. For one, he would always be going for a run in his free time.
More importantly, it was his desire to take his football career seriously that greatly contributed to his supreme levels of fitness.
“I take it (football) as my rice bowl; it is my passion and career mixed together,” Malek said.
“Training with the team is not enough [to be fit]. You must do more than what the team normally does. Everyone targets to play for 90 minutes, but my target is to play for 120 minutes. That should be the way!”
Any conversation with Malek will never be complete without touching on the ‘Glory Days’ of the Dream Team that won the Malaysia League and Cup double in 1994.
While winning the double with the Singapore team was definitely a highlight, it was his time playing in Kuala Lumpur that he holds most dear.
“Honestly, I’ve won four medals; three of them were from when I played for KL (Kuala Lumpur FA), and those were one of the best times in my life,” Malek reminisced.
“The money was little, but the happiness; you cannot buy it. It was different during the time when I played for Singapore.
“People always talk about my time in Singapore, but my best time was when I was playing for KL.”
When asked why his KL playing days was the best, he simply said that it was because of the traveling.
“You can’t imagine how it’s like when you travel with a group of footballers,” Malek said.
“The happiness and togetherness is indescribable. This is the thing I remember most.”
Malek recounted the three concurrent years from 1987 to 1989 when the KL team traveled to Slovakia to train during pre-season, as he added: “I can still visualise the place that I went to, the place we went to train, and this was in Slovakia 20 years ago!"
“I can recall very clearly where I sat, where I played, where I slept and where we (his teammates) sat down and chatted. I tell you, those were the best times. The happiness we felt was amazing.”
“You cannot cheat your age,” Malek answered when I asked him about his decision to retire in 1998.
“Everyone wants to go to their maximum, but you cannot. I had to think of my other commitments like work and family.”
Malek has been working as a sales manager for Pacific Sports Private Limited for the past 30 years, a career he had started even as he was playing football professionally.
“In those days Singapore didn’t have a professional league, so we used to juggle playing football and working," he explained.
“All along I’ve been working here (Pacific Sports Pte. Ltd). I was already working when I signed a professional contract and when I was in the national team.”
According to Malek, he had no problems balancing both careers concurrently: “My boss is really understanding. He was a former sportsman himself. He knows what it’s like to juggle both careers."
“When I was away in KL for five years, I was still in contact with my boss. We have an office in KL, so I ended up helping out and working over there.”
Interestingly enough, unlike his legendary football counterparts like Fandi Ahmad and V. Sundramoorthy, Malek has no interest in football coaching.
“I already have a full time job and I’m happy working there,” Malek said without hesitation.
“A lot of people want me to be more involved with coaching. But I will only do it for fun or when I want to help out.”
Currently, Malek coaches children at the Kaki Bukit Sports Club every Sunday morning.
Malek then shared with me a motto he has lived by since young and has been inculcating to his young charges at Kaki Bukit Sports Club.
“Michael J. Fox always says 'There’s no short cut to success',” he said, referencing the star of the Back to the Future films.
“If you've got no discipline, you cannot drive your car back home, and you will never reach your house.”
When I first approached Malek Awab for an exclusive interview, he had jokingly asked if I was prepared to write a book. It was only after our chat did I look back at what he first said and realised that perhaps, Malek was not lying at all.
Malek Awab will forever be remembered as being part of the Dream Team that reached the absolute pinnacle of Singapore football. But he is much more than just a football legend. He is a man every person, footballer or not, can take inspiration from as a figure of hard work and success.