Cultivating sports in new Malaysia


On THE morning of Aug 31, 2018, I watched the National Day parade on television with a fresh sense of pride. It was the first National Day celebration after the regime change. I saw the joy on the faces of my colleagues as they stood at the grand stand watching the parade. I am sure the feeling was profound.

My own National Day celebration was no less intense.

On the night of Aug 31, by the windy bay of the Java Sea, in the ancient Nusantara city of Jayakarta, Malaysians, including myself, who were gathered at the 2018 Asian Games sailing venue, sang Negaraku zealously as we watched the Jalur Gemilang rising at the podium. Our young sailor Mohammad Fauzi Kaman Shah, only 16 years old, had won gold in the sailing open laser 4.7 event.

Sports can bring out the best in humanity. In sports, we see the camaraderie, the pursuit of excellence and the unyielding human spirit. In our uncertain times, these are the values we desperately need.

Our Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah wowed the Malaysian public and perhaps charmed leaders from our neighbouring country, the Philippines, when he played a game of basketball with his counterpart from the Philippines. He called it “sports diplomacy”.

But it gets even better.

In politics, there are North Korea and South Korea; but in sports, we have a Unified Korea. And in the 2018 Asian Games, the Unified Korea team won a historic gold medal, as well as one silver and two bronze.

This reminded me of what must have been one of the greatest football matches in history. The match was between England and Germany, but it was not played in the World Cup, nor on regular turf. It was played on the rugged war-torn field at the France-Belgium border when enemy soldiers declared an unofficial ceasefire on Christmas of 1914, and played a game of football. What a moment of peace, and sanity, in the middle of the chaos and destruction of the Great War.

Many Malaysians can still remember fondly the memories of our ferocious “Harimau Malaya” as they fought hard and qualified for the 1980 Olympics. Rainbow-coloured Malaysians stood together behind our equally rainbow-coloured national team.

From our vantage point today where race and religion not only define us, but also divide us; Soh Chin Aun, Hassan Sani, R Arumugam and the rest of the “Harimaus” seemed to have lived in better and saner times. They were heroic not only in their individual skills, but in their ability to work as a team, as Malaysians.

For those in our generation, surely we recall the utterly Malaysian moment when every Malaysian, for even a short while, set aside race and religion (and political party) to cheer for Lee Chong Wei as he successfully entered the 2008 Olympic Games badminton final against China. Despite being accustomed to insulting calls to “balik China”, no Malaysian of Chinese descent would thought at that moment to support Lee’s People’s Republic of China opponent.

And boy, Lee represented all of us as proud Malaysians. No one questioned his colour nor his creed, only his capability in the court mattered.

Speaking of capability, I was at the Gelora Bung Karno hockey field in Jakarta when our boys played in the final against Japan. It was a very intense game. We were leading 4-1 by the second period and I was impressed by our boys’ skillful game especially during the first half of the match. But Japan proved to be a formidable opponent. Not only did we saw a consistent show of energy from start till the end, the Japanese actually upped their ante as the match moved into the second half. It was a brilliant game. We lost, but not before putting up a good fight.

Our boys, along with thousands of fans watching at the stadium in Jakarta and at home, were visibly dejected. When I spoke to them after the game, I saw one of our players, Syed Saffiq’s head was bandaged. Like many fans, I actually thought that it was a bandana when I saw him playing. Only then I realised that it was a head wound sustained from another earlier fiery match with India, which our team won. Despite 11 stitches, Syed Saffiq insisted to play in the final. If ever anyone doubts the “Malaysia Boleh” spirit, tell them about Syed Saffiq.

Just hours before the hockey final, I also managed to catch our squash men’s team in action, competing in the final against Hong Kong. We did not expect a gold from this event. After losing one set and winning another, I asked my official on the prospect of our third player Ng Eain Yow against Hong Kong gold medalist Ai Chun Ming. The answer I got: “Only 40% at most, it’s unlikely that we will win this one.”

But when Ng went into the court, he totally controlled the game against someone who everyone thought was his superior. I must admit a few times I was worried that it was just “luck” when Ng scored a point and that he would eventually make a blunder. After all, he was only a “40%”. But I am glad that I was totally wrong. Ng kept his calm and managed his higher seeded opponent with his energy and strategy till the end. He eventually won the set and the team won us our seventh gold at the 2018 Asian Games. Ng, I salute you!

It is now slightly more than two months after I was sworn in as deputy minister for youth and sports. My interactions with the athletes, sports professionals, or even the fans, as well as my experience watching sporting events close up like I did at the 2018 Asian Games, inspire me to work harder for the development of sports in Malaysia. Because a new Malaysia can very much use that dividends of camaraderie, pursuit of excellence and indomitability from which we draw from our investment in sports.

I know it is not an easy task. From Day One when my minister and I took oath, one of the most common comments we received is: Take politics out of sports. I agree 101% and I believe Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman will too.

The minister himself gave instruction to end appointments of political leaders in sports bodies.

Yet I realised that often the problem in sports is not always “political party” politics as many would imagine. Rather it is the politics in the sports associations, from local clubs upward to the national sports associations (NSAs).

Malaysians spoke up loud and clear to demand reform in the government on May 9, 2018. If we want to develop our sports further, reforms in the government alone is not enough. The sports associations themselves must reform. Abuse of power and corruption must be weeded out together with incompetence and inefficiency. Narrow self-interest and divisiveness must give way to common values and goals, and reconciliation.

For sports associations which are divided, if we claim to love sports, reconcile! Yes, this may sound naive especially when spoken by a newcomer like me, but didn’t we sound naive when we talked about change and reform in the government before May 9 this year?

Finally, sports associations must operate with a view to be independent and professional sports governing bodies, which are what they should be, and not behave like semi-government agencies with high dependency on government funding. In a recent sports launch, I spoke about a more strategic tripartite partnership between the government, the private sector and the NSAs including in the area of funding. But all these will eventually depend on good governance, no one will invest effort and money on a badly managed organisation. In the end, the sports will suffer. We have to reform or risk being left behind.

But do not worry; no one who genuinely wants to develop sports in Malaysia will be left to work on it alone. Let us work together, to promote the values of sports in our society, and with dedication, hardwork and some luck, to fly our Jalur Gemilang high at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Steven Sim is the youth and sports deputy minister. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the owners of the newspaper and its editorial board.