Reezal Merican on bold drive to transform Malaysian sports

Reezal Merican: Committed to transforming sports in Malaysia.

Youth and Sports Minister Reezal Merican Naina Merican spoke about plans to create a robust ecosystem that will transform Malaysian sports in a wide-ranging interview with FMT.

Reezal is focused on strengthening the sporting culture, tapping and grooming potential talent, and securing the well-being of athletes upon retirement.

Initiatives include making the sports industry a new wealth creator for youths, athletes and associations; and a key economic contributor to the gross domestic product (GDP).

The ministry, he says, wants to give more autonomy to national sports associations (NSAs) but they should not depend on government funding.

Excerpts of interview:

  • Boosting the sports industry

How are measures to lift the sports industry shaping up?

The ministry has undertaken several initiatives including setting up a Sports Industry Secretariat.

We have invited stakeholders from several sectors of the industry to help us formulate strategies to address concerns post Covid-19 and measures going forward.

The sports industry has the potential of becoming a new wealth creator for the people and a key economic contributor to the GDP.

Programmes such as ‘Fit Malaysia’ and ‘Hari Sukan Negara’ that bring Malaysians together and instil sporting culture will be strengthened.

How can the sports ecosystem develop unhindered?

The ministry has made several proposals to the ministry of finance such as soft loans, tax relief for spending/investment in sports and tax exemption for sports-related businesses.

This will help them overcome the difficult Covid-19 months and to jump start their businesses post pandemic.

Steps like re-allowing training and competitions for athletes from green zones could also spur the industry, as well as open up the job market in the sports sector.

  • Nurturing Talent

How much attention is being given to nurture talent at school and district levels?

I have had discussions with the Minister of Education and a national-level talent identification programme is in the pipeline. Details will be made known soon.

Won’t naturalisation of players in football affect local talent?

Perhaps, Fifa should tighten the rules to avoid exploitation as this is a concern in other countries as well.

I am certain that given time, the National Football Development Programme will produce more quality players who can play in the M-League and for the country.

  • Transparency and accountability

Do you think the NSC has taken over the roles of several NSAs by using government funding to dictate terms and control them?

NSC often comes under fire and this is something that concerns me. While they do control the budget, they have various committees to go through before money or programmes are approved.

I cannot micro-manage but we are looking at improving the process and giving more autonomy to NSAs.

Do you agree NSAs are experts in their respective sports?

NSAs have the technical expertise but administratively some are not up to the mark.

Many have failed to submit vital information required by the Sports Commissioner dating to 2018 when they are duty-bound to submit this yearly.

Should politicians refrain from heading NSAs?

This is up to the NSAs and the individual. Is the sport being used or the other way around?

I would not like to wade deep into the matter as it has its plus and minus factors.

Should state FAs that cannot manage their team professionally compete instead in the amateur league?

The idea of government funding, more so a bailout, should be avoided.

Governments, be it federal or state, are responsible for all sports and not just football.

The amount of money invested should be justified and well spent for its intended purpose.

Why haven’t the audited 2017 Sea Games accounts been made public?

The final account has been presented to Parliament as part of the Annual Report and Financial Statement of the NSC.

The 2017 Sea Games Organising Committee comes under the NSC, and every clarification needed by the auditor-general has been addressed.

All transactions for the Games were approved by the finance committee, chaired by the secretary-general of the ministry of finance.

The disclosure of accounts depends on how the event was run.

The Commonwealth Games of 1998 was under a company while the 2017 SEA Games was run by an organising committee formed by the government.

I agree on transparency and accountability but I have to adhere to government regulations.

  • Innovation and technology in sports

How many sports bodies have responded to the ministry’s financial support to digitalise their operations?

We have received 200 applications from sports associations under the ‘Inisiatif Prihatin Sukan’ Sports Digitalisation Programme and R&D category.

The closing date has been extended to allow more to take advantage of these grants.

How important is digitalisation of sports associations?

It comes down to their knowledge on the importance of digitalisation.

The ministry has allocated RM3 million of the RM10 million to them under the Sports Concern Initiative to develop content, creatives, media, graphics and such.

We will work with Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) and National Sports Council (NSC) to reach out to more sports associations to tap on the digitalisation grant, including making them understand digitalisation.

Do you think they have a negative attitude toward going digital?

While I agree many are laid back in embracing digitalisation, it is largely due to not having enough funds.

They will realise soon this grant is like a start-up capital to assist them to launch a digital platform, an online/social media presence and to have current and relevant content.

Is it time for over-the-top (OTT) platforms as an engine for growth?

OTT ought to be accepted in this digital era. NSAs could explore this from broadcast rights to generate new/alternative income streams to finance activities.

These platforms could lead to pay per view opportunities and earn them the much-needed cash.

  • Caring for athletes

Are there plans for a pension scheme for national athletes?

We have a pension scheme for Olympic medal winners and to introduce one for all national athletes will be a heavy burden on government coffers. However, a private pension scheme could be considered for athletes to save for their future.

Why are state and national associations doing little or nothing for former athletes?

Their role in caring for former athletes is hampered by a lack of data keeping of those who have brought honour to the state and country.

They can overcome this by taking advantage of the digitalisation fund under ‘Inisiatif Prihatin Sukan’ (Sports Concern Initiative).

We are grateful to the corporate sector for funding sports but Covid-19 has made it tougher to get sponsorship.

Don’t the many cases of forgotten athletes, especially those gravely ill, portray an uncaring attitude?

We are largely an ageing nation and there is bound to be an increase in cases.

Efforts have been undertaken by Yakeb (National Athletes Welfare Foundation) to help these athletes with their limited resources.

Lack of funding is a bane for the sports industry and Yakeb is no exception.

I allocated some funds to Yakeb in March and more funds are underway to support former athletes.

Yakeb has also requested for an annual grant from the ministry of finance.

Sports bodies could emulate the caring initiatives of football, hockey and badminton associations.

Are we quick to reward younger athletes with money?

Previously, athletes never thought about rewards and derived satisfaction from winning for the country.

Today, sports can be a fulltime career, motivated by remuneration and incentives, which is understandable.