KUALA LUMPUR: Simon Lau Chin Meng, the Malaysian coach who turned Umar Osman into an explosive force in the 400m at the recent SEA Games, is now Singapore’s gain in athletics.
He begins work tomorrow as head coach at Singapore Sports School’s track and field academy in Woodlands, a move some see as a worsening talent drain in Malaysian sport.
The two-year role, with an option to stay on until the 2029 SEA Games in the republic, will see him groom future Singaporean stars and develop the skills of coaches.
It is something that is badly needed in the Malaysian system, and Lau’s departure leaves another scar on the country’s athletics soul.
A dispirited Lau, 56, takes not only decades of elite and development expertise with him, but also residual bad blood from his split with the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF).
He said his move to Singapore was forced by a lack of recognition, an absence of opportunities, favouritism that deprived him of elite coaching, and a questionable coaching structure, all at national level.
Breaking silence on his decision to join the Singapore set-up, he told FMT: “I got upset, and moved because things were not being done correctly for coaches to produce athletes of calibre.”
He said he felt “very sad, very disappointed” about his omission from the national coaching structure despite applying to MAF for a job at elite level many times over the years.
“There is favouritism, and no sport will prosper if negative elements are allowed to hold sway,” he bemoaned.
Lau said his credentials, as head coach in Penang, Selangor and Johor for over 12 years, and a year-long stint with the National Sports Council’s (NSC) high performance training centre, never mattered.
Asked whether he would remain in Malaysia if there was a counter-offer, he said MAF coaching committee chairman Mark Ling had made the offer, “but it’s too late because I have committed my services to Singapore.”
He said he had agreed to join the sports school in Singapore last October after they had contacted him, and not after Umar had won the 400m gold in Phnom Penh.
Lau said he was supposed to report for duty in January, but because Umar was taking part in the games, he postponed it.
Asked how he felt about being a Malaysian out to make Singapore a better athletics nation?, he said: “I am being paid to do that, and I have to do an honest job.”
Lau said he will train athletes in events under 800m and the hurdles, with two full-time coaches and five part-timers under him.
Plight of local coaches
Lau said it was a shame there were now only 20 coaches in the national coaching make-up.
“Many prefer to remain at state level because they are taken care of better than at the national level,” he said.
He believes the country can develop good coaches capable of competing successfully with their counterparts overseas.
“However that will only happen when the stakeholders, especially the MAF, NSC and the sports ministry realise the importance of grooming and training coaches,” he said.
Lau said a technical director, reporting directly to MAF, would be a good start towards improving the standard of coaching.
“An experienced and knowledgeable technical director will create a proper coaching structure, help boost the number of coaches, and recommend improvements to their benefits,” he offered.
He noted coaches at elite level were underpaid, even though some of them did more work than foreign coaches “who get paid handsomely.”
“If their fees remain at the current low level, you can expect more coaches to look for jobs overseas, or perhaps even quit,” he said.
Lau asked frustratingly: “How can it be when a national athlete gets food allowance during national training, and the coach doesn’t get a stipend for it?”
He said the authorities should have a scheme for coaches similar to the national athletes’ welfare foundation (Yakeb) as a national responsibility to their welfare.
“Without a coach you don’t have an athlete, and without an athlete there is no coach, so the same recognition must be given to both, and if you don’t accord it, this is what happens,” he said.
Lau emphasised the importance of building talent at grassroots level, saying clubs should be an integral part of the MAF.
He has conducted courses at the Siksha ‘O’ Anusandhan University in Bhubaneswar, India, and visited rural areas in the country to introduce kids’ athletics and to share knowledge with village coaches.
Johor’s offer, Lau’s impact on young runners
Penang-born Lau has been offered the position of part-time technical director with the Johor State Sports Council which wants to ensure continuity of its coaching programmes.
He said Singapore has no objection to him mentoring the Johor coaches, and he plans to do mostly virtual training.
Lau was the technical director and a specialist coach in Johor from 2021, with 26 apprentice and school coaches under him.
During that time, he took two other sprinters, besides Umar, to a higher level.
Lau said even if he doesn’t play the part-time role, he intends to guide Umar, including bringing him to the Singapore facility to train, until a good coach comes along for him,
He recalled Umar told him he wanted to break the national 400m record when they first met in February, 2021.
In the last two years, Lau had helped Umar to improve on his personal best 10 times. At the SEA Games, he ran 46.34s and cracked the 22-year-old national record of 46.41s.
“He has great potential and I’m prepared to help him go faster,” said Lau, a former soldier and Armed Forces decathlete, whose impact on young runners has been impressive.
As head coach for Selangor from 2015-2020, he shaped Muhammad Aqil Yasmin, who won the 100m and 200m at the 2018 Sukma Games, and Putra Azrul Syazwan Azman who took gold in the 800m at the same meet.