PETALING JAYA: Sixty years ago, G Gnanalingam led a small team from the Royal Military College (RMC) to climb Mount Korbu, the second highest mountain in Peninsular Malaysia.
They were among the first to achieve the feat, three days up and three days down, cutting their way through the treacherous mountain.
One of the climbers, Yusuf Hashim, said: “If you should ever find yourself at the trig point of Gunung Korbu, look for a small brass plate with our names nailed onto the trunk of one of the many dwarf oak trees around the summit”.
Having immortalised their names at the peak, some of them later pursued their professions with relentless energy, showing themselves to be brilliant, imaginative, focused and driven.
Gnanalingam first became an enterprising tobacco salesman, who defined sports marketing in the country, followed by a business pitching television and radio spots that made big money for Radio Televisyen Malaysia (RTM).
He then morphed into the genius who created Westports – one of two terminals within Port Klang – out of swampy land.
Yusuf was managing director of Shell Chemicals in Malaysia before he began living a life absorbed in adventure, criss-crossing continents as a wild-haired explorer.
In paying tribute to Gnanalingam, who died on Tuesday, aged 78, Yusuf said: “My dear friend was a much-loved and helpful person who was ahead of his time”.
The passing of Gnanalingam has reminded the country of a true trailblazer in sports business.
While his achievements as an established port operator are well-documented, few know that he defined sports marketing in Malaysia.
Veteran marketing and brand communications specialist Harmandar Singh said: “He was a giant who moved things in the media industry. He rocked the show, and reframed all legacy thinking before him”.
Advertising guru Rishya Joseph said: “His loss to the media and the business community is immeasurable, and one that will remain irreplaceable”.
Joseph worked for seven years at Ted Bates Advertising with Gnanalingam when he was the marketing director at Malayan Tobacco Company (MTC), now British American Tobacco, Malaysia.
It was while at MTC that Gnanalingam pounced on the golden triangle of sport, sponsorship and the media to tap its vast wealth.
In 1982, former sportswriters George Das and R Velu were languishing between jobs when Gnanalingam roped them in to manage the sports media and to publicise all MTC-sponsored events.
“This boosted MTC’s public profile, and in 1984, he changed the sports scene in the country,” said Das, alluding to the Benson & Hedges Malaysian Open Golf, the first such sponsor-titled event.
“It was a business without any competition, really,” said Das. “He also broke ground by placing cigarette logos in the sports pages of newspapers at a time when there was no restriction on tobacco advertisement.”
“He was a force in communications – always inspiring, challenging and innovative, and leaves an indelible legacy in the world of sport,” said Velu.
He said at a time when sports sponsorship was still in its infancy in the region, Gnanalingam saw the incredible benefits of using sports sponsorship as a marketing tool to promote a brand.
“Local sports benefitted as he used different brands to sponsor many events, including football, badminton, hockey, golf, athletics and motorsports.
“Football fans also gained from MTC’s sponsorship of live telecast of the Fifa World Cup, while music lovers got to see famous entertainers at concerts in Kuala Lumpur,” he said.
After he left MTC, he started GT Consultants to handle the airtime sales for RTM, structuring the sales in such a way that it brought in additional revenue to the national broadcaster.
Velu said he joined forces with GT Consultants when his company, Inter-Sports Marketing, was bidding for the marketing rights to the 1989 SEA Games in Malaysia.
He was told by the late Hamzah Abu Samah, then president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia, the rights holder to the games, that he would have to team up with a bigger company to become the marketing agent.
“Gnanalingam agreed to get involved, and we packaged the games to give major companies a positive brand identity,” said Velu.
He said subsequent organisers of the biennial meet used the same marketing strategy to sell their games to sponsors.
Touching athletes, giving generously
World Cup golfer Nazamuddin Yusof said Gnanalingam was central to the development of golf in the country, and had always placed the athlete at the heart of the business.
“He motivated me to go professional, and stood by me and my late teammate, M Ramayah, in our sporting careers.
“Further, he created many events, including a second-tier tournament for golfers, who could not make money at international level, to earn a living playing the sport,” he said.
Former race and rally hero Hanifah Yoong Yin Fah said Gnanalingam was instrumental in bringing the first Malaysian motorcycle grand prix to Shah Alam in 1991 through Lucky Strike sponsorship.
“He was a living saint and a philanthropist, and I loved him as my elder brother and an adviser of life,” said Hanifah, who was encouraged by Gnanalingam to join RMC because he was good in football, cycling and athletics.
Former Armed Forces athletics coach and Olympian Karu Selvaratnam said MTC’s sponsorship of the Lumut Naval Base Sports complex in the 1980s left them “flushed with funds that were used to support other sporting needs”.
“He did so much for so many of us, and we should be eternally grateful to him,” said Karu.
Malaysia’s sprint legend M Jegathesan said over the five decades he had known Gnanalingam, he admired his ability to convert his dreams into reality.
“He was always modest and down to earth, and will be deeply missed by all those who have worked with him, and been advised by him,” he said.