Malaysian sport will see a tragic end if meritocracy and grassroots development continue to be neglected.
Brace yourselves for impact because the future of Malaysian sport is hurtling unrestrained like a meteorite towards a virtual holocaust.
With the flourishing nurseries in schools that once produced world beaters lying in an advanced state of rigor mortis, and with its ecosystem choking with bigotry and apathy by its guardians, hope has ceased to be an option.
Hope became a victim of an education system that ostracised sports from its main curriculum in the farcical pursuit for academic excellence, that annoyingly turned out to be purely cosmetic in nature.
Trust in the system was next to fall, when talents found themselves marginalised due to ethnicity and creed.
The remedy collectively requires for teachers to be coaches, for sports to be a fundamental part of the curriculum, for meritocracy to prevail, and for parents to be major stakeholders. Just like in the old days.
Back in the day, we had dedicated teachers who were national coaches in the ilk of Leslie Armstrong, Rennie Martin and Edwin Abraham (athletics), B Rajakulasingam and Mike Nathan (cricket), S Sukumaran, Gerard Rozells, Philip Adolphus and Bernard Khoo (football), as well as Lawrence van Huizen and V Sivapathasundram (hockey), to name just a handful that come to mind.
And like skilled potters, they moulded from clay, works of art like Mani Jegathesan and Ishtiaq Mobarak (athletics), Mokhtar Dahari, Chow Chee Keong and Ghani Minhat (football), shuttlers Tan Aik Huang and Sylvia Ng, and hundreds of others who kept this nation adequately supplied with world beaters.
And we had dedicated and passionate schools sports officials like Selangor Schools Sports Council general secretary A Vaithilingam and Malaysian Schools Sports Council chief Abdullah Marzuki ensuring that the schools mechanism was well-oiled all the time.
Unfortunately, we cannot go down that track anymore, since many of our teachers appear to lack coaching knowledge, formal training or even an interest in sports, and, therefore, cannot be relied on to groom future champions.
And while the National Sports Council (NSC) and uncaring national sports associations became mere spectators to the demise of sports in schools and the end of their supply chain, grassroots development was brusquely dispatched to the dusty archives of Malaysian sports history more than 30 years ago.
Sports ministers came and went, but to my knowledge, none placed a high premium on grassroots.
Not one of them bothered to acknowledge the fundamental statute that for a sport to attain international excellence, there has to be a huge base of young talents to build its future on.
And I do not really blame them because for one, none of them, with the exception of Khairy Jamaluddin perhaps, had the sports DNA to be invested emotionally, mentally and physically in the rescue of Malaysian sport.
Most of them were sports ministers not by design, but by compulsion. The sports ministry was perceived to be a junior portfolio that did not even warrant a high allocation from the government funds, and certainly not one that politicians would lobby for.
Secondly, given their short five-year terms, in some cases even shorter, ministers need to be seen to be doing something significant to secure their respective vote banks.
They are, after all, politicians first, and sports ministers after that. They want to register quick successes during their terms, and long-term programmes, like grassroots development, are not going to give them that fulfilment.
Reviving Kem Bakat
For current sports minister, Hannah Yeoh, her chosen path is the Road To Gold (RTG) project for the Paris Olympics in 2024, and now extended to LA28.
Her sights will naturally be trained on Paris, hoping that the RM20 million announced in the recent Budget for RTG would magically conjure up Malaysia’s first Olympics gold.
While that is perfectly fathomable, perhaps Hannah would want to think about the long-term too, and breathe life back into Kem Bakat, the talent camp that was highly successful in unearthing and nurturing young talents from school in the 70s.
Kem Bakat is an imperative remedy since we cannot go back to schools. If Hannah chooses to consider this option, it can only work if selection of both talents and coaches are based on meritocracy.
This programme will not only unearth and cultivate talents, but it will also help build unity.
What is the point of shouting out to the world that we are run by a unity government, when its tenets are not manifested in all walks of our Malaysian lives.
Hannah does not have to call it Kem Bakat, she can give it another name. And instead of the old practice of running these camps during the school semester breaks, she can do this every weekend.
Downside of politicians as sports ministers
They say why fix something that is not broken, or undo what is working well? But politicians do not subscribe to that philosophy.
They will break anything not built by them, and go on to build something of their own. That was how the successful Kem Bakat programme was discontinued.
Ministers are not going to continue the good work of their predecessors because it is someone else’s legacy, and not their own.
It is all about the vote bank, never about the talent bank.
Which is why I have always maintained that sports ministers should not be politicians, who will need to spend most of their time attending functions, events, officiating launches, and basically anything that would augment their public profile.
Ideally, the sports minister should come from the powerful civil service that just about controls the entire direction of traffic, because they are the permanent fixtures in any ministry, and not the ministers who come and go.
For Hannah to be left to her devices, she will first need to dismantle this “traffic system”.
In recent times, Hannah’s predecessors, Khairy and Azalina Othman Said, may have had some successes, due to their ambitious nature and personalities.
Sadly, I do not see the demure minister winning over the powerful warlords in the NSC, unless she uses her charm and people skills to loosen the perilous civil service grip on sports.
She must engage all the stakeholders to avert that devastating impact.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.