(This article can also be read at the Penang Institute in KL Column in the Malaysian Insight, 2nd Sept 2017)
AT the time of writing, Malaysia was leading the 29th SEA Games medal standings with 140 gold, 91 silver and 84 bronze. We have twice as many gold medals as second-placed Thailand. We demolished our previous record of 111 gold medals, achieved during our last hosting of the SEA Games in 2001.
This is an incredible performance and our athletes should be applauded for their efforts. But is this sporting achievement sustainable? Can our athletes go further and compete at the Asian and for some, the international level?
These days, sports is more an industry instead of the supposedly amateur undertaking it was pre-1990s. Beyond talent identification, there is now a whole other universe that includes financing, training and coaching, nutrition and competitions, just to name a few.
The public obviously looks to the government, specifically the Ministry of Youth and Sports, to chart the course for sports development in the country. In a small country like Malaysia, government funding for sports is essential especially when it comes to supporting our athletes with the greatest potential.
The ‘Kita Juara’ (We are Champions) programme was launched in 2015 with this specific purpose in mind. Chosen athletes are given resources and greater opportunities to compete at the international level. This was part of a long-term process to produce global champions beyond just the SEA Games.
But government resources are limited. Even UK Sport, the UK government’s organisation for directing sports development, was forced to make serious funding cuts for sports such as badminton, archery, fencing and weightlifting because of the lack of potential to win medals in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, despite receiving a massive £347 million from National Lottery proceeds.
This is where the various sports associations at the federal and state levels have an important role to play. Most people are not aware of the tremendous power wielded by these sports associations. In certain respects, they wield more power than the minister. For example, they hold the power to select those athletes who will represent the country, as well as providing the funding for selected athletes to compete in overseas competitions and be trained by national coaches.
The presidents of these sports associations are usually politicians and/or businessmen. Presidents who are businessmen are expected to fund some of the operational costs of running the sports associations while politicians are expected to raise the necessary financing through their connections. Post-SEA Games, these sports associations still have to find the money to fund their activities and to develop their athletes.
Every sport has different levels of public support. Apart from the football and perhaps badminton associations, whose sports already enjoy great public attention, the rest of the sports associations could do more to promote their own sport.
The level of public support affects the ability of these sports associations to improve their financial positions. For example, even though recreational running has become tremendously popular in Malaysia, as evidenced by the proliferation in the number of races around the country, the association in charge of athletics, the Malaysian Athletics Federation (MAF), does not have an updated Facebook page, let alone a functioning website.
Our track and field team performed better than expected by winning 8 golds, 8 silvers and 9 bronzes including a historic bronze in the men’s marathon and a SEA games record in the men’s hammer throw. Yet none of this was documented in the MAF’s Facebook page, where the most recent entry was in 2014. The supposed MAF website is actually a food and travel blog.
Likewise, the Amateur Swimming Union of Malaysia (ASUM) does not have a Facebook page and its website has not been updated with the SEA Games performance results of our swimmers.
In a brief survey of 37 Malaysian sports associations which sent athletes to the SEA Games, only 21 have a Facebook presence (either a page or a group) and not all of these pages are active. Credit must be given to the Ice Skating Association of Malaysia (ISAM) and the Malaysia Basketball Association (MABA) for their active Facebook engagement and in showcasing the achievements of their athletes. Ironically, despite having a very social media savvy player within its midst, the FB page for the Royal Malaysian Polo Association (RMPA) does not seem particularly engaging or engaged.
Although having an active FB page is no guarantee of sporting success, it is an indicator of how engaged these sports associations are with their fans and the larger public. How likely, for example, are corporate sponsors willing to support these sports associations if they can see that there is very little public engagement or fan support behind these associations? It would be far more worthwhile for these corporate sponsors to approach individual athletes who are already public figures, rather than to support the associations which these individuals belong to.
The lack of an active social media presence also means that these sports associations are not doing much to grow their fan base by giving information on local competitions and profiling athletes within the sport. Again, going back to athletics, which I am more familiar with, there was hardly any publicity for the Malaysia Athletics Open, which took place just before the SEA Games, and is the premier track and field competition in the country.
There was probably more information circulating on social media about running events with mass participation, compared to the Malaysian Open for track and field. While track and field will never be in the same league as football or badminton as a mainstream sport in Malaysia, the fact that the federation in charge of promoting the sport does not seem to be doing its job only adds to the challenges faced by our athletes. Less money and support for the federation means less resources to hire good coaches and send our promising athletes overseas for training and competitions.
After the SEA Games hype, when the spotlight is no longer on non-mainstream sports, can our athletes take the next step to compete at the Asian Games in 2018 in Jakarta? Can our sports associations play a more active role in promoting their sports and garner more public support?
Let’s wait and see. In the meantime, I will be part of the cheering crowd at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium to enjoy the closing ceremony for this Sea Games and to celebrate Malaysia’s achievement!
Dr Ong Kian Ming is the Member of Parliament for Serdang, Selangor and is also the General Manager of Penang Institute in Kuala Lumpur. He holds a PhD in Political Science from Duke University, an MPhil in Economics from the University of Cambridge and a BSc in Economics from the London School of Economics.