Sea Games Debacle: Amidst fumbles, huge opportunity for reform stares Hannah in her face

28 May 2023 08:42am
A file photo of Hannah Yeoh watching the Malaysian wushu team performing during the National Martial Arts Competition 2023 on May 21 at Titiwangsa Stadium, Kuala Lumpur. Photo by BERNAMA.
A file photo of Hannah Yeoh watching the Malaysian wushu team performing during the National Martial Arts Competition 2023 on May 21 at Titiwangsa Stadium, Kuala Lumpur. Photo by BERNAMA.

In the aftermath of an embarassing outing in the 32nd Sea Games in Cambodia, we have at the very least triggered positive dialogues pertaining to the gradual release of sports from the clutches of politicians and political appointees, including the ones that run governments.

For with every statement to justify the slump to seventh spot among Southeast Asian sporting nations made by a beleaguered Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh in the past week, it was evident that the aim was to justify keeping our sports within the same archaic and failing system with simply the promise of more governments being poured into the problem.

From trying to justify how the national contingent had failed to meet a 40-gold medal target which was already trimmed due to the lack of favourable events and a purportedly young contingent and then stating they had failed because of those very reasons, to admitting sports needed to be distanced from politics, Hannah put herself in a desparate situation grasping onto every narrative to save her political skin.

Then she chose to announce an RM400,000 grant to women's 400m gold medallist Shereen Samson Vallabuoy, justifying the fact that the other 33 gold medals were not subject to such windfall as the former had met key performance indicators set by the National Sports Council (NSC), although this inevitably triggered a flow of requests for similar grants from other gold medallists which she now has to respond to.

But what was the source of much humor was Hannah's answer at the Dewan Rakyat on Thursday when she unequivocally rested the blame for the decline at the Sea Games as due to political instability, raising accounting facts that funding for programmes under the NSC had been affected due to multiple changes in government and her Ministry since the infamous 'Sheraton Move' in 2020.

This was a statement which, at best, humoured because if Hannah tracked back to her own statements since she had taken charge of the Ministry, she had the chance to remedy the situation but instead chose to raise questions about her priorities in her actions.

In January, upon a townhall with national sports associations (NSAs) in which issues over Sea Games preparations being affected due to funds not forthcoming, Hannah stated that she understood the situation but could not help it until Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim retabled the budget.

This would have been taken on face value but for what came next. As if to add insult to injury, Hannah announced what was later branded as among the 10 improvements she had brought to the Youth and Sports Ministry, the erection of 24 big screens across the country for public viewing of Malaysia's AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup matches, for which an urgent budget was disposed of without much fuss.

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This came as an out-of-the-blue project which wasn't exactly due to pressing public demand, particularly since the Communications and Digital Ministry had managed to secure last-minute broadcast rights to air the tournament live on RTM for everyone to watch for free.

This raised further questions over why far more pressing issues such as Sea Games preparations which, despite being brought to the Minister's attention, were clearly not addressed with such urgency.

Surely the Minister, given her eagerness to weild her authority as displayed in her handling of a volleyball coach in a slapping incident and hockey player's slip of tongue on social media, in which she ensured with much ferocity that the heaviest of penalties were meted out, could have channeled much more energy and authority towards ensuring Sea Games preparations of all athletes ran smoothly.

She could at least explain how she could urgently raise funds for 24 big screens labelled as "Program Skrin Besar" or Big Screen Programme which nobody asked for and how all the Ministry's finance mechanisms did not allow her to channel funds urgently to Sea Games preparations that were being affected under her watch.

Alas, as we move on, that debacle and Hannah's fumbles should then be confined to history as actions on her said intentions to distance sports from politics can now be put into effect.

In search of a remedy, Hannah could revisit one of her earliest statements as Youth and Sports Minister, in which she admitted her lack of sporting background but assured she would be up to the task by implementing policies, among others, those aimed at emnpowering sports. Something which she has subsequently detracted from as she mingled with the implants of the status quo.

Sports will not be empowered by the continued splurge of government funds, no matter which narrative the minister chooses to popularise on social media, because if the recent Sea Games did not get the Minister in touch with reality, the Asian Games and the Olympic Games inevitably will.

Even one gold medal at the next Olympics will not erase the fact that the nation is burdened by a failed system which is becoming more expensive with each passing year, with a sports eco-system that grows and expands more like a network of parasites than a dynamic industry that profits the nation.

If it isn't yet clear, this current model that has given us a sports scene that is devoid of growth, dynamism and competitiveness, without industries that contribute to the nation, but taxing it instead, needs to be effectively phased out.

Changes may be needed within the majority of NSAs to inject a sense of industry and most of all, responsibility, to take charge of their sports, develop and grow their own industries in order to back their own sports.

There comes no better opportunity for the Minister to put her foot down and inject such monumental systemic and institutional reforms, than now, at the lowest point in the nation's history at the Sea Games.

The writer is a veteran sports writer and critic, a former Sinar Daily assistant news editor, former South East Asia representative of the International Association of Cycling Journalists (AIJC) and covered the Sea Games in Cambodia as a representative of the Olympic Channel.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Sinar Daily.

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