Youth and Sports Ministry rekindles Johor affair

It was described as a “cordial” meeting – one that came as a “huge relief” to government officials in Johor.

Tunku Ismail Ibrahim and Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Seri Reezal Merican Naina Merican met at Istana Bukit Pelangi on Monday. The hour-long meeting was described as a milestone given the Crown Prince of Johor’s frosty relationship with Reezal’s predecessors – Khairy Jamaluddin and Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman.

There was the polo dare issued to Khairy ahead of the 2017 SEA Games, followed by Syed Saddiq’s claims of Tunku Ismail making “uncomfortable” demands.

Those who accompanied Reezal, complete with their suits and songkok, admitted it was to “rekindle” the relationship between the ministry and the prince.

“It came as a huge relief for the government officers in Johor as well, not just the ministry. It was a positive meeting and Reezal was accorded much respect,” said an insider who was part of the working trip to Johor Bahru.

“In fact, Tunku Ismail was kind enough to receive Reezal at the Johor Darul Ta’zim’s (JDT) training centre the following day. Meeting twice in two days says a lot.”

Tunku Ismail owns JDT, plays polo and funds professional boxer Muhamad Farkhan Haron, among others. Being entrenched in the system in his own way, it is expected of the member of the royal family to pay close attention to the sports scenario in the country.

Love or loath them, the Southern Tigers remain the biggest football club in the country and even made their mark in the region. The club even boasts its own modern stadium – a rarity among M-League teams that still rely on government-owned structures as they struggle to pay wages.

However, there have been concerns whenever Tunku Ismail makes a statement. Is he saying it as a sports official or as Crown Prince? And many have held back from commenting about his views, afraid they may run afoul with the authorities as the vaguely defined Sedition Act prohibits criticism or insults against members of the royal family.

There have been members of the royal families who have held sports positions in the past, including Yang di-Pertuan Agong Al-Sultan Abdullah Ri’ayatuddin Al-Mustafa Billah Shah, but sports journalists then had a field day engaging with them, constructively, through the back pages of the dailies.

How will bridging the relationship between the ministry and the Johor royal household assist Malaysian sports? Not much, really.

But in an era where perception and projecting a popular or favorable image seems to be a priority to many, having the Crown Prince’s endorsement in any way will comfort Reezal.

The last thing the minister needs is to juggle with emotions, especially so with a possible snap elections looming. A wafer-thin majority enjoyed by Perikatan Nasional and with frogs jumping freely, Reezal could be staring at a new ministry – or no ministry – within the coming weeks, if not months.

It’s not been the start Reezal, who turns 48 on July 29, had hoped for – some questioned his age just as he set foot in Wisma KBS while it is clear he felt inferior to his younger and “charming” predecessors.

There was also Covid-19 that floored the sports industry.

Age and charm alone don’t guarantee success. Rekindling this Johor affair is a good start for Reezal. As things go back to normal, albeit slightly differently, the real test begins as he tackles the hiring of key personnel to keep the National Football Development Programme on track, finds the right person to be the next National Sports Council director-general and boosts the country’s sports industry.

And while doing all that, he must ensure consistency in initiatives introduced by previous ministers and focus on sports for the masses, especially youngsters, and youth-related programmes to upskill and survive the new industrial revolution.