It was a gathering of sporting legends, but the conversations suddenly stopped and all eyes turned in unison, when a gentleman walked into the hall at the Royal Lake Club, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, on Monday.
Dressed in a charcoal-coloured suit and white shirt with black leather shoes, Tunku Imran Tuanku Ja’afar lit up the room as guests took the opportunity to shake hands and say hello.
Turning 76 on March 21 next year, Tunku Imran or ‘Pete’ to his friends, is still active and feeling “fit as a fiddle”.
“The only issue I have is my leg, but other than that, I feel great,” said the former president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM).
“It is great to see so many familiar faces and sporting legends – athletes and administrators. We should do this more often,” he joked.
His eyes sparkled as they danced across the room, picking out friends he had known for many years and waving to them as he made his way to the main table where he sat with former athletes, Tan Sri Dr M. Jegathesan and Datuk M. Rajamani – who were celebrating their 80th birthdays.
For one so down to earth and easy-going, it is easy to forget that Tunku Imran is a member of a royal family, but one who truly lives up to the moniker ‘man of the people’.
The Negeri Sembilan prince may be of blue blood – his grandfather was Malaysia’s first Yang di-Pertuan Agong and his father the 10th – but he has never been averse to rolling up his sleeves and getting down to work.
Tunku Imran was the national squash champion in 1973, an accomplished cricketer, and played rugby, hockey, and tennis at university.
Despite his royal heritage, Tunku Imran always remained remarkably grounded. His sportsmanship and approachability made him a cherished figure in the sporting world, especially when he found a new lease on life when his playing career ended.
It was as an administrator that Tunku Imran shone the brightest, as he was president of the Commonwealth Games Federation (2011-2015), Southeast Asian Games Federation (2000-2001), World Squash Federation (1989-1996), Executive Board Member of the International Cricket Council (1997-1999, and 2001-2008), chairman of the Associate Members of the ICC (2001-2008) and Member of the International Council of Arbitration for Sport (2002-2014).
He was also an International Olympic Committee Member from 2006-2018 and remains an Honorary Member. He sat on the following Commissions – Sport Law (2002-2014), Sport for All (2006-2015), and Sport and Active Society (2015-2020).
On the home front, he was president of the Malaysian Cricket Association (1991-2011) and Taekwondo Malaysia (2010-2014), besides being OCM’s boss from 1998-2018.
He is perhaps best remembered for bringing the Commonwealth Games to Malaysia in 1998 – the first Asian country to host the event.
That is a long list of accomplishments, but the one he is proudest of is the creation of the Foundation for Malaysian Sporting Excellence (SportExcel) – established on April 8, 1991, to develop sporting excellence in Malaysia.
In 32 years, it has benefitted nearly 100,000 junior athletes. Name any national athlete from the 1990s until now, and chances are, they had a helping hand from SportExcel.
“I have a deep passion for unearthing new sporting talent. That is why I started SportExcel,” said Tunku Imran, who is chairman of Yayasan Sime Darby and a director of the Nicol David Organisation.
“I hope SportExcel can do more for the grassroots in the coming years. We have been around for over 30 years, and we need to grow bigger as I want to help more athletes.
“Many national athletes came through our programmes, so I hope to see more in the coming years.”
He said SportExcel plans to expand into more sports in 2024 as it slowly recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic.
For the record, SportExcel is funded mainly by the private sector. All donations are tax-exempt. It also receives support from the Youth and Sports Ministry, while the National Sports Council is a partner.
Separately, Tunku Imran revealed that he was overjoyed that squash will finally make its Olympic debut at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
“This is the culmination of over 30 years of hard work. I had told the WSF (World Squash Federation) that we needed squash to be more globally accepted if it was to be in the Olympics,” he said.
“Over the years, WSF has reached out to more and more countries. Today, you can see players from all the continents in the rankings.
“That contributed to the sport finally gaining acceptance, and will make its debut in 2028. I am extremely happy.”
As the evening turned to night, Tunku Imran remained in the hall, enjoying the food and live music, and obliging those who wanted to have ‘selfies’.
There was no reason for him to leave. He was right at home.