Get real, focus or be forgotten, Hannah Yeoh

Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh will have lunch tomorrow with seven Olympians representing the Malaysia Olympian Association.

“I did not expect to be named Youth and Sports Minister. I never thought I would be picked to be the Youth and Sports Minister.”

Those were the words of Hannah Yeoh when she clocked in on her first day at work at Menara KBS, in Malaysia’s administrative capital, Putrajaya. That was on Dec 6, 2022.

After more than a year, it would appear that Yeoh did not expect, or realise many things. For starters, did she think that Malaysian sports was the exclusive domain of only a handful of privileged individuals that cannot be touched, critiqued, or questioned? Did she not realise that youth organisations in this country were mainly political?

Yeoh entered the scene with a bang, hoping to be seen as a hardworking, trusted leader, eager for change. After all, “ubah” was her party, DAP’s battle cry before the 15th General Election in Malaysia in 2022.

But has anything really changed since?

Yeoh has still not made public the 2017 SEA Games accounts, the findings of the Podium Programme Enhancement Committee, and details of her trip with several other officials to Japan in April 2023. This, despite her saying in Parliament recently: “I assure you that this government is very responsible with taxpayers’ money, and we will ensure that every expenditure benefits the country.”

Nice words. But words alone mean nothing.

Just like the previous youth and sports ministers who were eager to leave behind their legacies, she introduced yet another elite sports programme – the Road to Gold – but was quick to label it as a “top-up service” to the existing Podium Programme. The idea was to also commercialise the initiative, raising funds via the committee. Yet, a year on, the only commercial deal revealed, to date, has been an offer from a car company that would like to reward athletes who make the podium in Paris. Also, the whole concept of this “top-up service” shows the bureaucratic red tape and hoops that would have to be navigated within the current system. Shouldn’t that “di ubah” (be changed), instead of creating a whole new programme?

Yeoh, or rather her advisors (whoever they are), seem fixated on football, more so than other sports. Her predecessors also paid a whole lot of attention to football – despite the national team struggling to maintain any form of consistency at the SEA Games. But she has taken it a step further. Yeoh is proud of her ‘big screen initiative’, an initiative to promote the game and engage with the fans that should rightfully be carried out by the football clubs and the FA of Malaysia (FAM), not the sports minister.

The ministry is also keen to keep the National Football Development Programme (NFDP), when the onus of developing the sport should rightfully fall on the guardian of the sport itself – FAM. The eagerness to keep NFDP within the ministry is due to arguments that FAM, over the past decades, had failed in developing talents.

Yet, the government seems to believe that FAM should get funds for development. In 2022, then-prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob gave the national body RM10 million. More recently, despite Harimau Malaya being booted out in the group stage of the Asian Cup, Yeoh celebrated the return of the team at the airport, as the government handed FAM another RM5 million for “football development”. Why didn’t the money go to NFDP instead?

As such, if Malaysia continues to fail in producing talents, fingers should not be pointed at FAM and its affiliates. The ministry is equally responsible.

Since Yeoh seems to have a keen interest in Malaysian football, will she say anything about the allegations of corruption and abuse of power in FAM that made its rounds yesterday?

What is the progress of the National Sports Vision (VSN) 2030? Is the nation on track, as per the six cores which include Sport Industry? Or have the stakeholders simply forgotten VSN 2030, evident in the error on its website which has the description of an earlier core – Sporting Excellence – for Sport Industry. Speaking about Sport Industry, what happened to the Sport Satellite Account?

A screengrab from the VSN 2030 website which has not been updated since 2022.

The concept of bringing sports to malls is not new, but it has gotten some of Yeoh’s online fans excited, blasting social media with banner headlines like “Malaysians Praise Hannah Yeoh For Bringing Sports to Malls”. Let’s not forget, that over a decade ago, the likes of national wall bashers, Datuk Nicol Ann David, and Azlan Iskandar, were seen in the glass courts at the concourse of Berjaya Times Square, as they hunted for glory in the Kuala Lumpur Open Squash Championship. Muay Thai and mixed martial arts competitions were also regularly held in malls just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. Nothing new there.

Yeoh, unfortunately, continues to hog the limelight over issues that could have been avoided. Take the hosting of the 2026 Commonwealth Games, for example. If she truly understood sports, and had a pulse on the ground, she would know that Malaysia was not ready to host such a mega multisport event – given our current economic climate and the state of our sports infrastructure. Malaysia is still figuring out how to manage the field at its iconic National Stadium in Bukit Jalil, Kuala Lumpur. That in itself, says a lot about where we are.

Yeoh seems to simply adore social media, thinking that it is the only platform to engage with her ‘supporters’. However, she has, in recent days, felt the brunt of social media, with sports fans taking her to task, creating hashtags like #TolakKomanwel, and demanding that Yeoh, and even Malaysia Stadium Corporation chairman, Datuk Hans Issac, resign over the poor quality of the field at the National Stadium.

Instead of clearing the air, Yeoh continues to raise more questions after revealing that an Australian consultant had been hired to look into the issue. No details have been provided, as to who this consultant is, and how much the ministry is paying for the services.

Yeoh also took issue with Free Malaysia Today’s Frankie D’Cruz in Parliament, reminding “columnists to check with the ministry before publishing hearsay.” Clearly, Yeoh didn’t know who she was dealing with. D’Cruz is a multi-award winning veteran journalist and editor, who had verified his information with various sources before his articles were published. If only she, and her officers, had done their homework. And having been proven that she was wrong, will Yeoh now own up and apologise to the publication and the “columnist” in the Dewan Rakyat?

What about sports diplomacy, and making sporting venues sustainable? How has the ministry utilised the expertise of its secretary-general, Dr K. Nagulendran, who was previously the Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry’s deputy secretary-general (planning and culture of science)?

Yeoh did revive Rakan Muda, though. She also made sure that the Safe Sport Code was adopted by stakeholders, ensuring continuity over an effort that was started by her immediate predecessor, Datuk Seri Ahmad Faizal Azumu.

There was also the swimming classes initiative for children from the lower income groups. Her ministry had also pushed for the government to give out a special tax relief for the purchase of sports equipment, and for sports activities of up to RM1,000, which would be extended to cover sports training fees. Such initiatives should be applauded.

If “ubah” is going to be the main theme, then Yeoh must start making the right changes. Given the Whole-of-Government and Whole-of-Nation concepts harped by the Madani government, Yeoh can start by getting every ministry involved in youth and sports activities, ensuring every segment of society leads a healthy lifestyle, not just for the sake of the annual Hari Sukan Negara.

Yeoh should start at the grassroots, and above all, ensure that the ministry is seen as fair. It is not the umbrella body of sports associations in the country, nor is it the guardian of a specific sport. The ministry also has no business “instructing” sports associations, as the national organisations are affiliated with international federations.

Perhaps Yeoh is inspired by ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’, starring Tan Sri Michelle Yeoh, who won the 2023 Oscar for Best Actress. Yeoh seems eager to do everything, and be seen everywhere, all at once. Yet, the halatuju (direction) and focus of her ministry remain unknown. That certainly, is not an award-winning feat.

It boils down to knowing her role, and Yeoh must justify her moves. She must also be reminded that ministers come and go, and that it is important to have a strong, sustainable system in place.

Here’s hoping that Yeoh will start focusing on what matters in the remaining months of her tenure as Youth and Sports Minister. It’s either that, or she could leave a legacy as one of the most ineffective, forgettable ministers the country has ever had.