(Hockey) sticks and (racial) stones: Lessons from Hanis Nadiah Onn’s suspension over slur

The Youth and Sports Ministry’s press release, outlining the investigation and action taken against hockey player Hanis Nadiah Onn following her ‘racial slur’ on social media, was rather diplomatic.

Even the final paragraph sounded more like a reminder, rather than a warning, of how athletes should conduct themselves online.

Athletes, as role models, are expected to bring people together. That is a given.

Hanis, a national women’s hockey player, unfortunately, did the opposite when she made an offensive comment following Indian mega-composer A.R. Rahman’s concert in Kuala Lumpur on Jan 28.

It was an unwarranted comment, and although seemingly subtle, carried unmistakable racial undertones that were clear to many Malaysians. It also exposed her underlying feelings about Indians in the country.

Following the massive backlash, Nadirah apologised and deleted her tweet. Sympathisers said it was a careless tweet in a moment of thoughtlessness. They argued that she had learnt her lesson and that Malaysians should all move on.

Others, including former athletes, said not so fast, adding that she should be dropped altogether.

The National Sports Council and Malaysia Hockey Confederation investigation committee spoke to Hanis. She insisted that there was no malice on her part, that it was not meant as a racial slur against a particular ethnic group; that she tweeted it as ‘a joke’. She only realised that it was not funny after being slammed by other social media users.

Hanis also told the committee that she grew up in a multiracial environment in Kluang, Johor, and had many Indian friends, especially national athletes.

Also called in to testify was Nasihin Nubli Ibrahim, the national women’s hockey team coach. He backed Hanis’ claim, adding she mixed well with the other Indian athletes.

In the end, the committee decided that Hanis would not “be considered to represent the national hockey team in any international assignments, including the 2023 SEA Games in Cambodia”.

“MHC will reevaluate this decision if Hanis shows a positive change in attitude during the duration,” the press release read.

Following a clarification by the National Sports Council, what this means is:

  1. Hanis is suspended from the national team and will not even attend training sessions.
  2. “During the duration” is between now and the SEA Games in May.

In short, Hanis has been suspended for three months (for now).

Athletes are our icons and heroes. They inspire, and unify us. They restore our faith in our abilities. They personify what is good in all of us.

Sports is supposed to be colorblind, it’s supposed to transcend race, creed, religion, and colour. Perhaps even political ideologies.

But it would be naive for us to think that everyone in sports is without fault or blemishes. That they are all angels.

Is the punishment meted out against Hanis fair and just? That is open for debate. However, it should not be just about punishing a person for her transgressions.

It should also be about educating them, and others around them, as to why these remarks – founded or unfounded, meant as a joke or otherwise, intentional or unintentional – should never even be allowed to gestate, grow, and gain traction in their minds.

Coaches and administrators need to be a part of the education process, towards creating a safe sporting environment that is not only free from physical or mental abuse, but also prejudice, intolerance, and bigotry.