Japan trip reaffirms fact that Malaysian sports need ultimate reset. So what’s next?

If there’s one lesson to be learnt from a Malaysian delegation’s recent trip to Japan, it’s that Malaysian sports needs an ultimate reset.

Such a revelation, unfortunately, is not new.

For decades, stakeholders, including journalists, have been harping about the need for the Malaysian sports ecosystem to be dismantled, and rebuilt.

Legacy issues, and the slow adoption of technology and the sciences at all levels in the local sporting scene, have seen the nation turn from an Asian sporting powerhouse to one that generally struggles at the Southeast Asian level.

Questions were raised when the Road To Gold committee, led by the Youth and Sports Minister, flew to Japan last Thursday night to better understand what was required to build champions.

Some wondered how much was spent on the trip, while the ‘old timers’ sniggered at the irony of it all, as they remember a time when Malaysians taught the Japanese a thing or two about sports, especially when the guardians of football in Malaysia presented Japan with a blueprint on how to run a football league.

But this trip was necessary. It served as an eye-opener, a reaffirmation of what needs to be done.

And this can be attested by those who were there – namely Olympic Council of Malaysia president Tan Sri Norza Zakaria, Road to Gold coordinator Stuart Michael Ramalingam, his assistant Michelle Chai, National Sports Council (NSC) director-general Datuk Ahmad Shapawi Ismail, National Sports Institute (NSI) chief executive officer Ahmad Faedzal Ramli, and Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh.

The delegation was introduced to Olympians, some of whom were PhD holders and experts in various fields, and took a closer look at state-of-the art systems and facilities. They also met former Malaysian table tennis player, Lee Rou You, a silver medallist at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, who is now attached to Juntendo University in Tokyo.

The build-up to the trip is also not new. Norza, who is also the BA of Malaysia president, has enjoyed a cordial relationship with stakeholders from Japan for years, as he is a firm believer in the ‘Look East’ policy, a throwback to the time of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first and second tenures as prime minister of Malaysia.

In 2018, Norza, on behalf of the BAM, signed a memorandum of understanding with Ehime Prefecture governor Tokihiro Nakamura, who is also the president of the Ehime Badminton Association, to enable Malaysian shuttlers to enjoy stints in Japan before the Tokyo Olympic Games.

BAM was last year, presented with the Japanese Foreign Minister’s Commendations for the Year 2020.

On July 11, 2022, Japan’s ambassador to Malaysia, Takahashi Katsuhiko, met  Norza and exchanged views on various sports events and reaffirmed cooperation between Japan and Malaysia through sports.

Norza said there were lessons learnt from this trip. They weren’t new, but if Malaysia was serious about being a contender at the international level, it must evolve.

“As we all know, most of the time, people work in silos here. That’s not the case in Japan. And they won 27 gold medals at the last Olympics (in Tokyo),” said Norza.

“We have to take a good look at ourselves… have we re-engineered or updated our practices to get the (Olympic) gold? If certain quarters are still adopting the ‘business as usual’ attitude, we won’t get anywhere.

“This is where we need to open up and embrace new things, new sports practices, new financial templates … we have to be mindful of the changes,” he added.

But can we truly adopt the Japanese system in Malaysia?

The Japanese are known for their high level of commitment, dedication, and professionalism. In Malaysia, professional football teams still struggle to pay their players’ wages on time. That says a lot.

So what’s next?

There are those within the delegation who now vowed to see athletes as human beings first, instead of just athletes. This is important in shaping well-rounded individuals who will still be able to blend in with society and contribute after their retirement from sports, instead of being left out in the cold.

The delegation will also be reminded of how schools play an important role in expanding the pool of talents, and injecting a sporting attitude among the young.

The late Datuk Sieh Kok Chi wrote in his 2018 column on this website: “Before the formation of the Youth and Sports Ministry in the late 60s, there was little government funding for sports development and participation. Sports development was carried out by the schools and the national sports associations.”

There are those who remember many grassroots initiatives over the decades, such as ‘Catch Them Young’, the year-end ‘Kem Bakat’, ‘1School, 1Sport’ policy, and even the NSI’s Talent Identification and Development programme.

But what went wrong? A lack of commitment and continuity, for one.

In the past, school sports was often held at the end of year, ensuring students trained throughout the year. Today, sports days are often held early on in the academic year, and often, in a carnival-like format, significantly limiting the students’ playing time. That has to change.

At the elite level, there are whispers that the Road To Gold committee – yet another programme to help Malaysia win its first Olympic gold medal – should be institutionalised to ensure it is free from political influence, and be allowed to operate independently. Is there a political will to make such a commitment?

There are those who believe an ‘outsider’, say someone like Stuart, should take charge of the National Sports Council once Ahmad Shapawi retires. Stuart, who is Malaysia Football League’s chief executive officer, also sits on the NSC board.

This, some claim, will ensure a seamless link between the Road To Gold committee, and programmes run by the Council.

Others vouch for the likes of NSC athletes division director Jefri Ngadirin, or Arrifin Ghani, the deputy sports commissioner who once served NSC, to run the show. Do the decision-makers have the courage to inject new, radical approaches into the system?

These difficult conversations must take place, and decisions need to be made. If the current set-up is eager to make real changes, it has to start now, even if it means rocking the boat, and doing a bit of ‘firefighting’.

There is a Japanese saying: “Koketsu ni irazunba koji wo ezu”, which literally means; “If you do not enter the tiger’s cave, you will not catch its cub”.

In short, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Main image: Youth and Sports Ministry, Malaysia