by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 24 June 2015
My previous references to the SEA Games highlighted that it is the most successful regularly-organised multi-nation event in the region, and (perhaps tellingly) has nothing to do with ASEAN – the event is governed by the Southeast Asian Games Federation which predates ASEAN by a decade – and Timor-Leste joins in.
Last week I got to witness the 28th SEA Games in Singapore from another perspective. By virtue of my position as committee member of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM), I was invited to be the team manager for the Malaysian squash contingent to the SEA Games.
It was an immersive week for twelve of us: me and the assistant team manager, two coaches and eight players. It began with a comfortable Sunday bus journey from Bukit Jalil to Singapore, with a lunch stop at Kota Iskandar before smooth, specially-arranged immigration procedures on both sides of the Second Link. Immediately upon arrival there was a training session, and as the matches commenced I witnessed the talent, tenacity, professionalism and humility of the players as they annihilated their opponents at nearly every stage. Indeed, throughout the four events (Men’s Individual, Women’s Individual, Men’s Team, Women’s Team) our squad members played 26 matches, and only three did not have a score of 3-0. (Squash matches are played as best of five sets for both men and women, unlike in Grand Slam tennis.)
So dominant were our athletes that not only did we achieve our target of four gold medals, but we got two silver medals too, because in both the Men’s and Women’s Individual Finals it was Malaysia vs Malaysia, and yet the arena was full of spectators – including compatriot athletes from other sports – because people wanted to watch world-class squash. It was the first time in 14 years that we secured a clean sweep of all squash events entered, having also won four golds and two silvers in 1997, 1999 and 2001. (Although squash was absent from the Games in 2003, 2009, 2011 and 2013.)
Among the forty disciplines at the Games, our divers also achieved a clean sweep of eight available golds. Our sailers obtained seven while our archers and bowlers picked up five each. Apart from this there were many individual triumphs as well, such as Sharmini Ratnasingham’s in showjumping or Farah Ann Abdul Hadi’s in artistic gymnastics (in fact her performances contributed to six medals in total for the nation) – an achievement tainted in the news because of the proclivities of perverts and authoritarians misappropriating the language of religion. If there was any wrongdoing on the part of our athletes it was the spitting footballer, who was rightly sent home.
Throughout the Games, a WhatsApp group consisting of the Chef de Mission Datuk Seri Mohd Norza Zakaria, his deputies and the Team Managers of all the sports exchanged messages of encouragement and congratulations, apart from disseminating much needed administrative information. And there is a lot of administration involved in these multi-sports events – for each national contingent and especially for the host country: everything from daily meals and transport, organising the officials and medics, sponsors and mascot (Nila the lion, named after the founder of Singapura) and putting on the opening, closing and victory ceremonies. It will be our turn in 2017 – the biggest multi-sports event in the country since the 1998 Commonwealth Games.
From my new vantage point the politics of sport manifested itself quite differently too: the players and coaches have their own views of wrangling at the top, and are fully aware that medal tallies aren’t the main determinant for their continued survival – and rivalries within and across sports associations can subtly surface.
Equally, there was much diplomacy going on: what some haughtily refer to as “people-to-people relationships”. Probably more Malaysians and Thais conversed and befriended Myanmar[ese] (the demonym is contested) during the Games than during the crisis in the Andaman Sea.
But perhaps the most important relationships I saw were the ones between our players. Throughout the entire Games I heard not one reference to the ethnicity of our athletes, and of all the squads squash must have been the most inclusive. They came from the peninsula and Borneo, and just look at their names: Sanjay Singh, Rachel Arnold, Mohd Addeen Idrakie, Vanessa Raj, Mohd Syafiq Kamal, Teh Min Jie, Valentino Bon Jovi Bong and Zulhijjah Azan.
After these champions received their medals from Olympic Council of Malaysia President Tunku Imran Tuanku Ja’afar, they sang Negaraku on the top spot of the podium. They did so as equal compatriots, and it was then that “Malaysia Boleh!” – shouted at every arena during the Games – truly pervaded my thoughts.
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Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is a Committee Member of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia