by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 8 August 2014

Every so often diplomats and scholars ask the question: is the Commonwealth of Nations relevant? Critics denounce its lack of teeth to enforce decisions and its imperial origins, while supporters praise the organisation’s commitment to democracy and its voluntary nature. But its greatest advertisement happens every four years: the Commonwealth Games gives smaller countries a chance to shine in an international spotlight, and provides cities that are not yet ready to host the Olympics (and not rich enough to buy other prestigious events) an opportunity to have some of the world’s best athletes in town.

This year in Glasgow, Malaysia was prominent from the start. There was a moment of silence in memory of MH17 before the Queen’s Baton arrived. The President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, Prince Imran – the first Malaysian to hold that position – did a “great comedy act” (his own words) when the vessel containing the Head of the Commonwealth’s speech briefly refused to open, prompting Scottish cyclist Sir Chris Hoy’s equally amusing intervention.

Tunku Imran, who holds the Negeri Sembilan title of Tunku Muda Serting, has contributed enormously to Malaysian sporting life over the years – particularly in squash where he served as the first secretary of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (to which I was recently elected as a committee member). His father Tuanku Ja’afar hosted Queen Elizabeth II in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 – the footage of the closing ceremony is on YouTube, complete with the embarrassing quick-march version of Negaraku then in use performed after the majestic God Save the Queen.

During the Parade of Nations, the Malaysian contingent was led by athletes wearing Malaysia Airlines uniforms while the rest of the team wore black armbands, and cyclist Fatehah Mustapa carried the Jalur Gemilang at half-mast. This was apparently not permitted by the organisers, but no one was going to criticise this gesture of respect: indeed, we had the support of the Commonwealth family that day. Alas, that warmth was dented by reports of certain Malaysian politicians condemning the use of Scottie dogs to display the names of the countries. Politicians in the other eight OIC countries also in the Commonwealth were apparently not so incensed.

Then, of course, were the sports themselves. There were triumphs and disappointments that the sports pages documented, in contrast to the shenanigans that dominated the front pages – the former Deputy Prime Minister in the spotlight during the 1998 Games was a main news item during the 2014 Games too. Thankfully, the power of sport to unite Malaysians is ever stronger, perhaps because public confidence in other national institutions has ebbed.

Unfortunately, we were one shy of our target of seven gold medals, being beaten by Singapore (with eight) for the first time, although most of these came courtesy of their controversial Foreign Sports Talent Scheme. Together with seven silver and six bronze medals, we garnered a total of 19 medals. This is a marked drop from performances since 1998. Then, we achieved an unprecedented 35 medals, followed by 34 in Manchester, 29 in Melbourne and 36 in Delhi. (These figures are from the Commonwealth Games Federation website: there is inconsistency across other sources.)

We can try and console ourselves that on a medal per capita basis, we are not terrible – roughly 1.5 million people per medal compared to India’s 20 million people per medal – but well behind Australia’s 170,000 people per medal. Such statistical fossicking does not change the fact that we have much to do to improve our performance, though.

Many theories have been put forward to explain why we’re not doing better: a lack of grassroots development, insufficient funding, politicisation and corruption of sports associations, and underdevelopment of coaches. The truth is likely to be a combination of all those things in varying degrees, with particular amendments for certain sports: in some cases, like hockey, we were once a force to be reckoned with, but our team was trounced in Glasgow – enthusiasts tell me we have never recovered since the switch to artificial turf in the seventies. In other cases, like badminton and squash, there is concern that there may be no successors to our current stars. Then there were those wins by Mohd Hafifi Mansor in weightlifting and Ooi Tze Liang in diving, and hopefully such success can be built upon.

For squash, at least, the grassroots programme is delivering results and uncovering tremendous raw talent. The weakest link now is the lack of elite coaches, and it’s one of SRAM’s current key objectives to address this by enhancing the resources available. The goal is to ensure a good number of Malaysians in the global top twenty: for while it’s impossible to guarantee another legend like Nicol David, with a strong overall squad, we can increase the probability.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is President of IDEAS

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