When the race hinders our race for glory
Sport, they say, is the great unifier. It brings people together and makes them friends forever. Race, religion and color are irrelevant; what really matters are abilities and skills.
But is it really?
A school in Johor has seen fit to assign certain sports to certain races. Apparently only Malaysians can play soccer, hockey and sepaktakraw and only Chinese can play basketball and table tennis.
I have no idea where the Indians belong. Maybe badminton or pétanque – yes pétanque – which were open to everyone.
It is a good thing that the Deputy Minister of Education and the Minister of Sports have rejected the idea. Even Johor’s Tengku Mahkota entered the arena, with a stern warning that these things shouldn’t happen.
The only problem is that these things happen – over and over again.
What happened at this school in Johor was a manifestation of a much bigger problem – racial segregation throughout Malaysia.
We shout “sport for all” and yet believe that certain races are good in a given sport. That’s a lot of rubbish.
Lee Chong Wei may have been the best shuttler in recent memory, but Misbun Sidek was his sifu. And the last time we won the Thomas Cup it was Punch Gunalan who lifted the trophy.
Yet the myth lives on.
Tan Cheng Hoe is the national soccer coach, but take a look at his squad who are now preparing for the World Cup qualifiers in Bahrain next month.
Brendan Gan comes out like a sore thumb, the only Chinese in the first team. London-born La’Vere Corbin-Ong and Australian-born Matthew Davies don’t count, while S Kumahraan and Darren Lok are just peripherals.
What about the national hockey team? The tri-nation meeting is currently taking place in Kuala Lumpur and the only non-Malaysian in sight is coach Arul Selvaraj.
Why can’t we produce a new Soh Chin Aun, Wong Choon Wah or M Chandran in Malaysian football?
Or a Poon Fook Loke, Chua Boon Huat, M Mahendran or Sri Shanmuganathan in hockey? What happened to the Seranis – with names like Sta Maria, Nunis and Fidelis – or worse, to the Singhs who were once the mainstay of Malaysian hockey?
Have they all given up on football and hockey? Or is there something wrong with our selection process?
Having been a sports journalist for almost two decades, I have heard many complaints about racial favoritism in sports; screening trials that were nothing more than eye drops.
The teams are shortlisted and aspirants who want to join the team have 10 minutes on the pitch, during which no one passes the ball to them.
Then they are told to go home and wait for the call that never comes.
It is not a single race either. Who says non-Chinese can’t play basketball or table tennis?
K Satyaseelan was probably the best three-point shooter the country has produced and he was even national captain in 2007. He is now a distant memory.
And how many people know Mohd Shakirin Ibrahim who represented Malaysia at the team table tennis world championships in 2016? The team was led by the then national champion whose name is: Muhammad Ashraf Haiqal.
Ashraf remains the second best player in the country despite Shakirin being out of the competition.
The point is, everyone is able to excel regardless of their racial background. All it takes is acceptance and a fair chance.
Yet there are those like the principal of this Johor school who deny athletes this chance. Let’s be very clear about one thing: the director is not alone. There are many like him.
It is in fact a reflection of the racism endemic among us. Malaysia as a whole needs a paradigm shift – and better politicians.
Many football teams, even those in the Malaysian Football League, are run by politicians who are quick to set racial quotas for their teams.
These FA heads of state are notorious for giving orders that only a certain number of players of a certain race can be on the pitch at any given time.
A coach who defies this order may be sacked, even if he wins the title.
The fans, too, are not angels, having been brainwashed by Malaysian race-based politics.
We saw all of this laid bare by Selangor B coach Sathianathan recently when he came over over some nasty racist slurs. His crime? He had fielded “too many” Indians in a match.
It is therefore not surprising that most non-Malaysians prefer to avoid team sports where they are at the mercy of selectors. Instead, they switch to individual sports like badminton and squash.
In these sports, if you win, no one can deny you your place on the team.
The men’s squash team, for one, has Ng Eain Yow and Ivan Yuen alongside Mohd Syafiq Kamal while the women’s team has Low Wee Wern and S Sivasangari with Aifa Azman.
Let’s not forget the drummers of the world like Nicol David and Ong Beng Hee. They all made a good mix.
In badminton there are Lee Zii Jia, Cheam June Wei, Goh Jin Wei, Pearly Tan, S Kisona and M Thinaah with substitutes like Nur Izzuddin Rumsani and Muhammad Shaqeem Shahyar.
It’s a really Malaysian line-up.
It is indeed time to heed the words of the Crown Prince of Johor – that schools should be a place to encourage unity, not division.
In fact, we should go a step further and make sport – at all levels – about unity and meritocracy, never race and favoritism.
And we need real action, not just lip service. It would be good to start with schools – changing the mindsets of teachers and principals.
Brendan Gan (left) in soccer and Muhammad Ashraf Haiqal in table tennis are proof that no race can dominate a particular sport.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.