Placing Our Athletes in Front

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Our athletes are our heroes. Heck, even their tracksuit, designed by our local maestro Melinda Looi, is titled the “Malaysian Heroes”. And boy, how we cheer them on on the fields, and heap praise and adoration on them at the podium.

But what is the life of a Malaysian athlete like?

There are 7,099 athletes in Malaysia training in 26 types of sports, from badminton to cycling; from aquatics to gymnastics; from archery to rugby. Out of these, about 459 are considered elite athletes and are currently undergoing top-level programmes in the National Sports Council (MSN). On top of these, there are 25,525 football players being trained all over the country under the National Football Development Programme (NFDP).

All these sportsmen and sportswomen will come under one of the 9,225 sports associations registered under the Registrar of Sports.

After five months in office as the deputy minister of youth and sports, I realised that when it comes to sports matters, we deal mainly with officials and office bearers of the relevant sports associations.

However, I feel we rarely get to talk to the athletes themselves. Thus, I decided to invite members of the Athletes Commission of the Malaysian Olympic Council to my office recently. The delegation, led by former Olympian Noraseela Mohd Khalid, came together with several athletes representing different sports.

The session was enlightening in that it allowed me to understand the athletes’ plight better.

On top of the problems they have to deal with, Malaysian athletes face a perennial dilemma: whether to thoroughly immerse themselves in the sports – training and pursuing medals – or to be concerned about livelihood and the pursuit of education, jobs and other securities.

An official of the Amateur Swimming Union of Malaysia (ASUM) recently told me something very astute: our concern should not just be for the one guy who will win, but for the nine others who trained equally hard and did not make it to the podium.

On average, athletes train five to eight hours a day, at least five to six days a week, with light training on rest days. When preparing for major events, some may train up to 10 hours a day.

Do they get paid for all this hard work?

The best of these athletes – those under the Podium programme – receive an allowance of RM3,500 a month. There are only 148 athletes of these.

The second tier gets RM800-RM3,500, depending on their performance. There are 311 athletes in this Kita Juara programme.

Beyond these 459 in Podium and Kita Juara, the rest get very little; in fact, most of them do not receive any form of monetary compensation for their training at all.

And we are not yet talking about other emerging sports such as dodgeball, tower run, cup stacking and etc.

There is a great sense of insecurity among Malaysian athletes. This is also a major factor that turns off many potential young talents from pursuing sports to the highest level. And for some of those who actually put their lives into sports, we are all very familiar with the tragic stories that emerge every now and then: a former athlete falls into poverty and cannot even afford healthcare.

It is quite instinctive to imagine that sports associations have the duty to safeguard the welfare of athletes.

But when I read the constitutions of sports associations at the national, state and district level, I realise that the welfare of athletes is not listed among the associations’ objectives. This is not to say that the associations do not take care of their athletes; in fact, often it is the associations that come forth to help athletes in need.

My point is this – even in the formal structure, athletes do not feature prominently. I was surprised to realise that serving athletes in general do not have a vote in the sports associations.

While there is a special committee that convenes monthly in MSN where athletes are represented, the response I receive from both the athletes as well as MSN officials is that such a platform, and other existing formal platforms, are not very conducive for honest discussion and feedback on problems faced by athletes.

This is understandable. After all, MSN and the national sports associations (NSAs) have the power to decide on the fate of the athletes, making it difficult for athletes to voice out their concerns freely.

The general mood is that there is no independent party that will take care of the athletes’ interest.

No wonder then that when I met with the Athletes Commission, among others, they tend to lament about how “athletes are treated like tools for sports”.

So how do we move forward?

In order to allow our athletes to focus on excelling in their game, we need to deal with their immediate dilemmas and other challenges. Allow me to outline three key policy shifts which the ministry is embarking on:

  • Firstly, the new administration has proposed to extend medical protection to all serving national athletes under MSN as well as to former athletes who have represented Malaysia.
  • Secondly, we are launching a pilot programme that will send the first batch of national athletes into the job market under the Malaysian Athletes’ Dual-Track Career Programme. This will enable athletes to be placed in the private sector for an agreed length of time per week.
  • Thirdly, MSN has been tasked to set up a mechanism that will allow athletes to be better consulted and engaged within the sports ecosystem in the country. My own vision is to have a one-stop centre where athletes can call their own, a place for them to receive all sorts of services – from career and education consultation to a safe space for them to voice their views and opinions or even complaints.

The Youth and Sports Ministry is in reform mode. There are many things that need changing and straightening up. That is the truth. As such, there are many decisions to be made, the key of which is, what should be our end-goals? We can set, for example, more gold medals as targets, even Olympic gold – which is a current target. Or we can have more sports (and youth) programmes. Or bigger participation of Malaysians in general in our activities.

Whatever goals we are setting, I think all these “big” goals must be balanced by a serious focus on the “person”, on individuals – in this case the sportsmen and sportswomen who dedicate their lives to upholding the dignity of the country. We must factor them into our policies beyond the normal celebratory occasions.

Steven Sim is the MP for Bukit Mertajam and Deputy Minister of Youth and Sports.



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