Malaysia’s future as a sporting nation depends on giving priority to sports and physical education in schools, much like how it was done in the past.
Physical Education teacher *Zulmazran was shocked during assembly one day when the vice-principal of his school said, “Orang yang selalu pergi sukan tu boleh pergi mampus.” (Those who always go out for sports can get lost.)
“I was shocked, disappointed and angry. How could she have said such a thing publicly?” says Zulmazran, who was then in charge of the school athletics team.
While this might be an isolated incident, it reflects the lukewarm attitude towards sports in Malaysian schools. Such a situation has prompted Deputy Prime Minister and Education Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin to say that he wanted to bring back sports to schools.
He has announced that the Government would even set up a teachers’ training institute (IPG) specially to train sports coaches and technical officials.
His statement has given a big boost to the country’s sports fraternity, especially at a time when Malaysian sports is considered to be non-existent at the world level with the exception of squash, badminton, bowling, lawn bowling, and cycling.
The fact remains that Malaysia has never won a gold medal at the Olympic games. Our national football team, which used to be one of the best in Asia, struggles against neighbouring countries and has fallen in the world rankings dramatically.
Performance in sports such as athletics and hockey has also dipped in recent times.
The former deputy president of the Malaysian Amateur Athletics Union (MAAU), Datuk Danyal Balagopal Abdullah, says that while sports brings glory, its unifying factor is of more value as it transcends all.
“When Nicol David competes, no one talks about whether she is Malay, Chinese or Indian. Everyone knows her as a Malaysian,” says Danyal.
He explains that it was the same during Malaysia’s sports heyday when crowds used to throng venues to experience the euphoria of winning after watching their heroes battle it out in the Merdeka Cup (football), Thomas Cup (badminton) and hockey matches.
“The Merdeka Stadium would be packed with 40,000 people and there would be many more outside trying to get in,” he says.
Danyal says schools then played a vital role in the development of sports, besides nurturing sportsmen and sportswomen.
“Without the involvement of schools, we can forget about sports development,” he adds.
Important starting line
Sadly, with the stress on academic excellence these days, most students only have tuition as a “distraction” from classes.
Most only have the television or the computer for company. Instead of using their feet to play football in the fields, they use their fingers to control the ball on the flat screens.
National football coach K. Rajagopal says the encouragement towards sports must start in schools, as was done in the past.
“We used to have many organised games all over the country and we used to play in the evenings. If you don’t start them young, it will be too late to inculcate the winning mentality into them,” says Rajagopal, a former national footballer.
The nation’s most famous sprinter, Datuk M. Jegathesan, concurs. He says schooldays are a crucial phase for the development of sportsmen and women.
“It is compulsory to catch the captive audience and teach them the right habits. We used to play come rain or shine.
“We enjoyed competing with one another. We had different values and interests then,” says the former Olympian.
Former Johor football coach K. Sukumaran bemoans the fact that only selected students get to show their abilities on the playing field.
“What about the rest? Not everybody is given an opportunity,” says Sukumaran who was also a physical education teacher.
Olympic Council of Malaysia secretary Datuk Sieh Kok Chi echoes Sukumaran’s view and believes that there should be two aspects of school sports – the elite programme in order to produce a strong school team and the other for the general health and recreation of all the students in the school.
“The two programmes will not be competitive but complementary. If the schools and teachers look down on the aspect of mass sports and only concentrate on selected games that they are focused on, naturally the students will feel neglected, take up other activities and will not get involved in sports any more,” says Sieh.
Lt Kol (Rtd) Wong Ah Jit, former executive director of the Squash Racquets Association of Malaysia (SRAM), says the decline of school sports happened in the late 80s when the country was coming to grips with the ICT era.
“Every school was pressured to excel academically and sports was given low priority,” he says, adding that it was an unavoidable phase.
He says the two-session school worsened the situation.
“In the older days when there were only single session schools, it was compulsory for games in the afternoon at least three times a week. The priorities in the two-session school were lower as they did not have enough facilities,” says Lt Kol Wong.
As it stands, the priority given to sports differs from each school and seemingly depends on headmasters, say teachers.
Zulmazran says the current principal of his school gives him support, but not his fellow teachers.
“They say I get to claim allowance. What they don’t realise is that I’m doing work. And they are always saying their students are distracted although practices are held after school,” he says.
*Teacher K. Param says the headmistress of her school is generally not very supportive of sports.
“The aim is always the number of As a student can achieve. Ultimately, that’s what parents, the public and community look at,” she laments.
She cites the example where a teacher was chosen as a state volleyball coach but was told to reject the offer by the principal as he was in charge of a Year Six class.
“But whenever we win any competition, she will proudly announce it in the assembly and tell all her friends as if she was responsible for it,” says Param.
The previous headmaster, however, was all for sporting endeavours and encouraged students to take part in more sports.
“Whenever any of our teams were playing, he used to be there. This motivated the students,” she says.
*Jack, a primary school teacher, says that under the existing system, all sports events are held early in the year so that studies can be given importance for the rest of the months.
“This is done so that students can concentrate on the exams. Many schools also don’t allow exam class students to play sports,” he says.
Sukumaran, however, rubbishes the notion that being active in sports hampers academic endeavours.
“Sports should not be associated with disrupting academic performances,” he says, citing the example of world number one women’s squash player Nicol David who scored 7As in her SPM examination.
Sheikh Kamaruddin Sheikh Ahmad, the vice-president of the Malaysian Association of Physical Education, Sports Science and Fitness (PPJSKM), is appalled by the teaching of Physical Education (PE) in schools.
Bottom of the heap
He went to 12 schools in Malacca last month to observe how PE was being taught and the findings shocked him.
“There are 1,700 students in one school but there were only six balls and 20 hockey sticks for the students,” he says, adding that during a 30-minute period of PE, students only had about 20 minutes of playtime.
“What kind of PE can you do during that time?” he asks, stressing that there should at least be two periods of PE.
He says the problem is compounded because teachers who are not qualified teach the subject.
“It seems that anyone can teach the subject. All they have to do is tell the students to go get the cones and ball and tell them to play football. It is a mockery,” he says.
Sheikh Kamaruddin says PE teachers take four years to get their degree, during which they learn a lot, including anatomy, measurements, psychology and nutrition.
“It’s a course that has content and value. But the PE teacher’s office is usually in the storeroom. Are they second grade teachers?” he asks.
Kamaruddin says the poor condition of school fields (sometimes no field at all) and the absence of shower facilities are also part of the problem.
Sukumaran notes that the first thing to be sacrificed for any development is always the playing field.
Rajagopal attributes the decline in Malaysian sports to loss of dedicated teachers.
“Our interest started from them but as the country becomes more developed, less importance was placed on sports,” says Sukumaran.
“These dedicated teachers didn’t mind going to school in the evening or coming back at night.”
Some put the blame on the increasing number of women teachers, saying that they are not as capable in handling sports compared with men.
Lt Kol Wong, however, disagrees with the theory.
“We can’t use that an excuse. We have women soldiers and pilots. What is a sports teacher compared with that? We make them weaker by saying all these things. Their capabilities are not less at all,” he says.
Danyal feels that the involvement of parents is very important factor.
“We can’t pass the buck to the schools and expect them to perform miracles. Parents have to work in tandem with schools,” he says.
Lt Kol Wong adds: “If parents are not interested in sports, what can we expect of their children? It’s a chain in the system.”
Sukumaran suggests that sports associations hire coaches to impart their knowledge in schools and hopes that nepotism is not practised.
“The problem is, whenever there is money, everybody wants a piece of the cake. Only the highest qualified people should be given the opportunity,” he says.
Sieh says school sports in the UK, Australia and the US are good models for Malaysia to emulate as everyone is given the opportunity to participate in sports activities at whatever level.
“They learn the basic skills and the rules of sports in schools and if they have the interest, motivation and talent to improve themselves, they join sports clubs. From the sports clubs, the good ones are recruited into the states and national junior squads
“For those who don’t make it to the national level, they can become sports administrators, technical officials and sports volunteers who also contribute to the development of sports in their community and country,” he says.
Danyal says that what Muhyiddin wants to do isn’t new.
“The sports fraternity will always be supportive of such a move; however, it shouldn’t be just rhetoric but followed through,” he says, adding that officials sitting in the various sports associations for years have not helped to make things better.
He cites the example of a blueprint for athletics focusing on development in schools, which was presented and approved by the Cabinet Committee for Sports a few years back, but not followed through.
“The doctrine was endorsed and a budget was approved for it. But when the people in charge changed, it fell through,” says Danyal
Lt Kol Wong is optimistic about the plan to re-emphasise sports in schools. He says that while it is never too late too start, programmes implemented must be designed for the long term.
“We have had good ideas but we are not able to sustain them. When the ministers change, so do the programmes. We shouldn’t look at five years but at 20 or 30 years down the road. The question is whether we have the political will to last the distance,” he adds.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.