Malaysia: What’s wrong with criticising our national athletes?

Malaysia: What’s wrong with criticising our national athletes?
By Zan Azlee

THE 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur is currently happening and the whole city is abuzz with everything sports.

Thanks to the Games, it’s been quite cheerful and festive in Kuala Lumpur; you’d quite easily get caught up in all the excitement.

I’m a basketball player and fan, so of course, I tried to attend some of the matches. Fortunately, entrance is free for basketball. Unfortunately, it’s always so full so I’ve not actually managed to watch any of the matches!

Malaysia never got past the group stage, but that’s alright. We played as well as could be expected and the fans cheered the team on anyway. Eventually, the finals was an exciting match between favourites Philippines and Indonesia. And yes, the Philippines won the gold.

But here’s the thing with Malaysians and sports.

I’ve written several times in my Monday column about religious and racial polarisation in Malaysia. Sports, however, seems to be one of the few activities that foster national unity. Always… and almost to a fault.

Whenever there’s a big sporting event taking place and Malaysia is a favourite, it’s no shock to find every layer of society sitting in an outdoor mamak restaurant watching the big screen and cheering together for the national team.

The SEA Games is, naturally, no exception. In fact, Malaysians even seem to be putting aside their political differences to support fellow countrymen. Or at least that’s what this tweet seems to demonstrate.

That’s Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin tweeting a wefie of himself, a group of Malaysian fans and a key member of the opposition bloc, Nurul Izzah Anwar (seated on the right, smiling at the camera), during a football match at the national stadium. And because Khairy and Nurul Izzah belong to political parties that are sworn enemies of one another, the tweet immediately went viral.

It was even reported in local English daily The Star.

All well and good but here’s a problem: Malaysians are expected to support our national athletes and no criticism is allowed at all, lest you be labelled a traitor.

So we cheer and praise our athletes who win SEA Games medals as if they are heroes who just saved the world from the evil forces of the Decepticons. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think to be fair, we need to be equally as critical.

For example, everyone will be extremely happy for the Malaysian football team to enter the finals and win the gold medal at the SEA Games. Good, we can be happy. But think about it. Malaysia has been champions of the SEA Games numerous times.

In fact, the Malaysian football team’s highest achievements in the recent past have only been at the Southeast Asian level. They have also won the AFF Championship (Asean Football Championship) several times, too.

But we’ve never gotten past this level.

And because football is the country’s most popular sport – one that has been given so much attention for development – I’d actually consider this a little bit of a disappointment. We should have progressed so much further now looking at how much resources we invested in the sport.

So celebrating a SEA Games gold medal for football as if the country has just won the World Cup would make little sense. Now if the team does well and wins the Asian Cup, I would understand the jubilation and excitement. But definitely not for the SEA Games gold.

Two nights ago, the country even went crazy after Malaysia beat Indonesia with a last minute goal to enter the finals and face off Thailand. Really? Is it such a miracle for Malaysia to enter the finals of the SEA Games? Like I said, we’re happy and all, but does it justify that level of celebration?

Malaysian Khairul Hafiz Jantan’s win in the 100m sprint, on the other hand, should receive plenty of cheer and celebration. He is young and has never won a major race yet so it’s only right we celebrate his gold win and encourage him even more.

So it is unfair to label those who criticise the national athletes and teams (and I’m talking constructive criticism), as traitors and haters. Far from it.

In fact, that criticism is to show we know you can kick it at the SEA Games and we want to see you do better.

But that seems to be a problem for beloved Malaysia. We can’t seem to take criticism in any form and for any field or industry, be it sports or even politics and government. If you criticise, you’re not patriotic because if you love your country, you would only say good things about it.

In some cases, criticism of the country is deemed an act of economic sabotage.

Malaysians need to realise it is a good thing to have a critical public because it means they care and want things to improve by providing the right kind of pressure to those responsible so they won’t settle for mediocrity.

My two cents, anyway.

That being said, I sincerely wish good luck, congratulations and thank you to all the Malaysian athletes taking part in the SEA Games. Representing the country is always a noble thing and not to be taken for granted.

Rest assured that criticism or no criticism, all of Malaysia stands behind every single one of you.

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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