(Used by permission)
by Aluosies Francis
The official opening of Stadium Merdeka in 1957.
Sports has always had a place in Malaysian society since before independence.
The country became world champions in badminton in the 40s, 50s and 60s.
Football, cricket and sepak takraw were also popular in the villages and towns.
Sports was managed by clubs and associations which were all run voluntarily. In the case of badminton, many clubs were formed to manage training and competitions between villages and between clubs.
Before Merdeka, there were practically zero funds for sports development which was mainly carried out by the mostly vernacular and mission schools. Government schools were few. Several premier schools such as Victoria Institution, the Johor English College and the Penang Free School were fortunate in that they had good sports equipment and facilities, and dedicated sports teachers.
For the rest of the population, sports development was usually funded by the community, philanthropists, supporters and the athletes themselves. For example, the Malayan weightlifters who took part in the 1950 British Empire Games (precursor to the Commonwealth Games) had to pay their own way to Auckland. It was only when they won medals, including gold, that their passage was reimbursed.
When the Federation of Malaya achieved Merdeka, the young nation was lucky in that its first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman had a great passion and love for sport, especially football.
In addition, his deputy Tun Abdul Razak Hussein also had great love for sport, namely hockey and golf. Most of the other ministers such as Tun Tan Siew Sin and Tan Sri Mohd Khir Johari also shared the same love.
Tunku was the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president and later headed the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).
Razak was Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) president from July 1959 until his death in 1976. He was also the Malaysian Hockey Federation president. Tan was the National Shooting Association of Malaysia president and Khir was the president of both the Malaysian sepak takraw and badminton associations.
Thus, it was not surprising that sport development in the country flourished under their stewardship even though the government's priority in the early days of nationhood was economic and infrastructure development.
One of the first sports development programmes initiated by Tunku was the construction of the Merdeka Stadium. The stadium was a great catalyst to the promotion and development of sports, especially football.
Tunku initiated the Merdeka Football Tournament, as part of the Merdeka celebration, and soon it became one of the most prestigious football tournaments in Asia.
It motivated Malaysian football to improve tremendously and it was during the 50s to 70s that Malaysian football was at its peak, with Malaysia qualifying for the Olympic Games in 1972 and 1980 and winning the Asian Games bronze medal in Teheran in 1974 after defeating the powerful North Koreans 1–0 in the playoff for bronze medal.Football
The 1958 Merdeka Tournament Champion – Standing for the left to right: Wong Kim Seng, Robert Choe, Jalil Che Din, Sexton Lourdes, Ahmad Nazari, Ng Boon Bee, S. Govindarajoo. Seated from left – Abdul Ghani, Chan Tuck Choy, YTM Tunku Abdul Rahman, Mok Wei Hong, Rahim Omar.
Thus began the glorious era for Malaysian football. Since qualifying for the
1972 Munich and the 1980 Moscow Olympics (which Malaysia boycotted in a US–led
initiative to protest Russia's occupation of Afghanistan), the performance of
our national team has spiralled downward.
Former national defender "ironman" Santokh Singh described it thus: "Like a gold rush, footballers were in a rush to represent their country. They took pains to don the national jersey as the logo – the Malaysian flag – was always placed where your heart is, on the jersey's left side. So my heart was with Malaysia."
He said there was stiff competition all round as there were many talented footballers. "We always played hard and improved ourselves just to defend our place in the national team. We did not depend on past laurels.
"We hated being replaced or substituted when we played," said Santokh, who now frequently plays pool and darts to pass time.
As a national player, Santokh won three Merdeka Tournament titles in 1973, 1974 and 1976. He was also in the team that lost twice in 1975 and 1980.
"I was not in the team that qualified for the 1972 Munich Games but I was in the team for the Moscow Games. When our government boycotted the Games and it was my biggest disappointment that I did not get to play in the Olympics," he said.
He followed closely Malaysia's participation in the Munich Games. "They had a good team and stood strong in the first match against Germany where the teams were even at halftime. However, Malaysia finally lost 0–3.
Helping Malaysia qualify for the Moscow Olympics was the best time of Santokh's football career. Prior to that, the defender's glorious moment came when Malaysia edged favourites North Korea in the playoff for the bronze medal in the 1974 Asian Games in Teheran.
"We played not for self gain but for the country. We played hard to lift the image of Malaysian football and the country in general. We trained beyond the boundaries of official training times under the coaches.
"That meant we did a lot of extra training on our own to ensure that we had something extra to retain our place in the national team. Football was always on our minds, not discotheques, cigarettes, women, wine and karaokes," said the former stalwart, who played alongside the likes of Soh Chin Aun, M. Chandran, Mokhtar Dahari and goalkeeper M. Arumugam.
He is saddened that the standard of Malaysian football has plunged like a stock market. "Though the stock market recovers, our football hasn't till this day," said Santokh, attributing the decline to indiscipline, the lackadaisical attitude of players, poor fighting spirit and mental approach, and the greed for money.
In 1958, Tan Yee Khan, then 17, (now Datuk), became the first schoolboy to be absorbed into the Thomas Cup team. "I was very honoured and proud to achieve this feat," he said.
However, the proudest moment came nine years later in the 1967 Thomas Cup in the final with Indonesia in Jakarta, where together with longtime partner Ng Boon Bee, he helped Malaysia win the Cup – the first since Malaysia achieved independence.
But it was a controversial win.
"We won the first game 15–2 and were leading the second 13–5 when some crowd interference started. Nevertheless, it was the best hour of my life," Yee Khan recalled.
Before that, Malaysia did win the Thomas Cup but it was under the Malaya flag. But after the 1967 win, Malaysia failed to win the Thomas Cup until 25 years later when another youngster, Cheah Soon Kit, did the nation proud.
Making his third appearance, Soon Kit, now the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM)'s women's doubles coach, and partner Soo Beng Kiang played the game of their life to clinch the deciding last doubles to give Malaysia a grand win on May 16, 1992.
The score was tied at 2–2 before the pair stepped into the court to take on then world champions Ricky Subagja and Rexy Mainaky (now our national doubles coach) of Indonesia.
The Malaysian duo played like men possessed to defeat the Indonesians in three games to regain the Thomas Cup. Their win sparked off a frenzy among the 10,000–odd fans who had packed Stadium Negara.
"Don't ask me how I felt as I cannot really put it in words. You should know how we felt. You could use all the adjectives – fantastic, emotional, excited, ecstatic, etc," said Soon Kit. "All I can say is I did it for the country and for all Malaysians. I was really proud to make the whole country happy."
The golden era in athletics was filled with names like sprinters Mani Jegathesan (now Datuk and a doctor), M. Rajamani and Marina Chin, middle distance runners like Karu Selvaratnam and Juinaida Aman, hurdler Istiaq Mubarak and Datuk Nashatar Singh. We continue to remember them because of their spectacular performances in the track and field events in the 60s and 70s.
Jegathesan's story is certainly an inspiration for the current generation. He gave his undivided love to sports and studies but did not have the luxury of a qualified coach. Training at irregular intervals between studies and rest time, he recalled that there was no proper equipment to better his running time in the 100m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay events.
His only financial assistance came from friends. But such was his commitment and passion for sports that he goes down in history as the only Malaysian in athletics in a multi–sport event like the Asian Games to win three individual gold medals – 200m, 200m and 4 x 100m relay – and in record times. This feat, which still stands today, was achieved at the 1966 Asian Games in Bangkok.
"I could have won four gold medals if I had not withdrawn from the 400m," he said, recalling that he pulled out because he needed breathing space from the tight scheduling of running events.
During the Games, most athletes enjoyed the comfort of hitting the \sack early but Jegathesan had to stay up late to study for his final medical examination.
This probably explains why he was aptly labelled the "Flying Doc".
Jegathesan said: "When I won the gold medals, it was only a five–minute celebration as I had to get to my books. Life has to go on."
Jegathesan will also go down in history as the only Malaysian athlete who appeared in two consecutive Olympic Games 200m semi–finals after competing in three Games – the 1960 chapter in Rome, 1964 in Tokyo and 1968 in Mexico.
But just at the brink of reaching his first–ever 200m finals in Tokyo, he was floored by chicken pox.
The 1975 World Cup semifinal match between Malaysia and Holland at the Kilat green was a historical moment for Malaysian sport when Malaysia thumped the defending champions 2–1 with a last minute goal from skipper Sri Shanmuganathan.
Recalling the episode, assistant coach Datuk K. Yogeswaran said the win was the most electrifying moment for him and the nation.
Yoges said his feelings even superseded the excitement he felt when he was picked to play for Malaysia in the Tokyo in 1964 and Mexico Olympics in 1968.
"This episode lingers in my mind even to this day. It was a national effort. There was support all around from the prime minister, the late Tun Abdul Razak, who was then the MHF (Malaysian Hockey Federation) president, MHF deputy president Sultan Azlan Shah, coach Ho Koh Chye, and Malaysians. The win was a perfect tribute to Malaysia," he said in an interview.
Malaysian hockey was at its prime between the 60s and 80s, Yoges said. But the Kuala Lumpur World Cup in 1975 and the Paris Junior World Cup in 1979 were extraordinary for the national teams. On both occasions, Malaysia finished fourth.
"Nothing beats the Kuala Lumpur World Cup. We eventually lost to India in the semifinal despite taking a 2–1 lead, only to see India's Azlan Sher Khan score the winning goal after the teams were tied at 2–2.
"It was also a match that went into the record books with a spectator turnout of 49,000 – the biggest turnout in the world for a hockey match," Yoges said.
Nicol David of Malaysia holds up the World Championship trophy 26 November 2006 after defeating Natalie Grinham of Australia during the World Women's Final Squash Championship at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland
In her teenage days, squash sensation Nicol Ann David won just about all the titles in the age category group – on the local front as well as on foreign soil. The small and slight Penangite was thus nicknamed "pocket dynamite" by the media.
Nicol turns 24, five days before Malaysia celebrates its 50th year of independence on Aug 31.
To pen Nicol's success story would equal writing a thesis. Nicol is perhaps one of the greatest Malaysian–born athletes.
She has the distinction of chalking up back–to–back wins in the World Junior Women's Open, World Women's Open and British Women's Open – a feat that is yet to be matched by any women squash player.
Prior to this, this young "wall basher" carved out victories in the British Age Group Opens – U–14, U–16 (twice) and U–19. Her biggest success came in 2005 when she clinched the World Women's Open in Hongkong and successfully defended it last year in Belfast.
The news of this win even prompted Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi to say that "Nicol is now more famous than me".
Obviously, she will be gunning for a hattrick come November in Madrid. According to Squash Rackets Association of Malaysia former secretary Lt Kol (rtd) Wong Ah Jit, Nicol's main target is to win the World Women's Open six times to beat Australian Sarah Fitzgerald's record of five wins.
Malaysia is a powerful force in bowling. Keglers like Shalin Zulkipli, Esther Cheah, Lai Kin Hgoh, Wendy Chai, Alex Liew, Daniel Lim and Ben Heng have one time or other had podium finishes in the international arena.
One of the best individual efforts came on Aug 12, 2005 at the Women's World Bowling Championship in Aalborg, Denmark, when Esther Cheah, then only 19, clinched the gold for the country.
Esther, who will be pursuing her studies at University of Nebraska in the US next month, said the victory was immensely sweet because nobody gave her a chance. "Even I did not expect to win," said the former KDU student.
Prior to the event, Esther had also won the Thailand Open.
A former sports journalist, Aluosies Francis is currently media manager of the Ladies Asian Golf Tour based in Hongkong.