A mile out of a millimeter: A take on Hannah Yeoh's one-year tenure as Youth and Sports Minister
Youth and Sports Minister Hannah Yeoh. Bernama FILE PIX
SHAH ALAM - In a portfolio historically and overwhelmingly dominated by men since Malaya had its first election in 1955, the appointment of Hannah Yeoh as Youth and Sports Minister was rather refreshing.
Initially, at least.
The second woman to hold the position after Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said (from 2004 – 2008), Yeoh began her debut in the ministry on a humble note; admitting that she was essentially a fish out of water.
Why? She had no sporting experience.
But like many before her, Yeoh knew how to play to the gallery.
Riding on the ‘reformasi’ rhetoric -- the sound bite synonymous with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim -- Yeoh uttered all the right words; charming many with her mission of robust reforms in the Malaysian sports landscape.
Next week will be Yeoh’s 12th month on the job and from the looks of it, her stellar opening number has been en route to a rather lacklustre closing act.
One that even some sports scientists could not help but notice.
“She has been repeating what previous ministers (Youth and Sports’) have been doing,” was how Dr Mohd Nidzam Jawi of Universiti Sains Malaysia described Yeoh’s tenure so far, adding that the latter hardly introduced anything new.
In driving home point, Nidzam cited the reintroduction of the Rakan Muda and Tunas Cermelang programmes which were first introduced in the 90s by the then-Barisan Nasional-led government.
“Then, there’s the rebranding of the ‘Road to Podium’ (RTP) high performance programme to ‘Road to Gold (RTG)’, which doesn’t change a lot in actually achieving gold medals in the Olympics,” needled Nidzam.
His contemporary in the field of sports sciences was also on the same page but unlike him, Dr Faithal Hassan from Universiti Malaya did not mince words, pointing out that Yeoh appeared to have “lost the plot.”
“When the 2023 Cambodia SEA Games were nearing, she failed to lead various agencies namely the National Sports Council, the National Sports Institute and the Olympic Council of Malaysia to cooperate with national sports associations in the preparation of our athletes.
“In fact, some did not even receive appropriate support from those agencies, which left athletes in limbo,” Faithal argued.
Similar to Nidzam, Faithal also neddled on the rebranding of RTP to RTG in March 2023, which he claimed, showed the cluelessness of the ministry in dealing with high-performance sports.
Such was so, said Faithal, because after seven months since RTG’s rebranding, the programme had only been including athletes who had yet to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics, while athletes who had already qualified were being left out from RTG.
“It was like a road to another failure or shall we call it, the Road To Olympic Qualifying Programme,” he quipped.
However, the two scientists insisted that the biggest farce throughout Yeoh’s ministerial tenure in 2023 was Malaysia’s playbook and the consequent celebration of the country’s worst performance in all of its participating history in the Asian Games.
To recap, in this year’s 19th Asian Games held in Hangzhou, China, Malaysia bagged six gold, eight silver and 18 bronze medals, which was the worst since the country’s dismal tally of six gold, eight silver and 16 bronze at the 2002’s 14th Asian Games in Seoul, South Korea.
Apart from touting it as a success and censuring those criticising the flop, what made the ministry’s approach in the Asian Games controversial was the decision to not set a gold medal target in order to not put pressure on our athletes.
“Taxpayers’ money is heavily spent on this huge championship, not setting a gold medal target is a loss to the people. How much is the expenditure spent on our preparations for the Asian Games to sponsor our athletes?” Nidzam asked.
Nidzam also rubbished the notion that the ministry did not have enough time to properly prepare given that the government was only established in November 2022 and that the unveiling of the new Cabinet Ministers was done in December 2022.
“It does not matter because the appointment of the minister and government transition are not an issue. The officials in the ministry should have already set the plans in motion [for the Asian Games] a long time ago,” he said.
His contention holds water because the Olympic Council of Asia -- the governing body of sports in Asia -- had already announced the date of the 19th Asian Games way back in 2019.
Unlike Nidzam who scrutinised ministry’s ill-preparedness for the Asian Games, Faithal chose to prod the Yeoh-led ministry's decision to implement the no-gold-medals target which the latter claimed to have been recommended by Japan’s Nippon Sport Science Univeristy (NSSU).
Scrapping the gold-medal target for the Asian Games, against the backdrop of Malaysia’s dismal performance in the Cambodia SEA Games, argued Faithal, appeared to be done in order to avoid stressing ministry officials rather than the athletes’ mental well-being.
“It was very irresponsible for sports officials and the minister to find an escapism after an awful achievement in Hangzhou. Making sports as a big screen for political mileage for politicians has been proven to serve a negative impact to Malaysian sports. Whether we like it or not
“In fact, it was like rubbing salt onto the wounds in the Malaysian sports landscape because there are a few universities in the country that have sports science studies, are ranked better than NSSU and the ministry chose to simply ignore them,” said Faithal.
With the 2024 Paris Olympics looming ever closer, the two experts were of the opinion that a proper synergy between the Youth and Sports Ministry and academic institutions has never been more crucial.
Nidzam highlighted that despite Malaysia having many sports scientists, their services had not been fully utilised.
“And even if any of our expertise are sought after by the Malaysian Sports Council, they would often want to tap into it for free.
“Frankly, there is a need to call upon all local sports scientists from all universities to sit together and make use of their collective knowledge for the sake of the athletes’ achievement,” said Nidzam.
Chiming in on the need for a robust collaboration, Faithal believed that it was high time for the Institute for Youth Research Malaysia (IYRES) -- an institute directly under the ministry -- to expand its circle of fraternity.
Right now, Faithal explained, IYRES has been rather selective in its collaboration partners, working with only a small number of researchers.
“It should collaborate with as many universities in Malaysia and bridge closer ties with universities than working with individuals.
“There are 14 states in Malaysia, each is unique with its own identity, culture, lifestyle and talents. There are yet hidden gems to be discovered in rural areas.
“Who knows if we can uncover more world champions in the future,” Faithal reasoned.
As it is, a glimpse of such collaboration has come to fruition.
In early October, Universiti Malaya’s Faculty of Sports and Exercise Science signed a memorandum of understanding with the National Sports Institute; in which the former will act as the latter’s satellite centre for athletes and sports officials to seek related input and advice.
With seven more months left before the world ushers in the Paris Olympics in July 2024, it won’t be entirely surprising if Malaysia falters yet again if the ministry continues to take a leaf from its playbook in the Cambodia SEA Games and the Hangzhou Asian Games.
But the million ringgit question is, will Yeoh still be spearheading the Youth and Sports Ministry by then?
And if she is, will there be another round of statistical infographics on the ratio of athletes-to-medals cherry-picked to paint a rosy picture and justify a cause for a jubilant celebration of a subpar feat?
Because everyone knows that making a mile out of a millimetre seems to be quite the norm in Malaysia these days.