Sepak Takraw, the Malay Heritage Sport, is Alive and Kicking


ONE FINE AFTERNOON back in the mid-15th century Tun Besar, the son of Tun Perak, a prominent palace official at the Malacca Sultanate, was playing sepak takraw with a few friends when the rattan ball accidentally struck Raja Muhammad, the heir apparent of Sultan Mansur Shah, causing his royal headgear to be knocked off his head.

A heated argument ensued and an infuriated Raja Muhammad swiftly drew his keris and stabbed Tun Besar to death. Angered, Tun Besar’s fellow kinsmen sought retaliation against Raja Muhammad, but the conflict was peacefully diffused when Tun Perak, a wise man known for his unwavering loyalty to the Sultan, interceded. An agreement with Sultan Mansur Shah was subsequently reached: Raja Muhammad will no longer qualify as the heir to the throne, but will instead be sent out of Malacca to be installed as the first Sultan of Pahang.

This historical event is chronicled in Sejarah Melayu, or the Malay Annals, compiled by historians from as early as the 15th century. The aim of recalling this very chapter is to not delve into the history of Malacca, but rather to focus attention on the sport, sepak takraw. The fact that it was mentioned in Sejarah Melayu offers readers a glimpse of the sport’s early existence in this region and testifies to its significance as an ancient Malay heritage sport that is still played by Malaysians to this day.

World number one and fellow Penangite Syahir Rosdi showcasing his signature kick during the Sepak Takraw League Champions Cup 2018.

“I have been playing sepak takraw since I was nine years old. My passion for the sport was largely inspired by neighbours from surrounding villages who would gather on the sepak takraw court in front of my house every day to play,” says Mohamad Fazil, 30, who is currently head coach of the Penang Black Panthers, the state’s sepak takraw team. “Though the players were mostly adults, that didn’t stop my curiosity and I learned how to play the sport from them.”

Fazil’s passion for sepak takraw grew over time. At 14, he enrolled at the Penang State Sports Council School to undergo professional training as a state athlete. “One of the main reasons that prompted me down this career path was the overwhelming feeling of pride I’d feel whenever I saw our national sepak takraw team compete against other countries in major tournaments on TV. I’d ask myself then, ‘Why don’t I become one of them?’; and that’s how it all started.”

Fazil is also active in his promotion of sepak takraw, believing it to be more than just a sport. “It carries with it myriad social aspects that transcend the boundaries of race and religion, and encourages social harmony. As a national athlete, I had the opportunity to widen my social network and to travel abroad to countries that I wouldn’t have had the chance to visit had I not represented Malaysia in competitions like the Southeast Asian Games 2009, 2011, 2013 and 2015, which were held in Laos, Myanmar, Indonesia and Singapore respectively,” says Fazil, who also bagged a silver medal for the sport.

The Penang Black Panthers are crowned champions during the Sepak Takraw League Champions Cup 2018, which was broadcasted live on Astro Arena.

“One of the most significant changes I noticed in myself since joining the national team was that I inculcated a higher sense of self-discipline; we needed to dedicate a huge portion of our time to training,” he explains. “It is always a hard choice to make, especially when it comes to sacrificing time with my family, but at some point in our lives, we are required to make certain sacrifices and I am glad I have a family that is very supportive of what I do.”

Following retirement, Fazil became head coach for the Penang Black Panthers and also founded his very own sports academy, Akademi Fazil, to offer free training to promising players under 16 at the Titi Mukim Multipurpose Hall. “The academy currently has a total of 20 students; they are registered through open recruitment sessions that are regularly held in neighbouring schools. These youths have great potential, but weren’t able to pass the sports exam to qualify for a place at SMK Mutiara Impian, the Penang state sports high school. I believe everyone deserves a second chance,” he says, adding that he is also hard at work promoting the sport through open-call participations in national schools to attract interested students of Chinese and Indian descent.

Promoting Wider Public Interest

In the Sepak Takraw League, Penang tops the leaderboard as the best performing state team in Malaysia; with Penang-born Syahir Rosdi, an alumnus of SMK Mutiara Impian, considered the world’s top player.

To attract more youths to be trained and groomed as professional players, Hafizi Mohamad, an official with the Penang State Sports Council (MSNPP), says that roadshows are conducted regularly by the council to promote sepak takraw in each district. “Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, at the end of the day, it is still subject to the school headmaster’s level of interest to determine the sport’s active promotion among students,” he laments.

Rather than limit students’ choices to just a few sports, Malaysian schools need to diversify the sporting activities on offer. “How will these students discover their individual talents, if they are not given the opportunity to dabble in all manners of sport?” argues Hafizi. He also notes that vernacular schools are conservative in their approach when it comes to sport selections. “Basketball, badminton, football and ping pong are the preferred choices for most Chinese schools. I think it’s imperative for Malaysian students to partake in a variety of sports, regardless of their cultural origins. Wushu is a prime example of how sports can act as a unifying factor. What’s more, it’s the only sport of Chinese origin that is currently represented by three Malay athletes at the state level.”

Similarly, the International Sepak Takraw Federation (ISTAF), formed in 1988 as an international governing body for the sport, has been pushing for its introduction into the Olympic Games. But this is a tall order, because to qualify, the game must not just be introduced but also popularly played in at least 75 countries as stipulated by the Olympic Games Committee.

“We regularly send our coaches, along with coaches from Thailand, to countries like Germany, France and Australia to introduce the game to the locals there, and to recruit them to train as sepak takraw players, following the formation of national associations under the jurisdiction of ISTAF,” says Fazil. “There are currently 31 national associations around the world with ISTAF membership; it’s only a matter of time before sepak takraw takes this exciting leap forward.”

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