Briskly Walking With Hannah Yeoh Towards a Sporting Nation

By Sheryl Teoh

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ON 6 MARCH, exactly 100 days since Hannah Yeoh took over the Ministry of Youth and Sports portfolio, Penang Monthly spoke to her in her office in the House of Parliament about the challenges she faces and her vision for sports in Malaysia.

Penang Monthly: You have been the Minister of Youth and Sports for 100 days. What have been your biggest challenges since taking up this role? And how is that role different from being the Deputy Minister of Women, Family and Community Development?

Hannah Yeoh: Yeah, we just passed the 100 days. Even though, officially, there is no 100-day KPI but I think it's a good push for us to hit the ground running. For me, it is now important to sustain the momentum that we've had since December.

The starkest and most obvious difference between being the Sports Minister and working in the Women’s Ministry is that I naturally dealt with a lot more women before. Now, I mostly deal with men, since a lot of the sports leaders are men and generally, here, I think men are more passionate about sports than women. This is something that I want to change – bringing more women into sports.

Entering KBS [Kementerian Belia dan Sukan – the Ministry of Youth and Sports], one of the biggest challenges is that it's very programme-based. Every minister that comes in will introduce a new programme, but there's actually a lot more to be done outside of just programmes. Yes, it is important to have programmes to promote sports at the grassroots level, but there's also the entire sports ecosystem that you need to look into. And by that, I mean looking into things like the coordination between ministries in supporting the sports ecosystem and the sports industry.

PM: On 1 January, you announced your ambitious goal of Malaysia finally winning its first Olympic gold medal at the Paris Games in 2024.

HY: Yes, in fact, we are announcing the "Road to Gold" officially at the end of this week [12 March]. But basically, like my statement on 1 January, "Road to Gold" is not entirely about just getting the first gold medal for Malaysia, but also tying all the loose ends and removing the roadblocks that are in our athletes’ way.

I've met with a few former Ministers of Youth and Sports – Syed Saddiq (2018-2020), Khairy Jamaluddin (2013-2018) and Abdul Ghani (1993-1995). With Saddiq and KJ, my conversations were centred around what I should avoid. I want to learn from their mistakes. And I also want to know what they were focusing on and why they chose to focus on those things.

I have given my commitment on the first day I entered KBS that I will not cancel my predecessors’ programmes willy nilly in order to initiate my own. I want to strengthen existing ones that are actually good, so I've taken the time to review their effectiveness. I think it’s important to be evidence-driven – I want to know if a particular programme is yielding the results that we want or if it is justified to spend whatever we're spending on it. I will give these programmes a year to prove themselves, but at the end of the day, I still have a duty, not just to the Malaysian government but also to the people, to make sure that every ringgit we spend actually goes to sports development.

I’ve also noticed that both Saddiq and KJ are into sports; they have their own that they love. But I’ve realised that I need to have my own identity as a minister and I don't have to be like them. So, I am still finding my place in the sports world. I tell my team to introduce me to a minority sport every week, so that, as I meet major stakeholders in the industry, I also balance it out with learning about lesser-known ones. For example, I've done traditional archery in Sabah and tried out tower running. I want to do different things to learn how big the ecosystem is, and where we are in terms of supporting everyone.

PM: And out of all these, which do you enjoy the most?

HY: Walking. Brisk walking; and Rubin [Hannah Yeoh’s Press Secretary] says that I am actually always doing that because I do a lot of campaign work which requires a lot of walking – fast walking. So that's something I do effortlessly, and something I enjoy a lot. I don't like long marathons because it’s torturous for me – but that’s just me.

PM: The career of an athlete typically ends in their 30s. How do they continue to make a living after that?

HY: So, I started with two town hall sessions with the athletes, and a lot of them talked about EPF, SOCSO and all that. A challenge for me would be the limited budget that we have. Imagine trying to support a big pool of sportsmen and you want to make sure everybody gets something but you can only work with a limited budget. So, it’s always a fine balance: Do you go for a bigger pool where everybody gets something but the amount is less? Or do you go for a targeted pool but they get what they need?

Finding that balance in providing this safety net for all of them is the challenge now for the government and sports associations. So, we are still assessing our options at the moment. But I have to say, the sports industry is not something that the government alone can fully support. We need to partner with corporate sponsors as well as other ministries like the Ministry of National Unity and Higher Education. This government, especially the Prime Minister, believes in the private sector and the government working hand-in-hand, so that's something I want to also see translated into our sports partnerships.

Currently, we do have existing education programmes, such as the Yayasan Kebajikan Atlet Kebangsaan (YAKEB) to help sportsmen with their transition to other careers. But I think, whatever former athletes find themselves doing after their sports careers, I'm not in a position to judge if that is dignified for a former athlete. That's not my prerogative as the Sports Minister, so long as we have YAKEB there to help and provide assistance when help is needed. There are also university courses available to sportsmen, but some are just not interested in studying. We have to understand that athletes come from all kinds of backgrounds so it is important to respect their individual decisions.

Also, you must remember, athletes, especially from the Podium Programme, are taken away from home at a very young age to Bukit Jalil where they go through eight hours of training a day. They have a very different living style from most people. So, what I want to do is also to equip them with social and living skills that can help them after they retire.

With this latest budget, where we provide tax incentives to sports associations among other things, we hope that the sports industry can be liberalised. This means that sports associations do not have to constantly ask the government for funding to help them survive; they can use this tax incentive to get sponsors and survive on their own.

PM: But why weren't EPF and SOCSO covered for the athletes? These are the basics, aren’t they?

HY: Well, that depends on which athlete you're talking to. So, those under the Podium Programme will sign an agreement, or if it's a job, then yes, they are covered. But if it's just a training, it’s not a job, per se. But that's also something we're looking at – their contracts.

PM: What about the coaches?

HY: Sports is an industry that is very performance-based. It depends on how well a sport is perceived by the Malaysian public as well as on the athletes’ performances. So, a football coach gets paid a lot because there are a lot of football fans in Malaysia. But you cannot expect the same to be said of a volleyball coach, or a coach of a minority sport.

Sports associations like football, hockey and badminton; they do very well at getting funds on their own. But how do you tell a less-popular sport to have that same influence and independence? How do you get them to pay their coaches as well as the football coaches? You cannot force a sport on the public either.

I have to accept the fact that there will always be sports that are more popular than others. My job is to ensure that no one is discriminated against, but I cannot ensure that everyone has the same privileges.

PM: How would you measure your success at the end of your term?

HY: I want the infrastructure and system I put in place to run independently and take on a life of its own so that no matter who comes in as the Sports Minister, it still runs on autopilot. It cannot be dependent on whether or not it is helmed by a good minister.

PM: In your "Road to Gold" initiative, you said that it cannot be a “one-man show” but will require the whole nation. Are you envisioning a country where everyone is involved in some form of sports?

HY: Yeah, we want to eventually be a sporting nation, right? So, to be that, we have to introduce grassroots sports to people at very affordable costs. We have to ensure that a big chunk of our population is exercising.

At the moment, football is the most popular sport in Malaysia – it is mainly participated in by men. But what about the women who make up 50% of our population? These are things I am brainstorming with KBS and we want to roll out programmes to ensure that not just the rich can afford to exercise, and to make sports attractive to women.

I also think that, if we want to reform sports, the education system is important, because that's where our pool of sportsmen come from. The education system, on top of finding that balance between academics and sports, has to also make sure that every child has the opportunity to try different kinds of sports to get a sense of what they like and dislike. I don't think this platform exists for them yet, at this point in time.

Another thing I want to do is to revisit and review Sukan Teras. It was last reviewed in 2007. That's 16 years ago. There are so many new things that have come up since – eSports, wrestling – how do they fit into our ecosystem now? So, I look forward to looking into these issues in the next five years.

PM: Anything else you’d like to add before we end?

HY: Many Malaysians, you know, don’t like the outdoors because it is always so hot here. I want to improve some of our infrastructure by engaging with local councils more – because they own a lot of the infrastructure – to make sure that whatever is being built satisfies the needs of the communities.

PM: It is also building more walkable cities, right?

HY: Yeah, building sheltered walkways and moving away from the focus on private cars to encourage more people to walk.

PM: It’s been a pleasure talking to you, YB. Thank you for your time.

Sheryl Teoh

holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Linfield College, a liberal arts college in the United States, and majored in History with a focus on Classical Greece and Rome. Her interests include the study of philosophy as well as a range of humanities and socio-political issues.