Sports and national unity

DEC 12 — Harimau Muda or the Malaysian Thomas Cup team. Nicol David or Lee Chong Wei. In a nation increasingly fractured along racial and religious lines, where unity is increasingly elusive notwithstanding 1 Malaysia, sports and its followers provide a rare glimmer of hope.

A strange hush descends at 19-all in the final game of a Lin Dan-Chong Wei match up at every mamak in town, and Facebook is awash with expressions of Malaysia Boleh after Malaysia puts it across Indonesia in the SEA Games football final.

Why is it that the same people who cannot see eye to eye on anything else, whether it is PPSMI, NEP or the new MRT, can capture a spirit of unity while watching a game? Why is it that while all politicians are immediately looked at and evaluated through the racial lens first, sportspeople seem to have only one race — the Malaysian race? Shebby Singh, Mohammad Hafiz Hashim or Danny Chia are truly seen as being Malaysian first.

After over a year and a half and millions spent on promoting the 1 Malaysia concept, the programme is mired in acrimony with even the deputy prime minister declaring himself Malay first. It could be argued that the entire national discourse, whether on determining seat allocations for the next general election, the nature of the civil service, the “Allah” controversy, the problems attracting FDI or doing business in Malaysia is about emphasising the separateness between communities rather than promoting a notion of inclusiveness and unity.

In such a situation, ordinary people in the age of new media are forced to consider racial separateness as an increasingly real factor in their lives. Which school to send one’s children too, which university to aim for, what kind of jobs to apply for and who to marry all need race to be factored in, rather than any notion of Malaysianness.

Unity is a transient concept that needs hard work to be achieved, is easily dissipated and is much rarer than its counterpart: disunity. Unity also needs an outlet for its expression for it to have any meaning. Malaysians may be united by their love of food, but because it is expressed individually or in communities, it is hard to use it as a symbol of unity.

For a sense of national unity to be fostered, conventional wisdom has it that there needs to be a defined enemy. After all, what is the use of waving flags if there is nobody watching? How can there be real pride in the country’s Armed Forces if there are no wars to be fought and no sacrifices to be made?

This is precisely why sport in Malaysia — above any other endeavour — is able to deliver this sense of unity. All sport is in opposition to a defined other, thus creating a visible enemy that forces a “with us or against us” attitude among its followers.

Victory is the result of hard work that makes the sportspersons involved rise above their given identities of race and religion to become proud symbols of the qualities we all aspire to.

As sport invariably needs spectators, victory is a spectacle of unity for all of us to consume, whether through the waving of flags, chants of “Negaraku” or the wearing of jerseys of the national team.

Even though sport therefore has this ability to bring Malaysianness to the fore, it is a transient, fleeting sense. Once the game is done, everyday bickering resumes, and the same suspicions of each other re-emerge.

Because of this transience of emotion and the fact that sport from a purely economic standpoint in itself is completely unproductive, there is a tendency in Malaysia to downplay its importance. After all, no goods and services are generated from a couple of people lobbing a volleyball over a net.

However, a number of nations recognise that one way to conquer this limitation of sport as an engine of unity is to invest disproportionate amounts of effort and money to uplift the standard of sports to provide citizens with many more opportunities to feel united as a nation. Witness the huge impact the mighty Chinese sporting machine has had on a sense of Chinese pride.

For a small country like Malaysia, maybe the real symbols of national pride and unity are not the twin towers but its sporting icons. Maybe when there are more Malaysian world beaters in sports, there will be less calls of Malay First, Malaysian Second in politics, and 1 Malaysia will acquire meaning, even when no money is spent promoting it.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.

Illustration by Chris Kwok. Illustration by Chris Kwok.


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