By Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim

At the recently-concluded 28th South East Asian (SEA) Games, Team Singapore hauled a record total of 259 medals, of which 84 were gold. It was the Team’s best ever performance in the history of the SEA Games, and a fitting tribute to the nation’s 50th year of independence.

The 2015 Games also witnessed the presence of a number of Malay/Muslim athletes who did Singapore proud with their accomplishments. Nurul Baizura Abdul Razak, the lone Malay/Muslim in the women’s netball team, won the gold. Her gold-medal feat was matched by the men’s and women’s floorball teams. Fariza Mohamed Zabir, Suhaidah Mohd Yusof and Sharifah Syed Abdullah were in the women’s team while Siraaj Ramadhan, Syazni Ramlee and Abdul Hafiz Zubir were starters in the men’s. Mohd Zain Amat snatched the gold medal in the men’s trap shooting, while securing an individual bronze. Men’s pencak silat also bagged gold through Nur Alfian Muhammad Juma’en but a gallant MuhammadAmirudin Jamal, representing the Singapore men’s 4×100-metre relay in track and field, missed out on the gold medal despite the quartet producing their best ever performance. Other silver medallists include canoeist Muhammad Syaheenul Aiman Nasiman, boxer Mohamed Hanurdeen Hamid and shooter Norizan Mustafa. The men’s hockey team with 10 Malay/Muslims, the men’s sepaktakraw team and women’s pencak silat also bagged silvers.

Looking at the list of Malay/Muslim medal winners, one would notice that they came from across a broad spectrum of disciplines, which includes netball, floorball, shooting, canoeing and even taekwondo and gymnastics, which saw 17-year old Nur Fadzlyn Mohd Zahruddin and 19-year old Aizat Muhammad Jufrie winning a bronze medal each. It challenges established notions of genetic predisposition to particular types of discipline, which is reinforced by observations of an ethnic group dominating a particular sport. This notion has led some to believe that Malay/Muslims are thus capable of excelling only in sports such as football, and conspicuously absent in fields like swimming, basketball, volleyball, fencing, diving and water polo.

However, a more optimistic assessment of the ethnic spread across sporting disciplines is that it is an emerging trend of existing ethnic enclaves in sports gradually giving way to a more diverse spread of racial groups across sporting disciplines as multiculturalism takes root, particularly among younger Singaporeans. If true, then this phenomenon should be nurtured, with schools, for instance, helping aspiring sportspeople to overcome cultural and linguistic barriers associated with a particular sport and sports bodies helping to create conducive environments for athletes to thrive regardless of their ethnicity.

Taking swimming as an example, anecdotally, as a recreational swimmer, I have observed many Malay/Muslim parents sending their children to swimming pools for lessons. This interest in swimming should translate into some among them advancing to competitive swimming and featuring in national competitions. If this does not materialise, it would be interesting to study where the breakdown in progress occurs and whether there are factors, such as sociocultural or socio-religious ones contributing to it.

It would be useful to learn from netballer Baizura and canoeist Syaheenul about what led to their choice of sports in which there is hardly Malay/Muslim participation and how they overcame the challenges.

SEA Games 2015 also revealed the lack of achievement in track and field events. It was instrumental in enabling Thailand to displace Singapore at the helm of the medal tally. Singapore was once the powerhouse of Southeast Asian athletics, featuring, among other distinguished sports personalities, Malay/Muslims like Osman Merican and Noor Azhar Hamid. Azhar won gold medals in the 1969, 1973 and 1975 Games. His personal best of 2.12 metres is 12 centimetres higher than the 2015 SEA Games’ Singaporean high jumper, Muhammad Nasiruddin Jumari’s, which is a possible indication of the extent by which standards may have fallen.  It is thus timely for the community to see how the talent and experiences of its sporting greats can be harnessed to contribute to efforts to reclaim Singapore’s past glory in track and field events.

The record-breaking medal haul in the 2015 SEA Games is indeed inspiring. It provides an impetus for Singapore to aim for greater sporting glory. To achieve this, one of the measures that could be undertaken is to ensure that the availability of aspiring sportspeople for the various sporting disciplines are not constrained by impediments that have little to do with talent or ability. It is hoped that Malay/Muslims will make significant inroads into sports where there have been little or no participation from them. It would also be good to see more of the community’s sporting greats coming forward to take a more active role in developing local athletes.

Abdul Shariff Aboo Kassim is the Researcher/Projects Coordinator of Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). The opinions expressed in the article are his own.

This commentary was also published in AMPlified, July 2015, Issue 27.

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