There is no other sporting event more important to us in Southeast Asia than the SEA Games. The games is an integral part of this region’s development – political, economic and social. So let us celebrate the 26th SEA Games at Kuala Lumpur for the next three weeks. Put aside all the daily grind and politics (and the EPL) and follow our sports finest as they battle for glory.
Most of us practically grew up with the games. Love of sports was the impetus and we have to credit Luang Sukhum Nayaoradit, then Vice-President of the Thailand Olympic Committee, for starting it all. He pushed for the SEAP (Southeast Asian Peninsular) Games which was eventually held in 1959 in Bangkok. Participants: Malaysia, Burma, Thailand, Singapore, Laos and South Vietnam. That later became the SEA (Southeast Asian) Games in 1975 and drew in Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines and much later Timor-Leste. In the post Cold War era, the “new” members were a unified Vietnam and Cambodia.
The evolution of the games also mirrored the shaping of the region’s political landscape.
In the leadup to the SEA Games, there was a rival game called the GANEFO Games. This was the result of Indonesia’s dispute with the International Olympic Committee over entry cards for Taiwan and Israel (I’ve no idea how it got involved here) for the 1962 Asian Games held in Jakarta. President Sukarno, who had ambitions to be a Third World leader, then threw a challenge at the IOC by holding the un-IOC-sanctioned Games of The Newly Emerging Forces. Some 50 other nations took part, with none of represented by its national Olympic committee for fear of incurring the wrath of the IOC. The second and last GANEFO Games was held in Cambodia in 1966.
The SEAP/SEA/GANEFO Games scenario was played out during a time when countries in this region were also trying to find their places in the new international order after World War II, the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Vietnam War and the bankruptcy of communism as a political ideology and force. And now here we are at yet another pivotal moment in history as both the US and a risen China compete for influence among 625 million people.
ASEAN itself is both the mother and child of the SEA Games. Without ASEAN, there is no SEA Games. And without the SEA Games, ASEAN sporting talents may not have the right-scale sporting platform to perform and be judged and rewarded.
It took decades before sportsmen and women here made some serious impact internationally, especially at Olympic level. ASEAN finally arrived at the Rio Olympics in 2016 when it bagged its best haul of 28 medals including five golds (among which swimmer Joseph Schooling’s 100 metre butterfly win), 10 silvers and three bronzes. Joseph’s gold was Singapore’s second ever Olympic medal since weightlifter Tan Howe Liang’s silver at the 1960 Rome Games. I would certainly recognise swimmer Ang Peng Siong’s winning the 100 metres B finals freestyle at the Los Angeles Games as also noteworthy and historic.
I’m sorry but I don’t accept the Ping-Pong medals won by the China imports – whether at the Olympic, Asian or SEA Games – as those won by true-blue Singaporeans. Nothing personal but I think I reflect the feelings of many locals. They are just what they are – hollow and of absolutely no consequence to the development of local sports.
Before the recent achievements at the highest Olympic level, it was the SEA Games which constantly gave us the greatest joy.
Without it, some of our best athletes would not have been deservedly recognised. Or have the chance to mount the podium to hear Majulah Singapura played in another country.
What must have crossed the minds of people like sprinters C. Kunalan, Glory Barnabas and Shanti Pereira, boxers Ow Mun Hong and Syed Abdul Kadir, golfer Samson Gimson, bowler Reme Ong, swimmers Ang Peng Siong, Joseph Schooling, Tan Thuan Heng, Patricia Chan, Mark Chay, Junie Sng, Elaine Sng and Jocelyn Yeo, the waterpolo players through the years and the countless weightlifters, shooters, sailors and wushu exponents?
Pride, I suppose. And that’s fine.
But, more important, people in this region should have a sense of immense relief that sports has such a bona fide high-profile part to play in our lives here.
Everything could have been so different if there had been no ASEAN (which I would talk about in a future column).
We compete. And we play by the rules. In sports and in the pursuit of national interests.
We don’t undermine the rules to get your medals or impose your own self-written agenda on others.
Have you ever wondered why the SEA Games is so beautifully possible and thriving and why there is no such equivalent regional games in North Eastern Asia, South Asia or the Middle East?
Think through that carefully and you will truly appreciate the SEA Games and try and drag yourself away from EPL – for the next 18 days at least.
Cheer Team Singapore – and the SEA Games!
Sense And Nonsense is a weekly series. Tan Bah Bah is a former senior leader writer with The Straits Times. He was also managing editor of a local magazine publishing company.