THE past few weeks have seen the country come together in pursuit of sporting excellence at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. In both cases our country recorded its best ever tally – and those who follow squash will know that Malaysia supplied the World Junior Individual Champion and the World University Champions.
The achievements at the Paralympic Games were particularly joyful: whatever disappointment there was at not attaining gold at the Olympics was utterly extinguished by the triple gold medals from our Paralympians. Seeing Mohamad Ridzuan Mohamad Puzi, Muhammad Ziyad Zolkefli and Abdul Latif Romly sing ‘Negaraku’ – even in the dubiously recorded versions available on YouTube – brought a stream of tears in homes across the nation. (Incidentally, because at every Olympics the national anthems are re-recorded by the host country, the orchestration is different from what we normally hear: this version has some nice timpani rolls and the brass section introduces a descending counterpoint at the first ‘Rahmat bahagia’.)
Apart from the national euphoria that has resulted online and offline, a spotlight has been shone on the issues of Persons with Disabilities.
For those with disabilities and their families, the sporting achievements must be especially inspirational. But many Malaysians might not have known or cared much about the Paralympic Games, or did not think that Malaysia was even participating.
After the gold medals, I am sure that many of them will now know something about the different types of intellectual or physical impairments (Ridzuan Puzi has cerebral palsy, a severe form of which my late younger brother had). But far more importantly, they know that persons with disabilities can be national heroes – and I am glad that a previous injustice where a disabled athlete only received 30 per cent of the reward money of a non-disabled athlete has been rectified by the current Minister of Youth and Sports. (In an earlier article I commented on how governments of different countries reward their athletes: but if there is to be a reward, it should apply equally.)
From here, it becomes easier to argue that like all other citizens, persons with disabilities too need access to their constitutional rights as well as employment, goods and services. As such, the planning and building of our physical infrastructure should have their needs taken into account by the government and private sector. (At the moment some employers are far more advanced than others in approaching customers with disabilities, and some companies are doing a fabulous job in employing people with disabilities.)
The Paralympic victories have added a much needed layer to the meaning of ‘unity’ in Malaysia, where the word is normally used in contradistinction to those who seek division on racial or religious lines. Having said that, there are those – a minority, to be sure – who still refuse to see sport as a force for national unity. They complain that our athletes are of the ‘wrong’ religious or racial identity, get too much reward for their efforts, or have individualistic motives in the first place. (Though there is a time and place for that in competitions that explicitly celebrate the individual, at the Olympics and Paralympics, athletes explicitly compete under a national flag.)
And unfortunately, despite the efforts of politicians to fall over each other in congratulating our athletes (it is difficult to tell to what extent their felicitations are wholly genuine), in the same time period politicians have also been the biggest drivers of disunity: by failing to live up to the standards that Malaysians expect of their elected representatives, by pushing through policies that do not recognise a future to be shared by all Malaysians, by feuds between leaders based on calculations of personal advancement than national interest. These days even cabinet members disagree publicly about proposed legal amendments or policies: the principle of collective cabinet responsibility was clearly not in their induction handbook.
However, just as disagreements can be overplayed for political reasons, so can apparent concord. In the words of the fictional Jim Hacker in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, “You know what loyalty in a cabinet minister means? It means that his fear of losing his own job is slightly greater than his hope of pinching mine.”
Our athletes train for years in the hope of having ‘Negaraku’ played when they succeed at becoming number one. When they deliver those moments, they can move the nation. Elected officials – even if they aren’t number one – train for years to acquire, maintain and upgrade their positions. How they move the nation, and whether ‘Negaraku’ will ever be sung for their achievements, is something Malaysians should rightly ask them every day.
Happy Malaysia Day.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.