Monday, March 1

Squashing (for) future pandemics

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IT was a splendid event on Dec 8, 2020 when the Squash Association of Negeri Sembilan celebrated the relaunch of its training programme at Chung Hua High School Seremban. With our usual training venue being renovated, the school, under the leadership of a supportive chairman and principal, stepped in to offer their smashing new courts. This is a tremendous boon for our players since being back on court is allowed once more, with appropriate guidelines. (One consequence of the prohibition of indoor sports – and even group outdoor sports – for much of the year is an increase of people now playing tennis!)

It was a coming home of sorts: when PSNS was reactivated 13 years ago after a period of dormancy, the same school acted as a venue for our earliest competitions, providing another example of how the 107-year-old school has contributed to the nurturing of Negeri Sembilan talent while strengthening the community and building an institutional memory.

But the sensation of ‘returning’ to something familiar did not need to rely on that history. In a pre-Covid year I might typically visit one school a month: to give a speech, watch a concert, launch a charity drive, inspect a programme initiated by a foundation I’m part of, or help teach a class. After months of there being no such events, it was a joy to be shown around the school’s most prized locations: their artefact-filled historical gallery, their balcony with stunning views of Seremban, their new athletics track, and of course the squash courts.

Fellow members of the PSNS committee (themselves all elected volunteers of various backgrounds with diverse day jobs) agreed that being able to interact with the board, staff, and students without pixelation or internet connectivity issues gave everyone a renewed focus to get children across the state, attending whatever type of school, playing squash. Ultimately that is the association’s raison d’être: beyond the quest of producing world champions, it is about fostering sportsmanship and fellowship while widening access to the sport we love.

There is still a long way to go. During the long period of school closures this year, I have previously commended the tremendous efforts of teachers and caregivers who have done their best to adapt to online methods, in many cases producing excellent results. At the same time, many of these dedicated workers, who I have the honour of working with across several organisations, have shared concerns that many students have not always adapted well. Home situations vary wildly, exacerbating inequalities in access to devices and internet connectivity.

This aspect was raised forcefully also at my seventh – but first virtual – annual dialogue with participants of the Asean Youth Volunteer Programme organised by the National University of Malaysia (UKM). Over 400 young leaders from across Asean+3 countries were acutely aware of their relative privilege, in having the resources to build bonds and cooperate across the region. Yet, there was a consensus that a priority of that cooperation should be to enable all young people to have those same opportunities. Increasingly, civil society advocates and activists are instinctively understanding that unless issues of poverty and depravation are first addressed, it will be more difficult to gain grassroots traction in areas such as sustainability, democratic reform, saving endangered species, or protecting heritage sites.

Naturally, being able to be economically active is usually the number one route to escaping poverty. Among business owners there has been a huge sigh of relief that the economy is active again: I’ve heard the gratitude of restaurateurs who see diners back in force, musicians being booked to perform in front of buzzing audiences again, and tourist operators looking forward to a frenzy of end-of-year Cuti-cuti Malaysia. At the same time, a return to market has highlighted the opportunity and urgency of digital transformation across many sectors.

The bank of lessons from a pandemic continues to grow, and I encourage readers to peruse the work of my colleagues at Ideas, the latest being a paper entitled ‘Social Protection for the Poor and Vulnerable Malaysians during Covid-19’.

As this troubled year comes to a close, what would have previously been a fairly routine visit to a school has instead highlighted the importance of seizing the opportunity to change for the better, so that the right lessons are taught and instilled in the next generation.

Remarking on the observatory at Chung Hua, I was told that their astronomy society hopes to see the upcoming Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a rare cosmological event. Hopefully there will be hundreds of squash stars in a pandemic-prepared society by the time the next one comes along.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is president of the Negeri Sembilan Squash Association.