Why Malaysia now misses its Chinese champions

Zainul Arifin is perplexed why there is a dearth of non-Malay players, especially Chinese, in Malaysia's state and national football squads. Writing in the New Straits Times he answered his own question whether Malaysian Chinese were longer interested in football with the observation that Chinese youths are often dressed in football jerseys and, "at mamak restaurants on weekends when the English Premier League is in play, you can see them cheering the Rooneys and the Henrys. I believe the Chinese are as crazy about football as other Malaysians."

Are Chinese discriminated against? To this Arifin quoted a 'letter to the editor' by Perak football coach Steve Darby. "The first (Perak) team squad of 20 players, which was chosen purely on football ability, comprises a wide spectrum of races, religions and languages. This polyglot of players have four different religions and, together, they are capable of speaking 10 languages." Darby dismissed rumours of selection policies based on race as far as his team was concerned. Character and ability were the only criteria for the team, said Darby.

"But how is it that we stopped producing household names like Soh Chin Aun, Yip Chee Keong, Wong Hung Nung, Khan Hun Meng, James Wong, Ong Yu Tiang, Wong Kam Fook and Chow Kwai Lam?," Arifin responded. His hypothesis is it has a lot to do with the school system.

"It used to be that non-Malay enrolment in national schools was high. The national schools were major attractions for parents with high enrolment of non-Malays, especially in major towns. Most of these schools have strong tradition and emphasis on popular sports, especially football, hockey and rugby. Obviously, the athletically-gifted students tended to be drawn to them, regardless of race. A host of reasons has led to the exclusion of Chinese from Malaysian sports.

"It includes the introduction of Bahasa Malaysia as the [language] of instruction in the 1970s, the urge of Chinese to re-connect with their roots, the desire to see the emergence of a stronger socio-cultural development through the school system and the perception that Chinese-based education is better. This has led to non-Malay students, especially Chinese, moving to vernacular schools. These schools, largely in urban areas and mostly privately-funded, rarely have facilities like fields for football and hockey, let alone rugby. They tend to favour games that require less space like basketball, badminton, table tennis and volleyball.

"As a result, a generation or more of Chinese students have no access to organised football or hockey tournaments that usually start when they are in primary school through inter-house or inter-school games. It is through this grassroots system that talent would have been spotted, developed and nurtured for district and state teams, and from then on the very best would be picked to represent the country. It is not a coincidence that the decline in the number of Chinese footballers and hockey players seem to coincide with their desertion of the national schools. Granted, I do not have the statistics and I may be wrong; it is after all a hypothesis inspired by reading the sports pages.

"I am not suggesting that Chinese players will be the saviours of our dismal football performance," he concluded. "Our national team may still fail us, regardless. But what I am saying is that we are systematically being denied a peek at a large section of the population, which has disqualified itself by being a non-participant.This, I believe, is as much a loss to the Chinese community as it is to the nation. Now this is another cause for revamping the national schools and making them the destinations of choice again."