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SEA games football team

Congratulations to our SEA games athletes for their outstanding performance – 142 gold and 175 silver and bronze medals, pushing our nation well over the top in the final medal tally. Overnight, we have emerged a regional sporting giant as royals and commoners, and athletes from every state, from every ethnic and religious background, joined together to do battle for Malaysia.

What we saw over the last few days was Malaysia at its best.

Such medals, of course, don’t come easy; behind those few moments on the podium are years of hard work, sacrifice and commitment. Because of their quiet dedication to excellence, the whole nation now revels in the warm afterglow of victory and success.

Victory in unity

But something else just as profound took place too: we found a way to put our best foot forward as a nation. It was one of those rare occasions when ethnicity or religion didn’t matter; what mattered was skill, talent and experience. The very best that Malaysia had in every sport came forward to compete with the best from all over the region and they prevailed.

It brought home, in a powerful way, what can happen when we put aside all that ‘ketuanan Melayu’ nonsense, the racism, the religious intolerance and all the other things that divide us, and put our best foot forward as one nation with one purpose, with one heart.

One had only to look at the soccer finals between Malaysia and Thailand on Tuesday to see the power of unity and purpose. What a thrill to see the crowd in the stadium, and I am sure in homes across the nation, wholeheartedly cheer our team on. For those 90 minutes, race and religion didn’t matter; all that mattered was that they were our sons and they were fighting on our behalf.

In my book they were all heroes because they did what even our political leaders could not do: unite a nation, even if only temporarily.

Lessons for our politicians

Of course, our politicians will now exploit the success of our athletes, take credit for the victory and use it to showcase their otherwise dismal leadership of our nation. Some are suggesting that success at the games could even translate into more votes for UMNO-BN at the next elections.

To be sure, the government did a grand job of supporting our athletes and successfully organizing the games despite a few hitches. However, our political leaders also need to acknowledge that a key ingredient of our success was that the usual racial and religious bigotry was kept out of the selection process. Only the best were fielded and the rest is history, as they say.

That is what made the difference, that is what took us over the top, and that is the real lesson that our political leaders must take away from these games.

A winning formula

I hope our politicians will learn from the success at the games and replicate this winning formula in other areas of national endeavour – in our universities and schools, in the civil service and armed forces, in business, in science and technology, etc.

Our athletes have reminded us that we have incredible human talent and when we find a way to release the full potential of all our citizens irrespective of race or religion, our nation can rise to unimaginable heights.

For too long our politicians have exploited race and religion for their own selfish purposes and in the process they have squandered so much of our rich human potential and kept our nation from its true destiny.

In the game of nations, in the competitive world of business and entrepreneurship, in technology and innovation, we are falling behind in the medal tally because we have not put our best foot forward. As a result of bigotry and intolerance, we are haemorrhaging talent to countries like Australia, Britain and Singapore and our nation is poorer for it.

Grit, courage and determination

As we celebrate 60 years of independence, isn’t it high time that we put aside all the destructive and divisive racist polices that have held us back, harness the full potential of our nation and put our best foot forward instead? Isn’t it time to accept that all our diverse communities have some thing special to offer the nation? Isn’t it time that we affirm faith in the words etched onto our national coat of arms – Bersekutu Bertambah Mutu? 

Our athletes have shown the way; now it’s the turn of our political leaders to match their grit, courage and determination by putting an end to the racism, bigotry and intolerance that has hobbled our nation for decades. That is the greatest legacy that the 2017 SEA games can bequeath to our nation.

Happy Merdeka Day!

Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur | 31st August 2017