It is always nice to watch Malaysians from across the spectrum uniting and cheering behind a Malaysian athlete or team in competitive sports at the international level.
That more or less happened when the number one national badminton player Lee Chong Wei was up against Lin Dan of China at the London Olympics. He failed to get Malaysia’s first gold medal but that did not deter the “I’m proud to be a Malaysian” sentiment among Malaysians.
Sports does sometimes give that warm feeling that we all live under the same brilliant, tropical sun. It can emphasize the common bonds that we share as Malaysians. It is that same feeling that has pushed the idea that sports should be supported further to unite Malaysians in times when our society appears so divisive in so many ways.
Yet, call me a skeptic. While there may be various reasons to support the development of sports further, I do not believe unity should be the driving factor in doing so.
I am skeptical of the value of sports as a substantive unifying factor for Malaysians. It is overrated as a unifying tool.
The reason I believe so is because the ability of sports to unite us is at best superficial. It is more or less effective only during the duration of the match. If we are lucky, then the feel-good atmosphere can last several days after, before we direct our attention to the next issue or event of the day.
Sports can make us temporarily forget our real world problems. That respite can be good for our health. We do need a break from time to time but that is all that it really is – a break and nothing more. Once the game is done, each of us will go our own way.
Sports just does not suddenly make us come to realize, “Hey, we are all Malaysians and so let us hug each other, and be best friends … forever.”
That kind of logic should be left in the essays of young schoolchildren as they develop their writing skills. It makes cute narrative but unfortunately, it is naïve to expect a child’s narrative to dictate the complex real world.
We do not live within school classroom settings. We are not children and unlike most children, we are not forgetful of past wrongdoings and conflicts, for better or for worst. As proof, some of us are still stuck with the May 13 incident which occurred more than 40 years ago.
Malaysia as a whole will likely move on with respect to the issue only once the generations that identified with that incident are gone and replaced by younger generations unburdened by the hangover of yesteryear.
We will go our separate ways because sports solve nothing of importance in the way we live our lives and deal with our differences. As such, old divisions will remain and we will continue to squabble over it.
Meaningful unity can only be achieved through equitable resolution to real problems and differences that we face as a society. The unfortunate thing is that problems are aplenty and it will take a very long time before we can even take a substantive step forward.
We need to have hard, sober, open and long discussions and debates on all of these problems.
We cannot run to sports to forget our problems and expect the temporary respite from our divisions to last. Sports are no refuge from our deep divisions. It is just but a wooden, creaky hut.