Deputy Youth and Sports Minister Steven Sim talks about his hectic life since he assumed office, the changes he has experienced and those he hopes to make:
Question: You have published a book on Malay poetry and two other books in English. How did you become a writer?
Answer: My first book, The Audacity to Think, was published in 2012 during my first year as a councillor. It was to record my thoughts on why I joined politics. My second book, Being Malaysia, published last year, was a record of my thoughts as a member of parliament.
My books have not only helped me record and structure my thoughts, but also chart my growth and maturity.
For example, in my first book, I said there should be no superheroes in politics, but in my second book, I said maybe there should be. This is because superheroes like Peter Parker (of Marvel Comics’ Spiderman) and Clark Kent (of DC Comics’ Superman) are normal people who blend into the community, do not put on airs but come out to help the people when there is a crisis. I think politicians should be like that. They should do their job without much fanfare. Politicians should come out to lead the nation whenever there is a crisis.
I think the person depicting this superhero persona is Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
I remember after May 9 last year, I saw an old picture of Dr Mahathir and Tan Sri Khir Johari sitting on a bench. It felt as if someone came out of the history books to save our country again.
Q: Is Malaysia moving in the right direction in the international sports arena? Have we improved over the past several decades in terms of the quality of our athletes?
A: The world of sports is not an isolated world. One challenge in sports is that you don’t measure yourself against yourself, but against the world. As we get better, so does the world.
While our performance in badminton is better when compared with the 1960s and 1970s, you also see countries like Japan, which are traditionally not strong in the sport, developing and maturing.
While our athletes have better facilities, we have a better knowledge of sports science and more resources, and the ability of our athletes have improved over the years, and we are being compared with other countries.
What I have seen with Denmark, Japan and China, who are giants in sports today and also good in the same sports we were good at, such as badminton, diving and cycling, is that performance is not built in one day. There must be a more long-term perspective.
When we took over, what we realised was that the unfortunate thing about sports in Malaysia is that it is short term. The key performance indicator in sports is clear; it is based on the number of medals won so everyone is worried about the next competition, which is short-term view. However, to develop a good player, it takes more than one competition. Sometimes, it takes up to several Olympic cycles.
So players like Datuk Lee Chong Wei or China’s Lin Dan have gone through four cycles, or in the case of Lin Dan, he will be competing in his fifth Olympics.
We have very good players in badminton, such as Goh Jin Wei, who was 19 when she won the women’s singles at the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics.
Is she ready to get gold in the Olympics in Tokyo next year? Perhaps, but I think it is more reasonable to imagine that achievement for 10 years from now, say Paris in 2024, or even Los Angeles in 2028. By that time, she will be still young and could achieve her peak.
Do we want to squeeze our athletes for what happens tomorrow and give them that sort of pressure, or do we want to work with them for the long term?
What we are trying to do in my ministry is to shift everyone into thinking long term, not just for Tokyo, but also Paris and Los Angeles.
Q: How are you adjusting the outlook towards this long-term perspective?
A: We announced this year that we are going to equalise our Podium programme’s allowance for gold, silver and bronze medals. Many questioned the move, which was seen as removing the incentive, but the allowance was not meant as an incentive. The real incentive is in what we call Shakam (national sports incentive scheme).
The allowance for Podium is meant to compensate athletes who are not working somewhere else. When I asked those who were working how they would feel if their salary was subject to regular review and a 50 per cent cut, they told me they would suffer from insecurity and instability. Even the athletes said they felt like tools. So when we equalised the allowances, our message is that we are in this for the long term. You may fall short in one competition, but as long as you maintain your medal standing, we will give you the allowance.
Q: Many are concerned about Malaysia’s stand in badminton with the retirement of Datuk Lee Chong Wei. Is there a new Chong Wei?
A: The talent pool is there. I think we can replicate and duplicate his calibre in our juniors.
The question is though are the players’ determined? I remember asking (men’s singles head coach) Datuk Misbun Sidek at Seri Mutiara in Penang on Lee’s secret and his answer was Lee’s attitude.
No matter how good the coach is, the player’s determination and passion play an important role. The experience we have in training Lee is important for us to replicate in our young players.
Q: Do you think this is the end of the road for Chong Wei in sports?
A: I am sure that Lee will contribute to sports in Malaysia after this but for now, he deserves some rest. Our door is always open for Lee and his appointment as the Malaysian contingent’s chef de mission for the upcoming Tokyo Olympics is an indication that we will always welcome Lee.
Q: Being committed full-time to sports continues to be an unpopular career move for most Malaysians. Is your ministry doing something to change that mindset?
A: We are trying to improve on a few things to make sports a more attractive career. One of the things we did was a healthcare scheme for active and retired athletes. We have signed up with 22 universities across Malaysia for the “One State, One University” programme, where we want to encourage universities to offer a more flexible degree programme for our athletes. The third thing is a track programme for athletes to transition from the race track to career track.
It is to allow our athletes to explore an alternative career option, for example, we have CIMB agreeing to take in a few of our athletes to work part-time or on a flexible basis. We are also working with Deloitte Malaysia where athletes are trained in administration, management and junior auditing positions so that they will get new skills and acquire working experience.
We are trying to develop sports as an industry. Under the National Sports Policy, which was enacted in 2009, we have three pillars namely elite sports, mass sports and sports as an industry. We think that the third pillar is not developed enough. We are not talking just about sports as an event, but also in terms of merchandise, engineering expertise and stadium construction. So where are these people in the industry?
We hope to facilitate the third pillar and are thinking of creating a platform for sports trade shows, which includes symposiums for sports lawyers or therapists to talk to each other, network and efforts to make sports more attractive.
Q: Are the gears in full motion for the next crop of Olympians?
A: There are different entry levels but those can be improved on. There are state sports associations, which need to be rejuvenated because most of the time, they are responsible for looking out for national athletes. They need to be more active in the development at the grassroots level. However, a more novel perspective and often ignored element is local sports clubs, for example, the badminton and swimming clubs.
It is time to think about how we can integrate this ecosystem because clubs sometimes are more flexible than associations. We have been working closely with the Badminton Association of Malaysia (BAM) president Datuk Seri Norza Zakaria on looking beyond the traditional structure of state and national sports associations towards a non-conventional platform. That is why it was decided that non-BAM players can now take part in international competitions. This is a very big achievement as it means you are opening up the platform to many more people and much more entry points.
We have introduced a task force to improve badminton and for the first time in history, the government, BAM and independent clubs are looking at how we can share and create a better ecosystem where everyone is responsible for training talent.
For now, we focus more on badminton since it’s an established platform. If we can improve
on how things are being done
in badminton, then we can
open up that method for other sports.
Q: What is the fate of Fit Malaysia, a product of the former government under Khairy Jamaluddin?
A: Khairy made it big but the results were very limited beyond the branding of the concept. Maybe that was the strategy taken then to boost awareness so that everyone knows about Fit Malaysia.
However, we want Fit Malaysia to be more democratised. Previously, there were big projects and carnivals. While we still have it, we have made a few changes, such as conducting the carnivals in-house instead of outsourcing them.
We have made major savings of almost 80 per cent through that, while attracting the same number of people. This has boosted the morale of ministry staff. We are able to channel the monies saved into making the Fit Malaysia programme more holistic, participatory and green.
We are looking at launching an application to track activities such as running, zumba and walking, as well as incentives with tokens, discounts and even utilities or tax rebates. We are working on the mechanism and we still need to talk to the relevant authorities.
Q: What is the next big thing we can expect from your ministry?
A: We are looking at ways to channel some of the expertise, knowledge and resources we gained from training Olympians back to the people.
For example, we have biomechanical engineers studying movements of muscles which could help with the mobility of senior citizens and stroke patients. Or setting up consultations for the people on our weight adjustment programme, which is used to help our athletes adjust their weight before a competition.
The weight adjustment programme is fast and efficient. With an almost 100 per cent success rate, it seems we have a 100 per cent Olympic gold standard Marie France franchise. So why not offer this service to Malaysians? We are working on a mechanism that will likely start in the Klang Valley.
We also want to open up the sports medicine service at the National Sports Institute to the public and we are doing that so that the people can benefit from the investment and the kind facilities that Olympic-level athletes are getting. We want to expand what we invested in sports for the people.
Q: Malaysian youths have often been branded as entitled, refusing to take up traditional and low-paying jobs. What is your take on this?
A: There are two sides to this. While youths don’t understand how traditional job markets work, equally traditional bosses do not understand the aspirations of youths. So while we expect young people to behave and adapt to the job market, I think it’s time for employers to also adapt to youths’ needs.
The best employers are those who can do so. For example, you see Facebook and Google doing so well. Look at how their offices are built. They know people today do not want to go to a 9-5 office cubicle.
To tap into real talent, we must not only ask youths to adapt, but the job market must also adapt.
Think about young women and young mothers today, who want to have a work-life balance that the traditional job market might not offer. If you want to tap into their talent, you must consider having childcare centres at your workplace or be able to accommodate working from home as a lot of jobs today can be done remotely.
Q: Recently, you made waves over your tweet calling for social media users to continue the pantun which began with: “Helang terbang tinggi, pipit terbang rendah… (Eagles fly high, sparrows fly low)”, which was believed to be aimed at Johor Crown Prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim. Can you comment on that? Do you think that Tunku Ismail’s popularity is affected following his recent controversial statements?
A: I do not think his popularity has gone down. Whether people like him or not, he is still popular. On the pantun, I think people need to express themselves. However, they do not like the use of crude and foul words, videos and abusive language. Pantun is a more cultured and civilised way of expressing views and giving rebuttals. Putting aside the TMJ (Tunku Ismail) incident, a good example is when Datuk Seri Najib Razak attacked me on social media and I used pantun to reply to him. The response to my pantun was positive. This shows that people love using such a civilised and cultured way to respond.
Q: You have written a Malay poetry book, Dalam Salju Ada Bunga. Can you share what inspired you to do so?
A: In 2013, I penned a poem on remaining “hopeful” after a supporter called and cried about losing the federal government and when DAP and Pas broke their ties and Pakatan Rakyat was dissolved. I translated the poem into the Malay language in honour of my comrades in Pas and called it Harapan.
The poem is rather prophetic to me now as a few weeks later, the Pakatan Harapan coalition was born. After the 14th General Election, I decided to write the Malay poetry book to share the poem and remind the people to always have harapan (hope).
Q: To young people who aspire to be politicians, what is your advice to them?
A: Start from the grassroots level. There is a trend of wanting to start straightaway at the executive level and drafting policies. However, starting at the grassroots level not only seasons you, but also helps you understand the party and its followers. Many of the world’s great leaders, such as former United States president Barack Obama and Dr Mahathir, started at the grassroots level. I started by volunteering at the service centre.
I would like to advise young politicians to practise clean politics. Do not resort to gutter politics to get ahead in the political world.
Q: What can DAP improve on?
A: There are certain conceptions about DAP, that it is racist and monopolised by one race. This has to be overcome. Since May last year, there has been a change in the perception but there is still much work that needs to be done to change the 60-year propaganda against the party.
It has to be pointed out that the core of the party does not hold such sentiments. Another thing that the party needs to work on is to attract new and young faces. While we have many DAP deputy ministers below 40 and one DAP minister below 40, we need to start looking for the future crop of ministers and deputy ministers. Who will replace us? We need to look at ways to attract young blood.
Q: How has life changed for you after being a deputy minister in your second term as a member of parliament?
A: Life has been very hectic and busy. As a member of parliament, my responsibility was not so huge, but now as a deputy minister, I have a bigger workload. One thing we DAP deputies and ministers have proven is that we are very hardworking.
So, I will continue working hard to make a difference. I will always contribute to the country even if I am not fielded in the next election.