The flak has stopped but Youth and Sports Minister Datuk Azalina Othman Said, the 'rose among the thorns', has her work cut out. She talks to RAJES PAUL on her grand plans, like infusing a winning mentality in athletes and getting the masses involved in sports.
PETALING JAYA: When Datuk Azalina Othman Said became the first Malaysia's woman Youth and Sports Minister this year, many waited with bated breath – they knew not if she would bring drastic change or if it would just be more of the same.
But over the last nine months, under her leadership, Malaysian sports have gone through turbulent times. And she has handled it all like a pro. Now, even the doomsayers are beginning to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Just weeks into her job, Azalina sensed that the foundation of the Malaysian sport was shaky and called for a major revamp. Then, came the ultimate challenge. The Malaysian team returned without a medal from the Olympic Games for a second time in a row.
The minister, who will turn 41 on Dec 31, got cracking.
“There were so many things to be done. But I was the youngest cabinet minister and I had the benefit of learning from the others in the cabinet who were experienced – Pak Lah (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi), former sports ministers Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak (Deputy Prime Minister); Datuk Hishammuddin Tun Hussein (Education Minister); Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin (Agriculture and Agro-Based Industries Minister); and Datuk Abdul Ghani Othman (Johor Mentri Besar).
“I am their little baby sister,” she joked. “There is an advantage because I have their support and this has made it easier on me to do my tasks.”
Azalina was never short of ideas and her staff were kept as busy as ants.
The staff workout twice a week and they had to take up at least two sports actively.
Azalina also promotes the “Sports for All” campaign; she formed a fitness council; introduced an incentive scheme for athletes who qualified for the Olympics; called for the public to e-mail her directly; and made the Sports Complex in Bukit Jalil free for the public on certain days.
Thanks to her initiative too, an eight-member sports advisory panel was formed to raise the standard of sports.
And one major thing the panel did was close the account of Sukom 98 Bhd, a company set-up to organise the 1998 Commonwealth Games. It posted a loss of RM11.6 million.
A total of 18 sports were identified under the 2006 Gemilang programme. And a full-time manager, Datuk Ibrahim Saad, was appointed to oversee the programme.
There was other breakthroughs too; the formation of Sports Cabinet for sports development, which saw decisions to set-up a Sports Academy in each states starting with Sabah; and full-funding for eight sports - football, badminton, hockey, bowling, squash, gymnastics, aquatics and athletics - was probably the biggest administrative event to happen in Malaysian sports.
Her ministry also decided to get help from Australia to lift the image of the sport and on Nov 11, a memorandum of understanding (MOU) was signed between the National Sports Council (NSC) and the Department of Sports and Recreation, Government of Western Australia. Australian expertise is already flowing into the country.
Her ministry also came to the rescue of rally driver Karamjit Singh in his bid to win the FIA Asian Pacific Rally Championships (APRC) title by funding his trip to the China leg. He did win the title.
And to cap it all, Azalina became the first Asian woman to be elected to the Foundation Board of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).
Looking back at her work, Azalina was extremely pleased with the formation of the Cabinet Committee but was totally disappointed with the failure in Athens, especially the badminton squad.
“Getting the cabinet committee started was the best thing that happened this year.
“When I was in Athens and I saw the muscular athletes, I realised that we would never make it in physical sports but we have a shot at sports that demand sheer skills.
“But I was disappointed with badminton. They could not even qualify for the semi-finals when this sport is the pride of nation,” she said.
When asked whether it was tough to be a woman's minister in sports, which is dominated by men, Azalina said: “We are lucky in Malaysia in that women's views are received openly. I do not see any form of discrimination.”
“In fact, to be honest, the sports officials are acceptable to changes. Some of them have daughters who are outspoken, boisterous, loud and giving opinions all the time. They accept this. So there is no question of having anything against women Ministers too.”
After a busy start in her first year of her career, Azalina is looking forward for more challenges and changes next year.
“Besides focusing on high performance sport, there will be more activities next year to create a wide base for sports at the grassroots level.
“We want to make every sport affordable and accessible to all – the different races, religion, genders, the young and the old, the able-bodied or disabled,” she said.
She however, hoped to see some change in the attitude of the National Sports Associations (NSA's).
“People who love power and politics will not want new people to take over. But no one is indispensable.
“The officials must not be territorial. They must find new talent and guide them into positions of responsibility. Let’s get rid of this ‘me, myself and I’ syndrome and eradicate cronyism,” she said.
As for the athletes, Azalina paid tribute to their dedication.
“I admire athletes because you need discipline to be successful. Some have to wake up early for their training while the rest of us are snuggled comfortably in our beds; some give up the opportunity to have fun at discotheques because they have to get up early. These are the commitments and discipline we want from out athletes,” she said.
Azalina believes that with such discipline, Malaysia can rise from the ashes and be a sporting power. Being positive is Azalina's virtue.
After all, she doesn't believe in the impossible.
“People must never say impossible but learn to say ‘I'm possible’. Then, we can look forward for better future in sports in Malaysia.”