Man at His Best

We Got Game?

Khairy Jamaluddin takes on a question of sport (and youth)

BY jason tan | Aug 8, 2017 | Culture

Photographs by Kim Mun; Art direction by Rebecca Chew

Is it a good time be young?

A significant percentage of the Malaysian population is now under 40, making the youth vote key in the next general election that must be called by August next year. Khairy Jamaluddin has been Minister for Youth and Sports since after the last general election in 2013. This year’s SEA Games is his end of term exam.

Speaking of the Games, Asean could certainly do with some sexing up, according to year’s Q2 FT Confidential Research Asean Political Sentiment Index which puts optimism in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam at a low ebb.

I quote: “The mood continues to lighten in Malaysia as its index rose 1.5 points to 31.8 after the economy picked up from the middle of last year. Nevertheless, the below 50 reading shows respondents expect political conditions to worsen in the next six months. Elections due by August 2018 hold little hope of improvement in the political climate, currently marred by corruption allegations at the state fund 1MDB and mismanagement at state-linked plantation company, Felda Global Ventures.”

Speaking of youth and popularity, this is good point to segue to Trudeau, Macron and Varadkar, headline hoggers as the youngest this and that (of recent memory) of their countries, and even for their partners and of course Varadkar's sexual orientation and half-Indian immigrant parentage. Below our radars are Matteo Renzi, Alex Tsipras, Sebastian Kurz, et al. We did have Chin Peng and Aug San, but alas they're historical rather than contemporary.

It's been pointed out that they're youthful leaders for greying populations; antidotes to Trump and May. We, on the other hand, are a youthful population with... what kind of leaders?  Are younger Malaysians ready for youthful prime ministers?

Could a local Trudeau Macron Varadkar PM candidate ever spring from our primordial political soup? (Of course, we remember the tragedy of Blair's Iraq and Cameron's Brexit referendum). Is a young woman PM even within the youthful contemplation of Malaysia? Would it help if she were sporty… To answer and not answer some of these questions, we interviewed KJ for this issue. — From the editor's note to the Esquire Merdeka-Malaysia Day special edition.


Kuala Lumpur 2017. Blade Runner 2049. Not quite the same thing, despite the apocalyptic imagery, but they both resonate with the marketing man’s promise of an awesome experience.

The 29th Southeast Asian Games and the 9th Asean Para Games, to give it its formal name, was conceived in the vintage year of 1959 during the Cold War, when communism vied with capitalism for uber status.

As a handle, the formal name stands a snowball’s chance in hell against the mashup of today’s newsfeed, cheek by jowl with Trump, religious atrocities, Paris Fashion Week, IG food porn and Spider-Man.

Hence, Kuala Lumpur 2017, the brand name of the 29th Southeast Asian Games and the 9th Asean Para Games. KL 2017 will coincide with celebrations for the country’s 60th anniversary of independence, as well as Malaysia Day. No pressure, then.

Also in the backdrop is the big trend sweeping the sports world: gaming, or eSports, which gives renewed impetus to youth engagement and the continuing virtualisation of real life, physical activity and well-being. The Malaysian general election is somewhere in this mix, as is the controversy over Khairy Jamaluddin, the Minister of Youth and Sports being selected for the national polo team in these Games (which occurred after this interview, when his office would take no supplementary questions).

But first, Southeast Asia: an emerging market of 600 million, but as diverse as, well, Southeast Asia socially, economically and politically, and not yet ripe for the picking, Asean Economic Community or no. A glance at the sponsors’ list for Kuala Lumpur 2017 tells its own story. So, what’s the shtick for Kuala Lumpur 2017?

“The rivalry among Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand still makes for great competition, probably even more than when we compete against international or world-class competition,” says Khairy.

“The sense of national pride, of wanting to be the best in the region, I saw that in Singapore, two years ago, when the competition was intense,” he continues. “...Friendly at the same time because we are all one big Asean family.”

Khairy explains that the SEA Games is really “about finding the next big thing… Everything, from who ends up lighting the cauldron to the sort of stars that we want to feature, [it] will be about the emerging stars, people who are going to break through at the SEA Games.”

For this reason, the country’s top athletes have been asked to skip the SEA Games for certain sports, such as badminton and squash, though keirin gold medallist, Azizulhasni Awang, will be riding at home for the first time in the new velodrome. Also featuring will be Sivasangari Subramaniam whom Khairy thinks is going to be the next Nicol David. Expect also to cheer for Kimberly Bong, successor to Pandelela Rinong, dive princess.

Perhaps more unexpectedly, Khairy reveals that Malaysian Paralympic gold medallists, Abdul Latif Romly and Ziyad Zolkefli, the long jumper and the shot putter respectively, will both be competing in their disciplines, having met the qualifying mark for the Games.

It opens the path to see sports in a different light. For example, as he sees it, what role can sports play in how society deals with disability and difference among youth and children?

“Yes, it opens them up to differences, and I think it allows for kids of varying abilities and different backgrounds to really find their place,” he replies.

Esquire points out that given the tragic Naveen case, sports needs to be cast as not just about masculinity or displays of machismo.

“Not at all, that is why I think the diversity of sport is very important,” he says. “If you emphasise individual sports and precision sports also, and give as much focus to them as team sports, then you allow for people of varying personalities to be involved.”

In short, to be an athlete is to be willing to play; to be involved with and alive to the world. Esquire passes the minister a saying attributed to Swami Vivekananda, as quoted by Sadhguru: “In kicking a ball, or playing a game, you are much closer to the divine than you’ll ever be in prayer.” Because you can pray without involvement, but you cannot play sports without involvement, and that involvement is the essence of life. Being switched on.

Khairy sidesteps the spirituality inherent in the question of sport, but otherwise agrees. “I don’t know how to go into the divine qualities of sport, but yes, it requires involvement and commitment. Whether it is hitting a ball, kicking a ball, or running, or paddling, you have to commit yourself, and I think that is the first step towards getting kids to succeed, to commit.”

The question then is whether this sporting spirit is being inculcated here, to be persuaded in another way, to be willing to lose.

“[Under] the national football development plan, under my ministry, we have 20,000 Malaysian kids playing football across the country, in 123 centres,” Khairy says. “The philosophy is, at least up to the age of 12, the result doesn’t matter. It matters that you play properly and enjoy yourself, as opposed to trying to get a goal at any cost.”

He admits, however, that “it’s not easy because the Malaysian philosophy is still very much, ‘I want to see myself get a win’, which is not the right philosophy in sports development. It is also difficult because it’s counter-intuitive for parents; they want their kids to win. but we have to tell them, yes, if your son or daughter is talented, they will win eventually, but it is important that everyone gets involved, and the results are not so important.”

It’s a refreshing take in times of winner-takes-all and in total contradiction to trenchant Malaysian politics. How can it happen?

“I’ve always been of the view, and I still hold the view that the Ministries of Education and Sports should be together. That will be the best fit for sports.”

Then there’s the question of eSports:

“eSports is video games, basically. I used to be very, very much against categorising non-physical activities as sport, but that has changed because I recognise there is a highly competitive element involved in mental sports.”

The next Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang in 2018 will feature eSports for the first time as a demonstration event, before being included as a medal sport in 2022 in Hangzhou, China. The Asian Games is the largest multisport event after the Olympics.

The Guardian newspaper reports that Sangam Stadium in Seoul, which hosted a World Cup semi-final in 2002, was sold out for the 2014 League of Legends World Final. It was broadcast to a global audience of over 27 million in 19 different languages. Not quite the numbers of the World Cup, but trending nonetheless.


"As much as sports is a tool for social development and nation-building, it cannot be for social engineering. My main task is to create a team that wins."


A good place to segue into Malaysian football: the national team’s FIFA world ranking hovers around 155 out of 200, but it still rouses very passionate discussion. There has been a lot of nostalgia. What does he think of the case for Malaysian football as a microcosm of Malaysian society?

“I think there are better days ahead. I think with the NFDP (National Football Development Programme) that we are running for kids between seven and 17, you’ll definitely see players of different styles of play and intensity coming through, and hopefully, they’ll mature into adult players who raise the bar.”

He continues: “There’s new leadership in FAM (Football Association of Malaysia) which I think is trying to do the right things, and that takes time. One good thing is that we start at a low base... It’s nice to look back and reflect, but I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. I liked the movie (Ola Bola). However, I didn’t like us obsessing over it because we were good, but we weren’t great. We never qualified for the World Cup; we qualified for the Olympics twice, so we are getting there. But we aren’t there yet.”

Esquire clarifies the point: if you put a mirror to Malaysian society and that mirror was the Malaysian football team, then at the time when we were competitive with many other countries, that team was drawn from a diverse background.

“That’s completely separate from how good we were relative to other countries’ teams. Do you want a team that is the best team out there, or do you want to have this diverse team also?” he counters. “It’s now a meritocracy. The guy who runs the NFDP that oversees 20,000 kids from seven to 17 who will choose the future Malaysian team for the Under-17 World Cup qualifiers is Chinese and his team is almost 100-percent Malay. This is not by design; this is by what is going on.”

The question arises about the size and the type of the talent pool because of the growing popularity of private schools and their ethnic and economic divide with national schools. Student enrolment in national schools is reportedly around 90 percent Malay, with the opposite figure prevailing in private schools.

“The best part of our national football programme [is that] it is a case study,” says Khairy. “I anticipated this three years ago when I started, in that it is not limited to national schools, there are open try-outs. We actively go to the private schools and the academies that rich parents send their kids [for try-outs] too...

“You see a better [social and ethnic] balance in badminton, which has a lot of Chinese and Malay participation, more so Chinese. I don’t know how it happened; it wasn’t by design [or policy]. For me, as much as sports is a tool for social development and nation-building, it cannot be for social engineering. I can’t use sports to try and create an Ola Bola Malaysian team. My main task is to create a team that wins.”

And what of the expectations of Malaysia for the Games?

“Oh. We have to win it.”



Justin Trudeau

The Canadian Prime Minister and internet heartthrob ticks many boxes when it comes to being stylish. For starters, his suits actually fit his frame, though, admittedly, these are mostly in classic navy blue. Secondly, he often wears an IWC Regulateur watch, pretty cool if you ask us. Most importantly, Trudeau is not afraid to have a little fun when it comes to dressing. His penchant for funky socks has put him in a league of his own (and even led to a New York Times’ “socks diplomacy” theory). Trudeau was first spotted wearing a pair of tonal striped socks on national TV, and then mismatched R2D2 and C3PO Star Wars ones. More recently, he sported a rainbow-striped pair with the words “Eid Mubarak”. We could go on, but you get the point. Oh, and he has that mane of hair that puts Jon Snow to shame.

Emmanuel Macron

The French president’s approach to dressing, like his political stance, is best described as pragmatic and modest. It has been reported that Macron gets his off-the-rack, mostly blue suits from Parisian father-and-son tailor Jonas et Cie—each costing a modest EUR340. But what we like about Macron’s style is the way he wears his ties—these are cut neither too wide nor too slim, and are usually in darker tones to match his suits. It’s a subtle style touch that we approve of, unlike a certain world leader who has his ties big, wide and long.

Leo Varadkar

We haven’t seen much of Ireland’s first gay prime minister’s personal style, but so far, Varadkar has been playing it safe (read: boring). His suits are fitted to the politician’s standard, but we think he could definitely use an inch nip on the waist and half-a-inch on the sleeves. Oh, he recently wore a pair of red polka-dot socks to meet Justin Trudeau. Looks like someone has been paying attention.


Related: August 2017 Editor's Note: We are so young now