Malaysians are on an “all-time high” following the 2017 Southeast Asia Games in Kuala Lumpur, despite allegations of judging bias and mediocre management of the region’s biggest multi-sports event.
Eleven nations and thousands of athletes turned out for the 29th edition of the SEA Games, from Aug. 19-30, with over 38 events and 406 gold medals up for grabs.
Malaysia, hosting for the sixth time, was crowned Wednesday as overall champion with a whopping 145 gold medals, its best-ever finish in the history of the games.
Two years ago, in Singapore, Malaysia won 62 gold medals and finished fourth.
Malaysia had only topped the regional sporting event once, in 2001, the last time it hosted the games. That year, Malaysia won 111 gold medals, beating the Thais by 8.
This year, Thailand came in second with 72 gold medals, and Vietnam took third with 58 gold medals, followed by Singapore (57), Indonesia (38), Philippines (24), Myanmar (7), Cambodia (3) and Laos (2).
For Malaysia, the games had many sparkling moments, as when the Sultan of Terengganu Mizan Zainal Abidin made history by bagging two gold medals in equestrian endurance.
Closing the games at National Stadium on Wednesday night, on the eve of Malaysia’s Independence Day, Prime Minister Najib Razak waxed poetic in looking ahead to the 2019 edition in the Philippines.
“May they display cheerfulness and concord so that the sport’s torch may be carried on with even greater eagerness, courage and honour for the good of humanity throughout the ages,” he said.
Then he sprang a delicious surprise, declaring Monday (Sept. 4) a public holiday in Malaysia.
Worst games in history?
But sweet victory in Malaysia tasted sour elsewhere, especially the region’s sporting powerhouses, Thailand and Indonesia.
Thai athletes, journalists and fans labelled Kuala Lumpur 2017 as the worst SEA games in history, the Bangkok Post reported on Wednesday.
“Emotions are running high among Thai fans and journalists who have vented their anger and frustration by dubbing the Kuala Lumpur Games ‘SEA Kong’ (SEA Cheating),” the Post report said.
Thai officials argued that events such as women’s boxing, where Thailand are serious contenders and past winners, were not contested.
A host nation has the right to tailor the Games to match their sports strengths and many have been done so over the years.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha defended Malaysia’s haul of gold.
“It is normal that the host country would get more (gold medals) following their preparations. It is the same when we were the host country when we also could manage the types of sport and this time they (Malaysia) had better preparations,” Malaysian state news agency Bernama quoted Prayuth as saying.
Indonesia had its own scathing remarks after the Pencak Silat martial arts artistic doubles event, where a Malaysia pair beat the defending Indonesian champions 582-554.
“It has never happened before that judges awarded 582 points in this category. Never mind 582, even to get 570 is extremely difficult,” Indonesia team manager Edhy Prabowo was quoted as saying by Agence France-Presse.
“They did not even deserve a third place, not even a fourth,” he said, adding: “I knew Malaysia would cheat.”
But Malaysian officials said no country had lodged an official complaint or protests despite several such judging controversies.
“It is normal for the host to select games that they’re good at and have a chance of winning a gold medal,” Rudy Irwan, a Malaysian sports fan and avid marathoner, told BenarNews.
Elections around the corner
The medals haul, Rudy said, had put the nation on a high, bringing together Malaysia’s multi-racial and politically divided society just before Independence Day, on Aug. 31, and ahead of an upcoming national election.
“There is a feel-good factor and the nation is united at the moment. So maybe, it is the best time for the ruling party to call for elections,” he added.
Although the general election is not due until mid-2018, politicians and analysts have indicated that Najib, who has been mired in allegations of corruption and abuse of power, may dissolve parliament by the end of this year.
Malaysia’s 14th General Election has been touted as the toughest that Najib’s United Malays National Organization party has faced, after winning every election since independence in 1957.
Hairul Rosli, a senior executive at a Malaysia-based multinational conglomerate, agreed that the nation was at an “all-time high” and that the election could be around the corner.
“Anything related to sports will certainly spark up the unity among Malaysians regardless of race, age and gender, especially when we are hosting the event,” the football and cycling fan told BenarNews.
Hosting the games lifted hopes for Najib in the next general election, according to Hafidz Rahman, a senior executive of the country’s national oil and gas company Petronas.
“Yet again, Najib did really well in his PR campaign, via sports as a nation image-building. But the truth [is], as a country, we are moving backward on core issues such as graft [and] transparency, which have remained unattended, thus affecting our overall growth,” Hafidz told BenarNews.
Meant to foster regional unity, the 2017 Games fumbled early on when it came to light that the Indonesian flag had been printed upside down in souvenir booklets, prompting several street protests and hacking attacks on Malaysian websites.
The mishap came to light when Indonesia's Youth and Sports Minister Imam Nahrawi tweeted his unhappiness at the opening ceremony, prompting a Twitter apology from his Malaysian counterpart and an official meeting to smooth ruffled feelings.
The games were marked by other problems such as the food poisoning of 16 Malaysian athletes at their hotel, last-minute venue and schedule changes, and food service deficiencies that left ravenous fans queuing for hours at some events.
“This is the first time I’ve heard so much complaints with regards to the organizing committee. Although we should be proud for hosting the games, but we should be ashamed by our poor liaison during the games,” said Hairul, a former journalist.
Rudy accused organizers of having a lackadaisical attitude.
“But these entire shortcomings, I believe, are due to poor quality control measures and not paying attention to details. In Malaysia, we have this attitude, everything would be okay,” he said.