Pro-active steps to address national athletes’ plight

The government should take the welfare of national athletes seriously to avoid our treasured national athletes from being forced to leave the national team or even prematurely retiring.

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Published in Astro Awani, theSundaily & Asia News Today, image by Astro Awani.

The Twitter post by user Fayadh Wahab about the plight of former national para-swimmer Koh Lee Peng – who was seen selling tissue packets in Bukit Bintang – brings to fore (yet again) as to the kind of treatment she and fellow sports stars are “accorded” by the Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS).

Koh had won 7 gold and 3 silver medals for Malaysia at the Asean Para Games from 2001 until 2005, and named Penang’s Female Paralympian of the Year in 2016.

Following public outcry and the All-Women’s Action Society (Awam)’s retweet, the National Athletes Welfare Foundation (Yakeb) responded that Koh had received several offers of financial aid over the years. Yakeb claimed that Koh chose to turn these down as she wants to be financially independent.

In a conversation with Rawang state assemblyman Chua Wei Kiat, Koh shared that she was only awarded RM1,000 per win and received a monthly living allowance of RM450 after retirement.

If considering the fact that para-athletes by nature need to put in more effort than normal athletes (due to physical constraints), the paltry financial awards reflect the government’s lack of appreciation and even sincerity for the glory they have brought to the country.

Koh’s outlook and resilience are something Malaysians can take inspiration from and emulate.

At the same time, the contrast between her current pitiful life and previous existence as Paralympian is very heart-wrenching.

This is definitely not the first time that the sorry state of affairs involving our national athletes in terms of their situation after retirement has been brought to the attention of Malaysians.

Two-time Paralympic Games medallist P. Mariappan also indicated that he encountered financial distress because the government did not provide any significant or sustained assistance after his retirement.

Consequently, he felt used and discarded after serving the country for a long time (he was a seven-time Paralympian).

In October 2016, the government expressed its commitment to issuing a lifetime monthly pension to all past medallists of the Paralympic Games.

Despite this, when featuring in a short documentary by Vice News, Mariappan pointed out that the only financial aid he received from the government was RM2,000 per month which is inadequate to cover his family’s daily expenses and school fees for his three children, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic period in 2020.

In early January 2022, the National Sports Council (NSC) announced that the Podium Programme that was introduced in 2015 to groom world class athletes has been axed. Along with that was also the termination of 144 national athletes from the conventional training programmes due to a nearly 70% reduction in the Budget 2022 for KBS.

One of the affected athletes, (former world number five) national squash player Low Wee Wern lamented that it was disrespectful to be removed from the Podium Programme without prior notice or an official statement.

The abrupt and sudden decision by the KBS has caused much anxiety among the affected national athletes as to their future.

The National Sports Council (NSC), Yakeb and other sports-related government agencies should have a meeting with the Ministry of Finance (MoF) and KBS to improve and protect the welfare of national athletes and, if need, that of their families or dependents.

To effectively address the situation, EMIR Research would like to propose the following policy recommendations for consideration:

  1. Establish a Comprehensive Lifetime Pension Scheme

Currently, only Olympic and Paralympic medallists are entitled to a lifetime pension from the government.

This should be expanded to non-medallists also as well as covering non-Olympic and Paralympic international and regional sporting events. 

Enrolment should, therefore, be automatic (i.e., the responsibility lies with KBS).

The Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) has revealed that both it and the NSC are currently working with the private sector to develop annuity programmes that will ensure the investment returns are sustainable and sufficient to pay for the pension.

It is worth mentioning that the “annuity-based” pension scheme is expected to be expanded to include non-Olympian and non-Paralympians, as long as they have represented the country in international sporting events.

This pension scheme would also gradually allow national athletes to accumulate their lifetime pensions based on the grade of international sporting events they participate in and ranking in a particular tournament.

That is to say, national athletes who compete at higher grade international sporting events deserve to receive higher pension upon retirement.

  1. Offer Lifetime Medical Insurance

It is common for national athletes to be injured during training and competition.

In 2020, the Malaysian Olympians Association (MOA) said that Yakeb did not have adequate funds to cover high medical expenses.

Thus, MOA urged the government to provide free medical insurance coverage for national athletes.

To complement MOA’s proposal, the government should go further and provide free health insurance on a lifetime basis.

The reason is that these occupational injuries may accompany national athletes for the rest of their lives. Therefore, some of them would need to incur heavy costs for long-term medical treatment.

Without lifetime medical insurance, they would suffer the double whammy of financial hardship and debilitating condition(s).

Thus, the government has an obligation to safeguard their physical and mental health even when they are retired or dismissed.

To avoid abuse of the claims applications, the government can require that only those who have served in the national team for five years and above are entitled to this benefit.

The move is expected to attract and retain talented national athletes to serve the country as their healthcare are safeguarded.

  1. Relaunch Rakan Sukan Corporate Sponsorship Programme

In 1994, the Rakan Sukan programme was introduced to encourage private sector investment in sports in order to prepare athletes for the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games.

Following the recent cuts in Budget 2022 for sports, various parties (e.g., OCM) have called for a revival of this sponsorship programme to address the national athletes’ plight.

NSC agreed that Rakan Sukan programme could create a win-win situation for private companies and national sports associations (NSAs) if they are mutually beneficial in the long run.

To attract private sector investment in the programme, OCM is encouraging the government to provide tax incentives to the participants.

That is to say, similar to tax-deductible donations, the private sponsors could enjoy the reduction in chargeable income if they are committed to sponsoring national athletes for one year or more.

To encourage more private sector sponsorship, the government should also provide tax incentives for individuals willing to sponsor tournament fees, (including registration expenses), transportation and accommodation.

Under this sponsorship programme, NSC will have the flexibility to use its allocated budget to improve training facilities and attract sought-after coaches whilst helping unsponsored but promising athletes to flourish and groom them to be on par with their sponsored compatriots.

  1. Provide gainful employment for national athletes upon retirement from their sporting career

In EMIR Research article, “Social enterprises in Malaysia – an emerging employment provider” (June 17, 2020), it was stated that the government should provide an environment of “[e]mployment opportunities for people with special needs through government-linked social enterprises and in collaboration with other social enterprises following [the] UK … where the establishment of Remploy as a government-linked company that specialises in providing employment and skills support for disabled people and those with health conditions”.

For the other national athletes with no special needs requirements, KBS should still match them with the right job (matched qualifications) in collaboration with the Ministry of Human Resources (MOHR) and, by inclusion, Human Resources Development Corporation (formerly Human Resource Development Fund or HRDF), e.g., such as the Placement Centre. Other stakeholders include the Department of Skills Development (DSD) of MOHR and Socso – on reskilling and upskilling initiatives for the retired national athletes to enhance their qualifications or employability.

In addition, KBS should work with the Ministry of Entrepreneur Development and Cooperative to help nurture and guide our national athletes who wish to become financially independent by venturing into business – through programmes like Protégé.

Some of the national athletes, i.e., the popular or well-known ones due to their success in winning medals, already have a “brand name” in their own right and this could be tapped and leveraged upon to capture the market or create a niche.

Overall, it is important that the post-sporting career phase be looked at in this regard also – with implications (i.e., multiplier effect) on employment (including youth), income, tax revenue, etc.

In conclusion, the government should take future life support for national athletes seriously to avoid our treasured national athletes from being forced to leave the national team or even prematurely retiring.

Jason Loh Seong Wei and Tan Tze Yong are part of the research team of EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

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