There have been many golden sporting moments enjoyed by the country, writes Alan Teh Leam Seng

GRRRRRR.... phuttttt......errrmmmmmm. There goes my trusty Honda C70 as it comes to a grinding halt. Those alarming sounds emanating from the engine could only spell trouble. Carefully, I push my 25-year-old bike safely to the side and try to kick start it back to life. After several futile attempts which only results in an aching right leg, I’m resigned to the fact that I need help to resuscitate my motorbike.

A quick phonecall to the mechanic yields further bad news — he’s rather shorthanded, which means that I have to wait before he can attend to my urgent situation. After weighing my limited options, I decide to stay put and guard my precious “steed”. Feeling helpless, I turn to my phone for companionship.

The distant sound of an approaching vehicle catches my attention. It’s a white golf buggy zipping behind a row of trees. I suddenly realise that I’m close to the Royal Kedah Club. This exclusive members-only club is the only place in Alor Star where avid golfers, including their Royal Highnesses the Sultan and Sultanah of Kedah, get together to indulge in the sport said to have originated in the windswept grassy knolls of St Andrews in Scotland.

The golf course with its near perfect lawn comes into full view when I move closer to the trees. As I watch the golfers go about their routine, my thoughts begin to wander back in time…

More than 100 years ago this place would have had a huge race track with wooden fences all around it. The club was established in 1909 when the British gained control of the four northern Malay States from the Siamese Government. The track was used for elephant races which served as a means of recreation for the Siamese officials who started this tradition in the late 19th century. The British continued the event when they first began administering Kedah. In the words of the first Kedah adviser, Sir George Maxwell, “At least the officers can have some distraction from their stuffy offices in this far flung corner of the Empire”.


Yut Loy coffee shop, famed for its pau.

DEVELOPMENT OF SPORTS

During the turn of the 20th century, many colonial officers used sports while waiting for steamers to bring news from home. Sports proved a better alternative than other less active social events such as the local amateur theatre or the customary dinner parties. Colonial sports clubs also became a means for expatriates to enjoy outdoor games while interacting with members of their own community. The local population also had their own separate communal clubs. These, together with the colonial clubs, played a major role in the early development of sports in Malaya.

The famous Royal Selangor Club was founded in 1884 and served as a meeting point for high ranking members of the British colonial society residing mainly in Kuala Lumpur. Its first club building was a small wooden structure with an attap roof near the eastern corner of the Padang. The current building was built in 1910 when two additional wings were included to accommodate the growing membership. Architect Arthur Benison Hubback designed it in mock Tudor style. The men would slowly venture into the Padang which was cooler in the evenings. They would take part in games such as cricket before returning home for dinner.

By the mid 1920s the Kedah racing pachyderms were completely phased out and replaced with horses acquired from the Selangor and Penang Turf Clubs. It was reported that the British officials became impatient with the unpredictable nature of the elephants. There were cases where the behemoths simply refused to budge from the starting line despite having their keepers kneel and coax them to compete. Other instances saw these gentle giants amble effortlessly through the fragile wooden barricades and head straight for the tables laden with food.

Starting with just five horses, the Kedah Gymkhana quickly increased in size and importance. Over time, it became a permanent fixture in the Malayan racing circuit. Horses came from as far as Singapore and Selangor to vie for prestigious challenge trophies. First Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj was said to own several thoroughbreds and regularly visited the Gymkhana to see his prized stallions compete.


Tunku posing with state football representatives at his official residence in Kuala Lumpur.

FOOTBALL FEVER

Tunku was also an avid football fan, a sport that arrived in Malaya together with the British. Right from the beginning, the local population took to football like fish to water. It was so popular that by the end of the 19th century, football had become the backbone for most sports clubs in the Federated Malay States. Regular competitions were held locally as well as between the four States — Selangor, Pahang, Negri Sembilan and Perak. This led to the formation of the Football Association of Malaya (FAM) in 1933.

Football helped ordinary Malayans forget their hardship during the Japanese Occupation. The sport resumed its exponential growth soon after the Japanese surrendered. The decision for FAM to join Fifa was made in 1954.

Many sporting events were organised to celebrate our nation's independence in 1957. Among them was the Merdeka Football Tournament. Although the inaugural competition was won by Hong Kong, Malaya nonetheless turned the loss into an inspiration. It spurred the Malayan team to strive harder and by the next year, with the legendary Ghani Minhat as captain, Malaya made sure the challenge trophy didn’t leave its shores.

Back then, the Merdeka Football Tournament was considered one of the most prestigious football competitions in Asia. It attracted strong teams from all over Asia and our equally able home squad always gave them a run for their money.

Names such as Mokhtar Dahari, R. Arumugam and Soh Chin Aun commanded respect throughout the region. The national team's lightning quick strikes and impenetrable defenses brought the country twice to the Olympic Games. The road to Munich in 1972 was paved by wins over South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. Eight years later, in 1980, our football team once again qualified for the Moscow Olympic Games. Unfortunately, our footballers couldn’t participate as Malaysia joined many nations in condemning the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and subsequently boycotted the Games altogether.


Elephant races used to be held in Kedah during the turn of the 20th century.

SEPAK TAKRAW DOMINANCE

Records in Sejarah Melayu prove that sepak raga is one of the earliest sports played in this country. This historical Malay text mentions an incident involving the game which took place in 15th century Malacca. Tun Perak's son, Tun Besar was playing sepak raga with his friends within the palace grounds. Tun Perak was Malacca’s most famous Bendahara, a Malay nobility rank similar to that of a Prime Minister today.


His Royal Highness Sultan Abdul Halim Mu’adzam Shah with te Royal Kedah Club tennis players in 1960.

It was said that Tun Besar kicked the fist-sized rattan ball and accidentally hit Sultan Mansur Shah's son, knocking his headgear to the ground. In a fit of anger, Raja Muhammad stabbed and killed Tun Besar with his keris. This heartless act infuriated Tun Perak's kinsmen who wanted to retaliate against Raja Muhammad. They were, however, restrained by Tun Perak himself because their intended act of attacking a member of the royal family would be tantamount to treason. However, Tun Perak insisted that both he and his followers would no longer accept Raja Muhammad as the heir to the Malacca throne. Deeply saddened by the unfortunate string of incidents, Sultan Mansur Shah had no alternative but to send his eldest son to Pahang and install him as ruler there.

The modern version of sepak raga, now known as sepak takraw, evolved in Siam nearly 200 years ago. Formal rules and updated versions of the game started appearing during the 1940s. This game gained popularity in Malaya soon after World War Two when Hamid Maidin began introducing his volleyball-style net version and rules. In recognition for his pioneering efforts Hamid is considered the nation's father of modern takraw. The large pool of talent helped transform Malaya into a sepak takraw powerhouse. This dominance extended well into the 1980s.


The victorious Thomas Cup team parading through the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

BADMINTON

Apart from sepak takraw, badminton also had a faithful following after the Second World War. The formation of badminton clubs all over the nation helped youths to excel in this sport. In the early years, these clubs relied heavily on funds from generous patrons and wealthy leaders of the community. Regular competitions between clubs and villages helped identify budding talents.

Badminton greats like Tan Aik Huang, Teh Kew San, Eddy Choong and Wong Peng Soon won countless international tournaments and became household names. The late 1940s and 1950s were considered the golden years for badminton. During that time, Malaya dominated the All-England badminton championships and won the coveted Thomas Cup thrice, namely in 1949, 1952 and 1955. Ahhh, those were the days…


Kedah Badminton Association regularly organised the hotly contested Che Laidin Shield in the 1930s.

The sound of an approaching motorcycle jolts me back to the present. It’s my mechanic. While changing the worn out spark plug he tells me that he would be away for a week's vacation in northern Thailand and invites me to join him. Seems he’s got plans to catch an elephant race in Chiang Mai. Now, that’s an event worthy of some serious consideration!

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