Minister of Youth and Sports Hannah Yeoh is gunning for gold at Paris Olympics 2024

She was instrumental in setting up the Road to Gold (RTG) high-performance training plan to prepare the country’s medal hopefuls for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and Los Angeles in 2028.

Yeoh wants KBS to be more inclusive and for Malaysia to become a sporting country (Photo: Low Yen Yeing/ The Edge Malaysia)

Hannah Yeoh has had quite a journey. Ever since taking over the portfolio of Ministry of Youth and Sports (KBS), she has showcased new depths to her capabilities. And she has been unable to catch a break.

While waiting for our 5pm appointment at her Putrajaya office, a percussive din of what we learnt later to be sounds of plastic cups being stacked reach our ears. She is meeting some young players from the World Sport Stacking Association Malaysia who emerged the overall winners at a championship in Singapore in April.

“I didn’t even know stacking was a sport. Just because it is not an Olympic sport, doesn’t mean [the athletes] don’t deserve my attention,” she tells Options afterwards.

That is who Yeoh is — always ready to listen, learn and then lead. She has no qualms about giving an audience to youths and athletes amid packed schedules, even if it means spreading herself thin.


Road to gold

All eyes are on Yeoh as the Olympics loom. She was instrumental in setting up the Road to Gold (RTG) high-performance training plan to prepare the country’s medal hopefuls for the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics and Los Angeles in 2028. She says: “RTG complements the existing Podium Programme, which was launched in 2016 with the same objective of achieving Malaysia’s first gold in Tokyo 2020. I made sure the committee was made up of sportspeople and industry experts because it should continue even when I’m out of this office. Nothing should come in the way of building excellence in sports, more so politics.”

Yeoh is the only politician in the committee, which comprises experienced athletes such as Datuk Nicol Ann David, Datuk Lee Chong Wei and Datuk Mirnawan Nawawi, alongside administrators such as Stuart Ramalingam — who has vast experience in reforming the Malaysian Football League and making it profitable — to steer RTG towards its gold goals.

The programme includes the usual suspects comprising badminton players, divers and cyclists such as Lee Zii Jia, Aaron Chia, Soh Wooi Yik, Pandelela Rinong and Azizulhasni Awang. Won’t this create disparity in Malaysian sports?

“No, we have every intention to grow the list. There is no point in setting impractical goals for our athletes,” Yeoh says. “We are focusing on medal winners from Tokyo 2020 and are using the top 10 world ranking as a benchmark. It will change from time to time as they go through the qualifying rounds leading up to the big sporting event.”


At a meeting with Road to Gold coordinator Ramalingam (left), shuttler Lee and his sister/manager Lee Zii Yii

Yeoh is constantly assessing the situation and talking to experts to find ways to offer more support to the selected athletes, but what is heartwarming, she says, is the surging interest in RTG and traction on conversations about the ambition. Just like all Malaysians, she wants our athletes to break the gold-medal-less spell. For now, she is aiming for the sky.

The RTG committee went on a study trip to Japan in April and the dialogue with Nippon Sports Science University in Tokyo was eye-opening. “We have asked NSSU to help us identify strategies to win our first gold-medal. They have an outstanding record of producing world-class athletes and winning more than 40 gold medals. We talked about focusing on women categories and sports that give Asians the advantage over other nations,” Yeoh says.

Another important lesson learnt from the trip was that many Japanese athletes were PhD holders and they went on to work as coaches. “I definitely want to see more career options for our retired athletes. The Japanese are committed to promoting grassroots development,” she observes.

It all boils down to how the education and sports ministries are streamlined. “In Japan, they have only one ministry looking into the two. Here, it is segregated. In Malaysia, a child is taken out of school and placed in a sports school when he or she shows great potential to shine as a national athlete. And when they don’t live up to that expectation, they are sent back home. It’s challenging to adjust to the change,” says Yeoh.

The long-term framework for RTG will look beyond an athlete’s performance and into the entire ecosystem. “Is the system sufficient? Do we have the right model? Are we relying too much on the Ministry of Education to train schoolchildren to excel in sports? “I want to have the courage to do something that will yield results beyond my tenure. I am constantly restructuring and finding ways to do more for the youth and sports. I don’t want to settle for the status quo.”

So much to do, so little time.


Not missing a beat

Yeoh has adapted to her new ministerial role organically and is clearly making a good impression. She hit the ground running from her first day in office on Dec 3, and identified certain areas as “low-hanging fruit” that could be easily addressed to ensure that sports was accessible to all. With that she started looking at the infrastructure owned by KBS. “As a start, we launched on our official website an inventory directory of facilities, including dewan orang ramai [community halls] and futsal courts under the ministry,” she says.

Her next priority was the welfare and security of athletes, which is to provide a safe space for athletes to thrive. Using her experience of having worked on the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act at the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, she implemented a Safe Sport Code instead of tabling a bill in parliament because the latter would take too long to be passed.

“One of the things we champion is a bigger budget for the National Athletes Welfare Foundation and we are grateful to the prime minister for the RM5 million allocation under Budget 2023 for former athletes and tax relief for the companies that employ them,” she says.


Yeoh with the Malaysian contigent at the Jalur Gemilang handover ceremony ahead of the 32nd SEA Games in Cambodia

Yeoh is looking into existing initiatives and improving upon them to reach a bigger pool of youth. She says the Technical and Vocational Education Training programmes, which are implemented by 12 ministries including KBS, should come under the purview of the Ministry of Human Resources or Ministry of Higher Education and also be in line with the PM’s mandate that different ministries to work together and reduce wastage.

“We are looking into weekend programmes for young people, where they can come and pick up new skills such as servicing the air conditioner or hairstyling. Rakan Muda, launched in the 1990s, is another fine example of something that worked in the past and is worthy of a revival because it is a wholesome initiative and the parents of the current generation of youth need no convincing, simply because they know what it is all about,” she adds.

Yeoh has big plans to use the ministry’s resources to solve social problems, such as minimising the number of children who drown during school holidays by providing free swimming lessons in public pools, starting with the B40 communities. “We are rolling out the classes soon. At least the taxpayers’ money is being used for a worthy cause and, who knows, we may find our next national swimmer. It’s also a good way to make use of public pools.”

She wants KBS to be more inclusive and for Malaysia to become a sporting nation. “I don’t want to focus only on high-performing or podium sports. We are looking at how we can mobilise the nation to lead an active lifestyle. We also hope to do more for Paralympics, women in the industry and minority sports,” she says earnestly, while talking about her plans to travel every month to Sabah and Sarawak because “they do feel neglected and the facilities leave much to be desired”.


Anti-sexual harassment bill 

It is impossible to have a conversation with Yeoh without touching on the recent incident of sexual harassment involving a female cyclist. “When the incident came to our attention, the National Sports Council’s safeguarding officer stepped in to assist the victim and we took immediate steps to ensure she was separated from the alleged perpetrator and her training could continue in a safe environment. Investigations by police are currently ongoing,” she says.

The Safe Sport Code, introduced in March, will be expanded nationwide. Yeoh looked to the International Olympic Council as an international benchmark for standard setting because “I don’t want to confuse our athletes and stakeholders. Can you imagine if there are two different guidelines? If an athlete travels overseas for competitions and a violation happens, which one do we follow?” The Ministry of Education, Sepang International Circuit and stadium owners have pledged their support for this code, and she will be meeting gym operators to get them onboard.


Yeoh meets up with Johor Darul Ta'zim football club owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim to discuss ways to improve pitches in each stadium in the country

A fair reflection

Yeoh, who embarked on her political career in 2008, recalls facing many challenges, including from Christian groups who believed it was impossible to fight corruption in politics. She managed to prove them wrong and maintain a clean reputation for 15 years, without getting involved in money politics. “I always believe that the darker a place is, the easier it is to bring light.”

She also rose above the noises that screamed “it is impossible to change the government, the powers that be” and brought a wave of change to Malaysia. Her breakthrough is no happenstance.

“I am thankful to belong to a political party that believes in giving young people and women leaders an opportunity and space in politics. I have spent 10 years in state government and a short time as the opposition. I strongly believe that pushing boundaries is essential in bringing change in politics,” states Yeoh, the assistant national publicity secretary of the Democratic Action Party. She has worked towards strengthening selected committees and parliament and state assemblies to improve checks and balances.

How does this frenetic lifestyle translate into her personal life? She admits that balancing work and motherhood is a challenge that she still struggles with. She does not have time to cook for her family and her meals at home are compromised. Nonetheless, she is thankful for the experience because it has helped her empathise with working mothers and understand the importance of flexible work arrangements.

“Checking out from work is difficult, especially now that technology is literally at our fingertips. We must strike a balance but it’s easier said than done. I’m struggling to clear my unread messages and all the images and videos that peak during the festive season.”

Social media is brutal and Yeoh is not spared from harsh comments and criticism, but she has learnt not to read everything written about her. “I cannot expect everybody to like me, and even the best of leaders have their critics. I always believe in doing my best and letting my work speak for itself.”

If she could do it all over again, would she change anything? “I wouldn’t have worked that hard. I have done so many community engagements and events. It’s tiring but, don’t get me wrong, also very rewarding. I look at my diary and my calendar over the years; I just wish I had more time for myself,” says the mother of two daughters, aged 12 and 10. She regrets missing out on all the fun in her younger years but acknowledges one cannot be everything, and finding a support system with people who share the same vision is crucial.

“To answer your question, what I would do is to find that work-life balance. I should have done better.” There’s always a price to pay when you uphold integrity, more so in politics.


This article first appeared on May 15, 2023 in The Edge Malaysia.


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