1. I am deeply honored to be with you today as the recipient of the 2010 Diamond of Asia award. As most of you know, my passion for football extends beyond my close observation of the Malaysian Super League, or Liga Super Malaysia, and my loyal following of Manchester United’s season. The sport has much to offer beyond its entertainment value and has been a mainstay of Malaysian culture from our earliest days as a nation.
2. Since the formation of the Asian Football Confederation more than 55 years ago we have seen football take root and expand throughout our region. For many decades the football powerhouses of Europe and Latin America dominated global play. But Asian football has grown rapidly from its humble beginnings and our teams are now a force to be reckoned with. Anyone watching the performance of the Asian team in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa can attest to Asia’s maturity as a true football contender after Japan and Republic of Korea qualified for the second round. I believe the AFC has made important contributions to the cultivation of talented players and to the spreading of interest in football throughout our region, and should be congratulated for all of its efforts.
3. In tracking the influence that the AFC has had on Asian football, I think it is also important to note the role that Malaysia has played in the evolution of the AFC. Malaysia has played a prominent role throughout the history of the AFC, beginning with the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj, who served as AFC President from 1958. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al Haj recognised the wisdom of investing in youth athletic activities and initiated youth competitions throughout his 20-year tenure. He is also credited with starting the Merdeka Tournament to mark the independence of Malaysia in 1957, and with initiating the Asian club tournament in 1967. Malaysia jointly hosted Asia’s most prestigious competition – AFC Asian Cup – in 2007 along with Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand and has also played host to almost all major AFC competition so far and also hosted the FIFA U-20 World Cup in 1997.
Ladies and gentlemen,
4. The “beautiful game”, as football is known around the world, has played a prominent role in my life for as long as I can remember. The sport energises me and provides a constant source of inspiration for how we can better manage, govern and live together. If you indulge me, I would like to share a few of the lessons that football has taught me over the years.
5. First, football is a symphony of teamwork and teaches us how to use carefully-choreographed plays between many members of the team, balanced with extraordinary individual talent, to achieve results. This important metaphor is tied to my vision for where Malaysia needs to be by 2020. On our path to achieving high-income status, our country is developing the unique skill sets required to be a valuable individual contributor to the global economy. But as a trading nation, it is in our nature to collaborate with our regional and international partners to ensure that our collective economic goals are achieved through cooperation. If you watch any top-ranked football club play, you will notice that it is a group of highly competitive individual players who are working as a team to achieve shared goals. I think this is an important model for ASEAN and our other trading partners to share.
6. As any fan knows, great opportunities often emerge in football when the ball is not always passed forward. This is the second lesson that the sport has taught me. Over the course of a 90-minute game, goals are scored through a series of plays that rarely move directly to the goal. It is sometimes frustrating to watch as your team passes the ball backwards, isn’t it? You think a goal will never come about.
7. But football reminds me of an important point that I take to heart in how I lead: Progress, as a nation, company or sports team is not always forward. Sometimes we need to take a few steps back and make adjustments to see a more direct path to the goal. I believe the global recession has presented us with a point where we have had to pass the ball backwards to move forward more strongly as a nation. The downturn in trade exposed our vulnerabilities – and dependencies – and forced us to re-assess how we could compete. We took steps to shore up our economy and have since developed an array of policies designed to diversify our trading relationships, invest in the talent of the Malaysian people, and remove barriers to our long-term success, such as subsidy imbalances and corruption. Based on the economic data we are seeing, it is clear Malaysia is driving on goal again.
8. Third, the best footballers always remember who they are playing for: Their fans. In politics, I think we can sometimes lose sight of our audience and focus on policies that move us away from the base of support that produced our success in the first place. Yes, successful clubs build up fan loyalty – sometimes on a global level – because they produce results. But it is also in how they communicate with their fans and provide ways for those fans to feel more involved with the game and the team. As politicians, we must remember that we are always accountable to the voters and it is essential that we keep them informed of our goals and our progress, as well as provide them with opportunities to provide feedback as we shape policy. My government has done this through the NKEA development process, as well as several other initiatives, and we will continue to reach out to our citizens to ensure we are hearing the boos as well as the cheers.
9. Finally, one of the most important lessons that I’ve drawn from football is that everyone is equal on the pitch. Certainly every team consists of players at different skill levels. But the football clubs I admire the most have one thing in common: their teams are made up of players from a wide variety of races, ethnicities and religious affiliations. And they function cohesively. This is a model for how Malaysians of different backgrounds can work together to transcend superficial differences to achieve great things as a nation. It lies at the heart of my vision for 1Malaysia and for the country. Football teaches us to leave our prejudices at the door and cheer for the team. In that spirit, my hope is that we Malaysians can see past our differences and unite behind our common goals in the same way that we support our national team.
10. Once again, I am grateful to the AFC for honoring me with this year’s Diamond of Asia award and look forward to another exciting year of Asian and global football.