Warwick ASEAN Conference

Sports in Southeast Asia – Hit or Miss?

Disclaimer: Warwick ASEAN Conference would like to clarify that all opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.

Every year, ASEAN Sports Day is celebrated on 8 August as a commemoration and celebration of the sporting talent and achievements of the Southeast Asian people. Much more than just large cash-cows for governments, sport at all levels brings many benefits to the lives of many.

The ability to unite the disparate peoples of each nation, increase cross-cultural understanding, build strong political alliances, lift people out of poverty and of course, provide unrivalled entertainment value to spectators and participants alike are just some examples.

I am of the view that the power of sport is limitless, if governments can pool together to encourage their athletes and the general public to actively contribute to the sporting scene.

History of Sports in Southeast Asia

When one thinks of Southeast Asian sports today, one might picture old folks kicking a chapteh back and forth without it touching the ground at a neighbourhood park. Others might envisage a state-of-the-art aquatic centre (like the OCBC Aquatics Centre in Singapore) constructed for the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.

Back in the olden days however, sport took on very different roles and purposes. An example is the Cambodian martial art known as Bokator. Bokator was developed for the purposes of close-quarter combat and self-defence, to help the Khmer Empire maintain control over the region from the 9th to 15th century AD. Adapted for survival purposes, the practice of Bokator was seen as such a threat to rule that the leaders of the Khmer Rouge thought it necessary to wipe out trainers and masters of the martial art, as they were worried about the possibility of laymen resorting to violence.

From Local to International

Unlike the days of yore, combat sport today has evolved from passion to suppression. Discipline and self-control are valued just as highly as technical expertise and aggression. Violence must only be used when cornered or put in a position of weakness – never to intimidate or to attack another. Bokator alongside other martial arts are practiced as much for their aesthetic and spiritual benefits as their physical appeal.

Other sports which originated in Southeast Asian countries, like Muay Thai (Thailand), Sepak Takraw (Malaysia), Kali (Philippines) and Pencak Silat (Indonesia) have spread their influence and gained international popularity through the years.

Scores of people visit Phuket or Bangkok every year for Muay Thai training camps with the leading gyms in Thailand. Easy access to training facilities means that anyone can get a good cardio workout done, while learning to appreciate a culture vastly different from one’s own.

While Muay Thai is highly sought after by Westerners mainly for self-defence purposes, Silat among other martial arts have become more of a performance, a ‘dance’ routine of sorts. Students going on bilateral exchanges in Southeast Asia are often given the chance to learn a few basic moves in martial arts as part of cross-cultural immersion.

Evidently, there are telling signs of permeation of the ASEAN sporting culture into other regions of the world. Versions of Sepak Takraw (more commonly known as Foot Volleyball in the Western world) are also popular games in countries such as Brazil, Paraguay and South Korea.

Rotating the host nation of the SEA Games among the ASEAN countries every 2 years also aids each country in increasing tourism inflow. The opportunity to host such a large-scale event incentivises free trade and foreign direct investment. This is especially so for developing countries who would do well with added exposure on the world map.

“The opportunity to host such a large-scale event incentivises free trade and foreign direct investment.”

Beyond the martial arts, soccer is a big part of the DNA of ASEAN countries, and is also the national sport for some. The biennial ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship often sees sell-out crowds each game and serves to establish healthy rivalry between different national teams whenever they take to the field.

Bigger tournaments like the AFC Champions League also see the region’s best take on teams from other parts of Asia and Oceania.  Its benefits go beyond money or fame. In international games, divides between different races and ethnicities are often cast aside when the whole country sings the national anthem with one voice, and national cohesiveness takes over.

Soccer builds community even at the municipal level. From children to adults, what some might term ‘street soccer’ is played anywhere from open fields and apartment corridors to paved roads and void decks, regardless of family background or income. Soccer also provides an avenue of ‘escape’ from poverty towards a better life. The motivation to strive towards the summit of the professional game and eventually earn wages that would help a player support his or her family is a very empowering pull of sport.

Challenges to a growing professional sporting culture

As with all things, however, ‘practical considerations and interests’ are often stacked against the development of a good sporting culture. A common problem faced by national sporting bodies is that of the people’s greater interest in foreign leagues and competitions versus locally-organized and sanctioned ones.

The most telling example of this is how European soccer leagues like the Premier League, Ligue 1 and La Liga reign supreme over Singapore’s own S-League. While Singaporeans pay premium prices for coverage on their cable TV sets, the screening of S-League games on free-to-air channels and cheap stadium tickets ironically fail to sustain attendance and viewership.

“[…] the screening of S-League games on free-to-air channels and cheap stadium tickets ironically fail to sustain attendance and viewership.”

Local clubs face a perennial problem of getting sponsors and sufficient funding. This has created a vicious cycle of poor performances at regional championships, as there are few incentives for overseas marquee players to join a floundering league.

Turnout at league matches remains low and sponsors find no reason to endorse clubs without adequate viewership. In result, management bodies like the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) are unable to improve infrastructure and manpower.

In addition, a paradoxical “pragmatism” more often than not rears its ugly head. Parents are caught in a dilemma between letting their kids pursue a full-time and ‘risky’ future in professional sport, versus shepherding them towards the practical route of getting a good university education and eventually a white-collar job.

Once again, this is most evident in prosperous, first-world countries like Singapore where the ‘tried and tested’ route, full of certainty, is much more reliable for a generation of young people.

Few parents believe their son can become the next Joseph Schooling (Swimming, Singapore’s first Olympic Gold Medallist) or their daughter the next Angela Lee (MMA, One Championship Atomweight World Champion), and even less are inclined to invest in their child’s training overseas if necessary.

Baby Steps

While we accept such a trend exists, it is of paramount importance that we address the above issue, while also improving opportunities for the public to engage with sport.

Just 2 years earlier, the Singapore government introduced the One Team Singapore Fund of close to $100 million to provide financial support for the nation’s top athletes: some of whom previously had to pull money from their own pockets to fund their own competitions, equipment and training.

ASEAN as a whole has been working hard to extend professional sport as options to traditionally ‘overlooked’ pillars of society. This includes women and the disabled.

ASEAN officials recently gathered in Myanmar in October 2018 for the Eighth ASEAN Senior Officials Meeting on Sports (SOMS-8). They focused on the four pillars of cooperation under the ASEAN-Japan Collaborative Work Programme on Sports: development of physical education teachers and coaches, women in sports, sport for persons with disabilities, and anti-doping.

Gender equality in sport is becoming an increasingly highlighted issue in modern society. We should expect to see more female athletes making breakthroughs in the years to come.


Howard Cosell once said, “sport is human life in microcosm”. I believe sport instils meaning and quality into the lives of many, regardless of language, race or culture. Sport could be an interest, a livelihood, even a political instrument to fight for equality. No matter its form or style, it is up to individual countries, their governments and their people, to decide the parameters of sport and to use its limitless potential for the benefit of all.



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