This year, Singapore plays host to the Sea Games, which brings back fond memories – the first Games I covered as a rookie reporter in 1983 was also held in the city state.
I went on to cover 12 consecutive Games until 2005 in Manila, becoming a veteran at the biennial, multi-sport event.
Singapore is hosting the 28th edition of the Games from June 5th to 16th. This is also the fourth time they are doing it, the first having been in 1973 when the Games were known as the SEAP Games.
I will most likely be on the island, helping out the sports desk, and the memories will definitely come flooding back.
It was my colleague Leon Lim, a rookie himself, who was selected by our sports editor Tony Francis as my partner to cover the Games in 1983. Personnel protested but Tony stood his ground.
He then came up to Leon and me and said: “I have stuck out my neck for you two guys, so you had better do a good job. Otherwise, don’t come back, find a job in Singapore!”
With that stern warning still ringing in our ears, Leon and I packed and left for Singapore in my old faithful Madza 808.
Yes, we drove. And I remember we picked up the late Joe Marcose, who was then with Utusan Malaysia, and wanted a lift from his hometown in Batu Pahat.
Simply put, Leon and I were thrown into the deep end and it was a matter of swim or sink.
We were up against the veterans of the Games, including the late Mansoor Rahman (New Straits Times sports editor), Godfrey Roberts (Straits Times Singapore sports editor), Edward Thangathrai (Bangkok Post sports editor), late Suchart and Suchin, Singapore senior writers Joe Dorai, Jeffery Low, the late Percy Seneviratne, Indonesia’s late Supardi, and a string of other senior writers from the participating countries.
Just sitting in the same press box as these senior writers was intimidating, let alone standing beside them to interview the athletes.
But it was an experience that laid the foundations for my career until I myself became an old hand at the event.
Basically, the Sea Games should be a stepping stone for athletes to reach higher levels of competition.
In the early years, the SEAP and Sea Games were for the region's top athletes to compete on a level playing field. They were a means to forge cooperation, understanding and unity in the Southeast Asian community besides developing various sports in the region.
The Games started in 1958 with six members – Thailand, Burma (now Myanmar), Malaya (now Malaysia), Laos, South Vietnam and Cambodia, while Singapore came in later – 12 events and 650 athletes. Now, 11 countries participate in 36 events and the number of athletes is some 7,000.
The cream of Southeast Asian athletes leave their mark on the Sea Games before progressing to the Asian and world arenas. But over the years, standards at the Games have deteriorated. The champions of the Games cannot even make the top grade in most championships, let alone the Olympics.
There are not even enough entries for athletics events in some cases and some even scratched.
Countries still send their veteran athletes to the Games in their pursuit of medals, thus denying the budding talents the opportunity to gain some exposure and move on to higher levels.
To make matters worse, there is no official limit to the number of sports that can be contested. The hosting country decides on the events, pending approval from the SEA Federation.
Although some core sports must be featured, the host is free to add or introduce others. This flexibility usually results in the host maximising its medal haul because it can drop any sports that it is not good at and introduce obscure ones, mostly traditional, that are played only by a few nations, including fin swimming, shuttlecock, arnis, kenpo, vovinam, bridge, chinlone, paragliding, wall climbing and floorball.
Then, we have subjective sports where judging has always been an issue and at times, accusations of fixing are hurled at each other. Still, these sports continue to remain in the Games with medals distributed to all participating teams so that they are voted into the next Games. Everyone returns home happy.
After every Games, all sorts of complaints are heard. Malaysia even vowed to correct these ills in the next Games, including reducing the number of events, sticking to Olympic sports and creating an Under-23 or Under-25 Games for all sports. Now, only football is Under-23, while Malaysia chooses to send their second stringers for hockey.
But every country has its own agenda. There are compromises and the Games continue to look like a circus.
Why not use the Sea Games as a platform for development? Maybe like my ex-editor Tony, sports associations and officials should send in the rookies, expose the 'cadet' athletes to regional events with their future in mind.
The Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) and National Sports Council should play a part in allowing development or borderline athletes who miss the qualifying marks to be allowed to compete but with the expenses fully borne by the agencies or associations.
In the meantime, national sports associations should invest in their young talent and pay for their participation in the Sea Games, if the need arises.
What's the point of veteran athletes winning medals at the Games? They cannot go on to the next level and serve only to add to the total medal tally.
So, let's stop harping on the medal haul and look at the big picture – our athletes' time, distance, height and standing compared with the athletes of other participating countries.