As published in Malay Mail today
By Haresh Deol
THE national attire hogs the limelight for the not-so-right reason, yet again.
Mesuma Sports Sdn Bhd had last week initiated legal proceedings against the Olympic Council of Malaysia (OCM) after the sports company claimed it was not given the opportunity to exercise the right of first refusal to extend its sponsorship agreement for another four years as stated in the agreement between both parties.
Mesuma Sports has been providing the national contingent the tiger-stripe jersey since 2006 until it got into a spat with National Sports Council (NSC) over the ownership of the design in 2011.
While Mesuma Sports' George Heng has every right to proceed with legal action, some have questioned the timing as it comes before the OCM elections on Aug 22. Those contesting for positions are already going to town with the news as Mesuma Sports had also named OCM president Tunku Imran Jaafar, vice-president Datuk Low Beng Choo and long-time secretary Datuk Sieh Kok Chi in the suit.
Disputes over the national attires are not new.
Decades ago, Yonex was associated with the national athletes. There was no specific design or agreement as the sponsorship deal was perceived as “goodwill”.
However, when Kuala Lumpur hosted the 1989 SEA Games, NSC decided it should provide the national contingent with uniformed kits. Another sports apparel company, Antioni, was associated with the national athletes before the government decided to inject a fresh breath of life for the jersey.
In 2005, a nationwide competition was held to introduce a uniformed theme for national athletes.
Assistant architect Zulkifli Abdul Aziz from Johor won the contest that saw over 4,000 entries. The winning design was then tweaked by Limkokwing University College before it was launched by then deputy prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak the same year.
Present at the launch in Putrajaya were then youth and sports minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said and Low, who was then the chef de mission to the Manila SEA Games.
Mesuma Sports was given the honour to produce the jerseys, which were originally five stripes but later reduced to three stripes to make it “commercial friendly”.
The sports apparel company, based in Brickfields for decades before shifting to its new premises in Petaling Jaya, had established a close working relationship with NSC.
So close that Heng and former NSC director-general Datuk Seri Zolkples Embong enjoyed a cordial relationship, evident throughout the 2007 SEA Games in Korat, Thailand.
But the situation turned sour in 2011.
NSC entered into an agreement with Telekom Malaysia to launch the Team Malaysia Panthera jersey on April 28 that year. Present to launch the jersey was then youth and sports minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek.
Mesuma was unhappy as it was the registered proprietor of the trademark for 10 years from July 9, 2009 to July 9, 2019. The issue was then exposed by Malay Mail.
Former NSC director-general Datuk Dr Ramlan Aziz, had in 2011, told this newspaper no efforts were made to register the tiger stripes. This was said during a meeting at NSC in Bukit Jalil which saw Zolkples leaving the room abruptly, saying he had “another function to attend”.
Following a series of threats and animosity, NSC sued Mesuma. The government agency claimed it was the rightful proprietor of the design. The judgments in the High Court and Court of Appeal were in favour of NSC. The case is now awaiting Federal Court judgment.
I doubt Heng and Zolkples ever spoke after that. The relationship among the others was also strained.
It showed how some people were overly ‘passionate’ about our national jersey.
Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin did not want to inherit this problem. A new design was introduced last year.
The ministry took extra precaution to ensure the new design would not meet with bad publicity.
This included sending representatives to meet sports reporters days before the launch, hoping for good press.
While there are those who believed Melinda Looi did a good job in transforming a “boring and ugly" design, others felt the new creation looked like mud splattered on a jersey.
Yonex was back in the fold as the new brand for the national jersey.
Mesuma Sports claimed OCM had entered into an agreement with Sunrise & Co Ltd as the official sports attire sponsor for the Malaysian contingent to official multi-sports games under the Yonex brand from 2014 to 2020.
An OCM insider said to the contrary. He claimed OCM was “clueless” about the ministry engaging Looi and adopting a new design, including a new apparel partner.
Apparently they did not want to “offend” the minister and as such agreed to adopt the new design.
By convention, NSC provides the apparel for the opening ceremony. What the athletes use during competition is based on the sponsorship deals by the national sports association. OCM will provide tracksuits, shoes and T-shirts used before and after competition.
Will this new case be detrimental to those contesting the elections? Some said no.
In fact, it should be seen as just a clear-cut business deal that did not go down well with one party (i.e. Mesuma Sports) and as such they have exercised their legal rights to allow the courts to judge.
Others believe the delegates will question OCM for allowing this to happen. Many also ask if there was a tender process prior to Yonex being named as the new sponsor.
Delegates will also have to be mindful of individuals who already hog numerous positions in sports.
Commercial agreements between stakeholders and sponsors can no longer be treated lightly. Such
disputes will only scare potential sponsors. Disputes will occur but the manner in which they are handled will make a difference. One would hope fairplay and sportsmanship, in such instances, prevail.
Hopefully such episodes will not jeapordise the spirit of those donning our national kit. Will this be the last of the national attire saga? We shall see.
HARESH is executive editor of Malay Mail. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org