Asia Watch: Squashed out
Dec 17, 2021 | Michael Shannon
An article of faith in Malaysian politics is that nothing must be seen to threaten the primacy of ethnic Malay identity. One of several time-honoured ways to express this is via ritual gestures of support for their global Muslim brethren and denunciations of an agreed-upon bogey figure – the Jewish nation state of Israel. International sport has provided another opportunity for Malaysia to display its position.
Having been awarded the right to host the men’s World Team Squash Championships earlier this year after New Zealand pulled out due to COVID travel restrictions, Malaysia would surely have anticipated that an Israeli team would be among the 26 international squads.
Yet it was not until Dec. 2, five days before the scheduled start, that the World Squash Federation (WSF) had to announce that tournament was cancelled, citing growing coronavirus concerns and the “possibility that some nations would be unable to compete due to the lack of confirmation over the issuing of visas.” In other words, it had become clear that Malaysian authorities would not budge in their refusal to issue visas to the Israeli competitors.
WSF president Zena Wooldridge said that it “believes in an open and inclusive” event and that officials had sought to “influence the highest authorities of Malaysia to ensure the ability of all participating teams, including Israel, to enter Malaysia and compete.”
“It is important to WSF that no nation who wishes to compete misses out on the event,” she said.
The Israeli Squash Association (ISA) had previously said that countries that participated in a tournament from which Israel was barred would be closing their eyes to “racism and discrimination”.
The WSF decision came after the ISA took its case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
Malaysian officialdom was characteristically unapologetic. Sports Minister Ahmad Faizal Azumu reiterated that as Malaysia has no diplomatic relations with Israel, Israelis are not allowed to enter the country for any reason, including sports.
“The immigration (department) will not allow them to enter the country, not the Sports Ministry nor the (local) organisers,” said Faizal.
“When international federations decide to appoint Malaysia as a host country for international competitions, they should be well aware that we do not allow Israeli athletes to compete. The whole world understands that we do not have any diplomatic relations with Israel.”
Indeed, international sports administrators should be aware that Malaysia has form on this issue.
In 2019, Malaysia threatened to refuse visas for Israeli athletes for the World Para Swimming Championships and was stripped of its right to host the event.
In 2015, Israeli windsurfers pulled out of a competition on the island of Langkawi after being refused visas.
In 2011, an exhibition football match in Kuala Lumpur featuring English Premier League team Chelsea was marred by the repeated booing and antisemitic catcalling of their Israeli-born midfielder Yossi Benayoun.
Back in 1997, an Israeli cricket team was granted visas to compete in a tournament in KL for second-tier cricketing nations, but it was forced to play at secret locations as hundreds of protesters repeatedly invaded grounds where it was previously scheduled to play.
Malaysia’s unyielding position on this latest case has won praise from a predictable source – Hamas.
“Malaysia’s permanent stance of opposing normalisation with Israel, supporting the Palestinian people and strengthening their steadfastness is represented by this visa ban,” said Hamas spokesperson Abdel Latif Al-Qanun.
Whatever the recent political instability, Malaysian governments seldom deviate from the well-rehearsed arguments on Israel-Palestine.
Speaking on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, a United Nations-organised event on Nov. 29, Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah attacked Israel for its “oppressive” policies towards the Palestinians.
“The Palestinians have suffered tremendously under the Israeli occupation and blockade and the latter’s racist and discriminatory policies… Malaysia’s continuous support for the Palestinian struggle is also in recognition of the aspirations of the new generation of Palestinian activists towards realising the Palestinian peoples’ aspiration for freedom and their independent State of Palestine,” he said.
Despite the one-way invective, commercial relations between the two countries do exist. Israeli exports to Malaysia were US$7.02 million (A$9.83 million) during 2020, according to the United Nations COMTRADE database on international trade. Unfortunately, a team of squash players only count as props for political posturing.