Sport in Southeast Asia: More than Medals, It’s the ‘We’ Feeling


Despite Southeast Asia’s diversity and the tensions that persist among countries, sport has been able to transcend some geopolitical boundaries and connect communities that have similar histories – and cultivate an appetite and appreciation for their native sport as well as identity.

Teaser Image Caption
Singapore's National Hurdler Kerstin Ong (Middle)

This article was also published in Perspectives Asia #9

“We were really having a problem. The games were about to end, and Timor Leste still didn’t have a single medal. People were asking, is there a way they’re going to win anything? Karen Caballero, an official in the Philippine Olympic Committee, said, recalling how the hometown crowd at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games cheered for the tiny country and wanted it to bring home a medal. “When they won (one), we were almost in tears!”

This camaraderie among sport rivals is familiar to Kerstin Ong, a 100-metres hurdler from Singapore who has competed in youth games in the region. There is definitely a difference in atmosphere competing within the region as compared to larger than the Southeast Asia region,” agreed the 23-year-old Ong. For one, athletes who see one another in different meets become friends. Off the track we would laugh and eat together, she said. A Malaysian rival once gave her advice when she confided her worries about her athletic performance, she recalls. “We hugged after.”

These two stories show the different but connected threads that sport pulls together into an arena that nurtures the ‘we’ feeling among Southeast Asians, going much further than state-led venues do. After all, the region’s more than 650 million people share histories and linkages that predate, and go beyond, the scope of the geopolitical entity that is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Ask a Southeast Asian about sport, and he or she will mention the SEA Games, as the Southeast Asian Games is called. Organized by the Southeast Asian Games Federation, the biennial event started in 1959. As a geographically defined event, all 11 Southeast Asian countries take part in it. This includes Timor Leste, whose application to join ASEAN’s 10-member club remains pending.

In short, sport has been able to go past geopolitical restrictions, including Timor Leste’s being the only Southeast Asian nation that is not an ASEAN member state. This helps explains why, apart from medal tallies, the biggest story in the last SEA Games was how Filipinos rooted for the underdog, Timor Leste. The country of 1.3 million people had sent just 48 athletes competing in 10 out of the total 56 events.

“Even if it’s just in sports, they know they can identify with a certain bloc,” remarked Caballero, also president of the Philippine Sepak Takraw Association, home of that country’s national team. By having participated in this SEA Games, we feel that we are part of ASEAN already,” Elisa da Silva, counsellor in Timor Leste’s embassy in Bangkok, said, sharing her personal views. Timor Leste’s athletes went home with six medals.

Sepak Takraw
A Sepak Takraw Match at Singapore National Games 2014


The SEA Games stands out for another reason: It is the only international sport event that features  indigenous sport from the region. Audiences will find sport events and styles not seen elsewhere  such as barefoot athletes using swords and bladed weapons, in garb reminiscent of warriors in the times pre-dating today’s nation-states in Southeast Asia.

Muay, sepak takraw and pencak silat are the most high-profile native sport events in the games lineup.

Muay is Southeast Asian kickboxing, shared by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar.  The origins of sepak takraw, where players use strength, speed and acrobatic skills to kick a woven ball over a net, are said to go back to the 15th century, and it has been in the SEA Games since 1965. Pencak silat is a martial art form traditionally practiced in the Malay archipelago, in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Brunei, the southern regions of Thailand and the Philippines. Inscribed by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage of humanity in 2019, its popularity among Islamic communities reflects Malay identity.

There are other native sport, such as the Philippines’ martial art arnis, that its proponents are trying to give a new push to in regional circles. This is because arnis, which goes back centuries to pre-colonial times, is lesser known that other native sport in the region even if it is the country’s national sport. Athletes can use bladed weapons or sticks, competing in traditional attire such as the bahag (g-string).

Arnis is much more than a sport, say trainers and coaches like Ronaldo and Jessielyn Baxafra. “It’s not only the art itself that arnis promotes, but our culture. That’s the beauty of arnis,” said Jessielyn, a technical official in the sport. She added: In these (regional) events, (you see how) camaraderie grows among the athletes. It’s not like I’m a Vietnamese medalist or I’m a Filipino medalist. They become more friendly, their respect for each other is there whether you win or lose.”

The high profile that combat has among indigenous sport, for instance in kickboxing or martial arts, is a reference point for athletes and fans across borders. “The nice thing is countries like Cambodia and Myanmar have weaponry almost similar to arnis, though they may be more on bladed weapons, Ronaldo said. 

Native sport is also carving out a space for cross-border – and cross-sport – exchanges in Southeast Asia, which go a long way in widening knowledge of one another’s communities. Trainers travel to work with other countries’ athletes. The coaching staff of the Lao football team includes a Myanmar trainer. Some coaches ‘migrate’ to other combat forms, such as arnis athletes learning to teach muay thai.

Muay Boran
A muay boran demonstration, Lumpinee Boxing Stadium, Bangkok


When athletes complete in Southeast Asia, they know they have a fighting chance, athletes, current and former sports professionals interviewed for this article agree.

“It’s fun because most ASEAN countries are on par. That’s what makes the (ASEAN Football) Cup attractive, the balance of competition and its (regional) identity,” said Juan Miguel David, a former futsal competitions manager in the Asian Football Confederation. There’s no one country that monopolizes all of the championships, like Malaysia has won a couple of times, Thailand, and Vietnam.”

Football is unrivalled as the most popular sport across Southeast Asia, except in basketball-crazy Philippines. When Vietnam won the 2018 ASEAN Football Cup, winning for the first time in a decade, its streets erupted with flag-waving motorcades well into the next morning.

ASEAN has bigger football ambitions. At their 2019 summit, ASEAN leaders restated a plan to submit a joint bid to host a FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) World Cup, with a 2034 target date. Last year, ASEAN signed an agreement with FIFA around sports development.


For all the connections that sport makes, it has not been immune from tensions that arise from touchy issues such as which sport originally belonged to which country. Sports diplomacy has had to come into play in order to find the middle path through issues of nationalism, history and emotion. Try asking Southeast Asians whose sport sepak takraw is, or where muay came from among Thais, Cambodians, Lao and Burmese, and there may well be need for a referee.

But true to the regional habit of consensus, Southeast Asian sports bodies agreed to use sepak takraw, which is a mix of sepak or kick in Malay, and takraw, a Thai word for the rattan ball originally used in the game. The SEA Games uses the single word muay for kickboxing  without any adjective that attaches it to any country or tradition.

Caballero confirms that the muay issue has led to intense discussions in the SEA Games Federation, which comprises the 11 countries’ federations. They sometimes really end up arguing – banter, friendly debate but you know they’re getting on each other’s nerves. (So we said) okay, we're all sports people here, we can agree on something neutral,” she said. “You'd be surprised; these are elderly sports leaders!”

Muay Thai is described as having descended from muay boran, which refers to ‘traditional kickboxing’. There is muay Lao, kun Khmer (Khmer boxing) from Cambodia and let-hwei, or full-contact boxing in Myanmar.

That there is friction is far from surprising: their kickboxing forms are the national sports of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar. But analysts say the point is that communities that know one another find a way to live through these differences.

“The fact that there are similarities in several ‘traditional sports show that Southeast Asia has more commonalities that stem from a shared source from the region’s pre-modern past, than very stark differences,” said Moe Thuzar, senior fellow at the Singapore-based ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute. “There has been an increasing awareness and acceptance that sports can and does contribute to the we feeling in Southeast Asia and that ASEAN could leverage on those existing foundations,” she said. It is not under-used as much, but rather a matter of synergy between a long-established tradition and practice before ASEAN formal mechanisms were established (SEA Games) and the current moves for an ASEAN community that seeks to bring together the political, economic and socio-cultural lives of Southeast Asian citizens.”

Football Malaysia
Malaysian fans watching their national U22 team play at the 2017 Southeast Asian Games men's football final.

There are other ASEAN region-wide sports events, such as games for university and secondary-school athletes. The ASEAN Para Games, for differently abled athletes, is usually held soon after the SEA Games, with the next one due in 2021 in Vietnam.

“Sports are more easily digestible and less sensitive as an issue. People can easily relate to it and it attracts mass audiences,” explained Sita Sumrit, head of the poverty eradication and gender division at the Jakarta-based ASEAN secretariat. “This is about getting to know each other, or realizing there is something similar between you and me,” said Caballero. The SEA Games’ 2019 edition was its 30th, and the games federation is 60 years old. “It’s very clear that it’s been a uniting factor,” she added.


Work lies ahead for Southeast Asia when it comes to more equal opportunities for women in sport, from athletes to leaders of sports associations. This has a very real link to the region’s ambition to host a FIFA World Cup, since gender balance is becoming a norm in world events.

FIFA signed its first agreement with UN Women on gender equality and women’s empowerment only in 2019. Before the Tokyo 2020 Olympics was postponed, the International Olympic Committee was expecting female athletes to make up 49% of the total, up from 34% in 1996. Its goal is to have full gender representation in all 206 teams in Tokyo, and full gender parity by the 2024 games. 

Before the SEA 2019 Games, Filipino sports columnist Joaquin Henson cited registration statistics showing that 61% of the nearly 6,000 athletes were male. The SEA Games do not have gender representation or parity goals.

Women Futsal Match
Women Futsal Match: Credit to Wijaya Sentosa Futsal Club

On ASEAN Day in August 2019, the ASEAN secretariat hosted an event on women’s football in majority-Muslim Indonesia. ASEAN’s Sumrit says she hopes that women’s football can help change attitudes toward gender equality as it can reach “wider audiences with simple messages as compared to political language or more official advocacy”. She added: “It should start from a young age (that) girls can play football if they want to and should not be instructed, encouraged or confined to play Barbie, princess or even baby dolls that reinforce gender stereotypes and limit their understanding of ‘possibilities’ and ‘choices’ in life. We want to see them become norms and standards, and not exceptions, in the realm of sport.”

An exception is still what the Philippines’ Caballero is among Southeast Asia’s sepak takraw federations. Her 10 counterparts are male. 

But women have been rewriting the story of Southeast Asian sport. Take the Philippines, whose four golds in the 2018 Asian Games were won by women – weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz (Olympic silver medalist in 2016, SEA Games gold medalist in 2019), golfers Yuka Saso, Bianca Pagdanganan and Lois Kaye Go, and street skateboarder Margielyn Didal.

Making it part of the ‘new normal’ to see more women across the sport ecosystem, along with the popularization of native sport, would not only make the sport scene more interesting but reflect better what makes its communities Southeast Asian.