Of rent seeking and other conflicts of interest... in Malaysian chess

AUG 6 — Last week was an eventful one for Malaysia what with a Cabinet reshuffle that seemed to target critics of the failed 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB)  plus the three-month suspension of two of The Edge’s publications for stories pertaining to the same fund.

Malaysian chess has certainly not reached anywhere near that level of course but at the heart of its problem today are also serious questions of financial impropriety. And when you add poor administration that often veers into what seems like a pure accommodation of vested interests, there are parallels too.

What we sadly have in the Malaysian Chess Federation (MCF) is a typical example of what has gone wrong in our country.

For at least 20 years now, there is a complete dependency on handouts, excellence is talked about but never pursued, and in the end the solution is always, rent seeking from players or parents be it through entry fees or so called “administrative charges.”

Chess is a selfish game with egos manifest, and in Malaysia, most in a position to do something about it are indifferent (or at least unwilling) about making a principled stand—let alone act—unless there is a personal benefit. It is easier to settle for a comfortable place in MCF (or if already in it, to perhaps get rewarded with an improved title to brag about) and perhaps get a free trip as a team manager, or maybe if still a player, the chance to be selected to play for the country!

A case in point is the Kuala Lumpur Chess Association (KLCA) which applied to MCF over two months ago—in an email to its ratings officer (copied to all in KLCA and MCF) -- for the KL Open 2015 to be a World Chess Federation (FIDE) internationally rated rapid (quickplay, typically 25 minutes each player per game) chess tournament.

FIDE requires one month’s notice to register an event but for some reason MCF demands two months even if this is a purely administrative matter. This was done in the case of the KL International Open Championship when it was held from 2008 to 2014 and which was a FIDE internationally rated and titled standard chess competition and so a tournament of standing, ranked several notches above the current request.

KLCA as of last week has essentially given up on getting the approval and so will proceed with the KL Open as an unsanctioned MCF event because the sponsorship has already been received, bookings made, etc. on the understanding it was a formality and especially after the MCF Secretary --  even before the email request—had offered his help in organising it.

The ratings officer, an elected council member who is also the MCF Technical Committee chairman, and recently appointed Vice President, has apparently replied to a few emails. After reading them, I have to conclude that it was a shock to some in MCF that KLCA knew that FIDE did not charge for international rapid rated events, and while not objecting to its being concurrently nationally rated, did not understand why a payment of RM9 per person was demanded.

In one specific email, the ratings officer, while defending the national rating list, became emotional and said he only got RM1 of the RM9 as payment. The question now arises as to where the remaining RM8 goes to and whether it can be accounted for given the sad state of MCF accounts, and then of course to understand how it has been spent.

Over 90 per cent, maybe as much as 95 per cent, of competitions in Malaysia are rapid tournaments so one can only conclude that MCF clearly does not want local organisers to ask for internationally rapid rated events that are free and lose the income they get from charging for national rating which I guess is probably a major source of revenue.

In the case of KLCA, I believe it was less about allowing it to be FIDE rated but to ensure they still got the RM9 per player no matter what!

When checking around, I learned that the organiser of the Malaysian Chess Festival also had some difficulty finding the money to pay to nationally rate the many events as demanded by MCF and like KLCA, he was very reluctant to raise entry fees to cover the MCF version of “VAT.”

In a game that has such a limited number of enthusiasts, hardly any media coverage and so little sponsorship, budgets are naturally tight and it should be MCF that is helping its state affiliates with money and not take from them what little they have raised. More so with the organisers of major events that are done for the promotion of the game and to provide real opportunities for the local chess community.  

The national rating system has many shortcomings, firstly because it mixes up all three formats (blitz, rapid and standard), secondly because the ratings officer is not qualified (he uses Excel with manual calculations to generate it), thirdly he has stakes in it both as a chess teacher with students on the list while remaining its owner (it is not MCF’s!). 

Add to the fact that there is no oversight; the calculation records are kept secret, he is the MCF technical committee chairpman, is paid by a player per tournament basis, and that more importantly, the policy now has national ratings help determine (and sometimes exclusively) the entry qualification to national championships at all levels as well as the basis for selection to various international youth events.

With the ratings officer who works hand in hand with the appointed MCF Secretary and MCF Treasurer on collections, it all stinks of serious personal and professional conflicts of interest while for MCF, a flawed system is being kept in use at the expense of the development of players and the game just for the sake of getting RM8 per person per tournament.  

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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