By Lazarus Rokk
(Former New Straits Times Sports Editor)
There are some people, outside of our family members, whom we wish will never pass on in this life. For me, it was Elvis Pressley, and George Best. And now, Dato Ho Koh Chye.
Even as I am writing this obituary, I can’t come to terms with the reality that he is gone, that I would never see him again, and that I would never be able to exchange ideas on Malaysian sport with this sports luminary and a great man.
When I was first told of his passing, my immediate reaction was to make calls to refute the story. I was hoping it was just a terrible rumour.
Like former New Straits Times sports columnist and Malay Mail editor Dato Fauzi Omar said, “Not Koh Chye la, not Koh Chye.” Exactly Fauzi, not Koh Chye.
Although Koh Chye – a devout catholic -- knew that the Lord would come like a thief in the night, Malaysians and Malaysian sport were not ready to have him “stolen” from us. Not just yet. He was just too invaluable to pass on so suddenly, and we were not ready to be left with this huge loss.
Another former sportswriter, Joe Carlos (Malay Mail), after receiving my forwarded text message on Koh Chye’s demise, said: “How can this happen, he is my candidate for sports minister.”
Well Joe, he was just about every sane and sensible sports critic, official, athlete, and fan’s candidate for sports minister. And nothing can be further from the truth, than the fact that Ho Koh Chye had the best credentials to lead Malaysian sport in that capacity.
But that sadly, was the only position that evaded him, though through no fault of his. For, this man had all but completed the cycle in sports, beginning as an Olympian, then a coach, a manager, official, an administrator, before closing his innings as chef de mission of the Beijing Olympics.
How many Malaysians do we know can boast of having such imposing credentials, and still remain humble after all that?
Koh Chye was the manifestation of humility. I had witnessed once, a national athlete waxing lyrical on himself in the presence of Koh Chye, when all he would have been in that golden era was a water boy.
But the man that Koh Chye was just looked at me and smiled. If that had been a rookie sportswriter who was bragging about his work, I know I would have put him in his place.
But I guess that’s what separates Koh Chye from the rest of us. In the 33 years I have known him, I haven’t heard him speak ill of anyone. He is your ambassador of peace and harmony.
It’s like what former Thomas Cup player James Selvaraj said: “Even if you are to complain about someone, he will try to calm you down, speak a few words of Tamil and make light of the situation.
“He is truly one of the nicest men I have ever met, and it’s sad that Malaysia is now one short of a great personality and a great man.”
And doesn’t this country need more Malaysians like him?
Coming from era when Malaysians grew up colour blind, Koh Chye was responsible for shaping the characters of many officials, irrespective of their creed or colour.
One such person who has always acknowledged and appreciated this trait is Datuk Zolkples Embong, the current director-general of the National Sports Council
“I’ve not only lost a very good sports officer, but also a very good friend. He is always there whenever I need his help. When I joined NSC, I was placed under his charge and Koh Chye taught me everything I know.
“So, you could say he is partly responsible for what I am today.”
I can relate to that because I’ve been in that place too. I remember when I was in The Star in 1975, I tagged along my senior George Das on the hockey beat. It was the best time to start as it was the Wold Cup in Kuala Lumpur and Koh Chye was the coach.
As a rookie, I was naturally intimidated by the task, as George has already given me a full brief on Koh Chye, basically his CV. But God bless is soul, he made me feel so comfortable and important.
I still remember how he had broken the ice with me, when he said as I approached him: “When I saw you walking across the field (no artificial turfs then), I thought you were A. Francis.”
Francis was that charismatic fullback in the 1975 World Cup squad who sported a Jason King moustache which I had then too, like just about every Indian then.
But the remark took away all my fears and from then on I endeared myself to the man. Though I may not have played golf with him (I don’t golf), but we always kept in touch, even after I had resigned from the New Straits Times.
When I was a columnist in the NST, sometimes I would seek him out just to get a differing opinion, especially when I was in a confrontational mood. He used to show me how we could find solutions or get a point across without being antagonistic. I guess I didn’t learn.
Ho Koh Chye was a diplomat. He was Mr Nice Guy, though he knew when to be firm. He believed in what the Malays would say, the “cara manis” way. He had the gift to get an adverse comment across without hurting the feelings of the other person. And this is what has endeared him to all those who have come in contact with him.
I guess he was the kind of person when he told you to go to hell, you would think it was for your own good.
George, who probably knew him longer than any living journalist, past or present, is another person who is struggling to come to terms with his passing.
“I can’t believe he is gone, in fact I don’t want to believe he is gone.
“Apart from being a good friend, he was one of the best hockey strategists in the world. I admired him as a goalkeeper, a players’ coach, and a rare breed among the Malaysian sports icons.”
I regret that I wasn’t born earlier to have watched him in action between the posts. I am often told of this story when Koh Chye, who also plays football, once did the spontaneous thing by heading a hockey ball that came across the face of his goalmouth.
That’s courage for a man, who not only battled his opponents on the pitch but also life’s greatest tribulations. He was the family’s source of strength when his only son Ian was diagnosed with leukaemia.
I remember in all his conversations with me on that plight, he never once asked God “why my son.” Instead, it was during that period that he became closer to God. It was the family’s combined faith in God that Ian is in complete remission today.
But alas, God had other plans for our friend Ho Koh Chye. May God always keep your soul my dear friend.
Farewell Ivan Ho.
Datuk Ho Koh Chye
Date of birth: Nov 5, 1942.
Place of birth: Seremban.
Family: Seventh among nine children. Married to Datin Lee Siew Chan, two children.
Career: Teacher at King George V School in Seremban until 1974, seconded to Sports Ministry and later, the National Sports Council, Retired as Director of International Prepa ration Division, NSC, in 1992.
Appointed Executive Director of the newly-formed SportExcel and served until 1996.
Consultant to the Johor Government for sports devel opment, joint chef-de-mission of the 2003 Vietnam Sea Games.
Vice-president of the Malaysian Olympian Association (MOA) and member of the Asiacomm 2006 project technical committee.
Chef-de-mission for the Beijing Olympics, and recently appointed into the Malaysian Hockey Federation (MHF) Wawasan Committee.
Sporting achievements: Hockey international from 1960 to 1968. Competed in the Asian Games (1962 Jakarta, 1966 Bangkok) and Olympics (1964 Tokyo, 1968 Mexico).
Coaching career: National coach for the World Cups in Amsterdam ‘73, Kuala Lumpur ‘75, and Buenos Aires ‘78.