Team Singapore is set to send its biggest overseas contingent for the Nov 30 to Dec 11 SEA Games - but two-time marathon champion Soh Rui Yong will not be on the plane to the Philippines.
The 27-year-old runner, who was responsible for 40 per cent of Singapore track and field's gold haul at the 2015 and 2017 Games, was not among the 585 athletes in 49 sports that were listed in a media statement released by the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) last night, despite meeting the qualifying time.
Caleb Hia, 26, who clocked 2hr 38min 26sec at the London Marathon in April, will make his SEA Games debut as Singapore's sole male representative in the marathon.
The SNOC said its selection committee had deliberated all nominations carefully, and added: "Since the 2017 SEA Games, there have been numerous instances where Soh has displayed conduct that falls short of the standards of attitude and behaviour that the SNOC expects of and holds its athletes to, considering that they are held up and seen as representatives of the country and as examples to our sporting youth.
"As such, the SNOC has decided to reject SA's nomination for his national representation at the 2019 SEA Games."
While these instances were not specified, the SNOC and Soh have clashed on a number of occasions.
Ahead of the 2017 SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur, the athlete was given a formal warning by the SNOC over a breach of regulations regarding the promotion of his personal sponsors on social media during the biennial Games.
He had also cut holes in his race vest, which he wore as he raced to victory in Kuala Lumpur. The act reportedly upset sponsor 2XU, which terminated its sponsorship of SA four months later.
In April this year, the SNOC served Soh a legal letter demanding that he publicly retract allegations against fellow marathoner Ashley Liew over the latter's act of sportsmanship at the 2015 SEA Games. The SNOC had nominated Liew for an international award for this act.
CONDUCT COUNTS TOO
There have been numerous instances where Soh has displayed conduct that falls short of the standards... that the SNOC expects of and holds its athletes to.
SNOC, on why it rejected Soh Rui Yong's SEA Games nomination.
SOH V SNOC
August 2017 At the SEA Games, Soh Rui Yong (left) breaches the Singapore National Olympic Council's (SNOC) team membership agreement by promoting his personal sponsors on social media. He is given a formal warning. Later, he cuts multiple holes in his racing vest, which he wears on his way to his second consecutive gold medal. Singapore Athletics' attire sponsor 2XU terminates its sponsorship of SA four months later.
September 2017 A month before he is to receive $10,000 for his gold medal under the SNOC's Multi-Million Dollar Award Programme (MAP), Soh, citing a lack of support, says he does not wish to give 20 per cent to SA - a requirement under the membership agreement he signed with SNOC. He eventually relents.
October 2018 Soh disputes fellow marathoner Ashley Liew's account of his act of sportsmanship at the 2015 SEA Games - for which the latter received an international award after being nominated by the SNOC.
April 2019 The SNOC serves Soh a legal letter asking him to retract his statements about Liew and the award. Soh does not comply, and SNOC later decides to "reserve its legal rights" as Liew commences his own legal action.
June 2019 In a Facebook post, Soh accuses the SNOC of bias in his dispute with Liew.
August 2019 Soh's nomination for the 2019 SEA Games in Manila is rejected by the SNOC, which says his conduct falls short of the standards it expects of national athletes.
Soh had also criticised the organisation on social media several times this year over its backing of Liew.
On June 19, he had written: "The Singapore National Olympic Council should be ashamed of themselves for failing to conduct a proper investigation of truth, and choosing rather to only speak with witnesses from one side in order to back up what they want to believe."
Last night's selection committee was chaired by SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin and comprised vice-presidents Jessie Phua and Milan Kwee; treasurer Edwin Lee; Manila Games chef de mission Juliana Seow; sepak takraw president Abdul Halim Kader, badminton president Lawrence Leow; Sport Singapore chief Lim Teck Yin, SNOC athletes' commission chair Mark Chay, and Tan Chen Kee from the Ministry of Education. The last three are co-opted members.
Soh said: "I'm disappointed that SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin and his team have chosen to behave in such a petty manner. This is akin to primary school playground politics where kids go, 'I don't friend you already!' just because you say something they don't like.
"I consider winning medals for my country at SEA Games to be a national service. Since I no longer am bound to this duty, I look forward to exploring my potential at other marathons I've always wanted to race at, such as the Boston Marathon.
"I wish all my athletics team-mates the best of luck in Manila and will be rooting for them always."
In March, Soh clocked 2:23:42 at the Seoul Marathon to rewrite the national record which had stood since 1995. The time comfortably cleared the SEA Games' qualifying benchmark of the third-place result at the previous edition, which was 2:31:52. It is believed to be the second-best time clocked by a South-east Asian marathoner this year.
New Zealand-born Thai runner Tony Payne holds the best time this season, with a 2:20:54 clocked at the Riga Marathon in Latvia in May.
Chay defended the SNOC's decision to reject Soh's nomination, saying meeting the qualification benchmark was just one criteria the selection committee weighed in making its picks.
"Athletes have rights, but with those rights come responsibilities. These include representing the sport, community and our nation with certain values, which include adhering to the athletes' code of conduct," said the former swimmer. "At the last SEA Games, Rui Yong didn't do this... (and) his actions and comments had consequences."
SA president Tang Weng Fei echoed this view, saying he was "not entirely" surprised by the news as "there was always this possibility because of the controversy he (Soh) has been in".
"I will need to discuss with Malik (Syed Abdul Malik Aljunied, executive director) and (vice-president of training and selection Ang) Peng Siong before we go through any appeal process."
Soh, however, said he would not lodge an appeal, saying: "I don't wish to waste more time on unreasonable people at SNOC."
• Additional reporting by David Lee