Authorities urge disciplinary probe on Singapore Athletics WhatsApp message leak saga

Singapore Athletics vice-president (training and selection) Govindasamy Balasekaran is one of five under probe over the leaked WhatsApp messages saga. ― Picture by Robin Choo / TODAY
Singapore Athletics vice-president (training and selection) Govindasamy Balasekaran is one of five under probe over the leaked WhatsApp messages saga. ― Picture by Robin Choo / TODAY

SINGAPORE, Oct 12 ― Four months after an ugly spat involving Singapore Athletics (SA) officials, staff and coaches was revealed in a leaked WhatsApp conversation, the national sports association’s Board of Inquiry (BOI) has “strongly recommended” that an independent disciplinary committee be set up to investigate the matter.

In the nine-page report seen by TODAY, the BOI said in its conclusion: “The exposed existence of the plot to cause mischief and trouble among coaches perpetrated by high (level) officials in the association has done damage to the reputation of the association and demoralised the whole athletics fraternity.

“Those responsible had acted injuriously against the character and interest of the association.”

In June this year, photos of a WhatsApp group chat between SA vice-president (training and selection) Govindasamy Balasekaran and its sports development and performance staff was posted on Facebook by former SA chief executive officer Ong Yeok Phee.

In that chat, which took place during the Thailand Open, Balasekaran appeared to be instructing SA staff to collect evidence against coaches Margaret Oh and David Yeo, who work with sprinter Shanti Pereira and pole vaulter Rachel Yang respectively.

“Just get good evidence so we can give it back to P (SA president Ho Mun Cheong),” wrote Balasekaran.

“And force him to get disciplinary action on Margaret and David. He will then shut up as they are his favourites Margaret needs to get into trouble so we can take action on her.”

Widely shared among the fraternity, the Facebook post came days after TODAY reported that SA technical director Volker Hermann had warned Oh and Pereira ― the 2015 SEA Games gold medallist in the women’s 200m ― that the latter would be dropped from the 4x100m relay team for the 2017 SEA Games if she did not attend the centralised training camp in Taiwan.

Oh and Hermann had previously clashed over the schedule for training sessions for the relay team, Pereira’s participation in overseas and local meets, and the location of the camp.

News of the ugly spat, as well as the leaked group chat, cast a pall over preparations for the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games in August, prompting the Singapore National Olympic Council and Sport Singapore to step in to form a major Games preparation committee to take over the management of its SEA Games squad.

Following media reports on the leaked WhatsApp messages, SA announced in July that a BOI consisting of three management committee members ― race walking chairman Leong Lee San, chairman (officials) Joe Yap, and Jezreel Mok, president of Wings Athletic Club ― would be convened to gather information and investigate the conduct of at least five officials and secretariat staff involved in the chat.

SA president Ho had told TODAY that the setting up of a BOI for fact-finding was in accordance with past practices and that if further action was required, a recommendation would be made to disciplinary committee comprising independent members to be convened.

This is not the first time that SA has convened a BOI. In 2014, a BOI was set up to look into allegations of irregular practices by former general manager James Wong. Wong, a former national discus thrower, was eventually cleared of all wrongdoing by the BOI.

The five under probe in this latest BOI included Balasekaran, Hermann, general manager Jaime Cheong, high performance manager Ong Wan Xin, and senior executive of sports development and performance Shalindran Sathiyanesan.

After months of investigation and interviews with some of the parties involved, the BOI submitted its report to SA this week.

While the five SA officials and secretariat staff involved have not commented on the matter, TODAY understands that Hermann, Cheong, Ong and Sathiyanesan met with the BOI on July 24 but declined to answer any questions. Balasekaran, who had questioned the validity of the BOI, did not attend the session.

Hermann subsequently submitted a written statement to the BOI in August. In the statement, he called the leaked WhatsApp messages a “serious violation of privacy” as it was a personal exchange between the team.

Hermann claimed that Oh had taken a photo of the group chat from the phone of Kerstin Ong, an athlete under her charge.

This allegedly happened during the Thailand Open when Ong handed her phone to Oh for safe keeping.

Hermann also explained that the chat had stemmed from disagreements between Oh and Sathiyanesan on accommodation arrangements at the meet, and that the context of the chat had been misinterpreted.

According to Hermann, Balasekaran and other sports development and performance staff had also struggled to work with SA President Ho and Loh Chan Pew, vice-president (competitions organising), and that Balasekaran had reacted in frustration to the situation with Oh, whom Hermann said were close to Ho and Loh.

After reviewing the statements from Hermann, Oh, Ho and athletics coach Yeo, the BOI noted in its key findings that the parties had not questioned the authenticity of the messages, but had challenged how the messages were leaked, and whether the BOI was legal and constitutional.

The BOI said that the leaked messages could be “interpreted as instructions given by Govindasamy Balasekaran and company in Singapore to (sports executive) Shalindran in Bangkok to gather evidence so that can be used to fix Margaret Oh and David Yeo”, and that there was a “obvious plot” to get Oh and Yeo in trouble.

As a result, the BOI recommended that an independent disciplinary committee be set up to investigate the matter.

Responding to queries from TODAY, SA President Ho said that the association has sent the BOI report to its management committee members who will decide if a disciplinary committee will be convened.

A disciplinary committee, if set up, will have the power to issue a warning, suspension or termination depending on its findings, he added.

The latest development in the leaked WhatsApp messages comes after months of infighting and turmoil within the sport.

In April this year, disagreements within the seven-member executive committee saw SA deciding to call for a snap election to re-elect its management committee. It was eventually called off after intervention by International Olympic Committee member Ng Ser Miang.

The national sports association also came under fire after a poor showing at the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games ― its athletics contingent won just two out of 45 gold medals on offer ― with Sport Singapore chief executive officer Lim Teck Yin stating at a post-Games review that a “shake-up” is needed for track and field. ― TODAY

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