Silat world champion Muhd Shakir Juanda was one of four nominated for the honour, along with paddler Gao Ning, sailor Colin Cheng and wushu exponent Seet Wee Key.
While explaining the decision not to award a Sportsman of the Year to various media, Phua said the panel had to “consider the quality of the competition” faced by the athletes.
A source told Yahoo! Singapore that on the night of the awards held on Tuesday, Sheik – incensed by the comment – had approached a minister to “demand” an apology from Phua.
When contacted, Sheik said that he was “just telling (the minister) how the silat council and community were unhappy, hurt, down and low in morale” as a result of Phua’s remark.
The silat chief, himself a two-time Sportsman of the Year nominee and former world champion, confirmed he wanted Phua to "apologise to the community”.
“Is she saying the quality of silat is not there? This is the first time in my life, and in 30 years of silat, that I’ve heard something like this,” he told Yahoo! Singapore over the phone.
“I personally feel demoralized,” added the Singapore Sports Council Hall-of-Famer. “This is not about awards or medals. It’s about the integrity of the silat community.”
Phua declined to comment when pressed for a response. As part of her earlier explanation, she had referred to the number of participants in the athlete’s sport – a point which Sheikh passionately addressed.
“25 countries took part. But it’s not about how many countries are taking part. It’s about who you fight; your opponent’s background,” said Sheik. “Shakir fought world champions. He fought with the best of them all. This is not a 'kampong' sport. What more do you want?”
In the grand final of the World Pencak Silat Championships last year, Shakir overcame defending world and SEA Games champion Le Si Kien of Vietnam.
Moving forward, Sheik said that the Jakarta-based international silat body “will know about this” and that locally, the Singapore Silat Federation plans to convene to deliberate the matter on 3 July.
The three-time SEA Games gold medallist also hit out at the SSA selection panel’s modus operandi.
“I personally invited the relationship manager of SSC to Chiang Rai (in Thailand) to watch Shakir compete at the World Championships, but they said they were busy,” said Sheik. “After that, the committee never interviewed the silat federation about Shakir’s achievement.”
The sports awards were given out during a gala ceremony on Tuesday. Table-tennis paddler Feng Tianwei won Sportswoman of the Year, but there was no male equivalent.
Former national fencer and triathlete Nicholas Fang, who was on the committee to decide the SSA recipients, told Yahoo! Singapore on the night itself that the committee was “not disparaging the achievements (of) the male athletes”.
Fang, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament, then said that Shakir’s efforts did not go unrecognized as “we made sure we rewarded him with a meritorious award.”
But he acknowledged that the exclusion of a Sportsman of the Year award was “very tough” and that the “sports fraternity is disappointed for sure”.
Ultimately, he said, the panel’s decision was based on the need to “inspire people to aim very high.”
“If somebody wants to be Sportsman of the Year, he really has to dream big,” concluded Fang.
The question now is how big is big enough.