Should there be a sentencing benchmark for young men who avoid doing national service (NS)?
That is the question the High Court is asked to decide in the case of Benjamin Joseph Chow.
The 25-year old Chow had left Singapore when he was a 15-year old teenager to study in Australia and avoided being enlisted for six years, for compulsory NS – until two years ago.
Chow had returned to Singapore in 2013 and had in fact served and completed his NS in August this year.
He was fined S$4,500 by a district court for evading NS. Chow had also pleaded guilty.
However, the prosecutor appealed the sentence last week.
Second Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck told the court that the sentence was “manifestly inadequate.”
Mr Kwek said allowing Mr Chow to simply pay a monetary fine for his offence would send a wrong message to other young Singaporean men that they could get away with a mere fine.
Mr Kwek said most young men who were due for NS put their education on hold to serve the nation.
"What is the message sent to these young men who have dutifully answered the call of enlistment, if offenders like the respondent pick and choose when they serve NS, and then are allowed to get away with a mere fine," he asked.
He then asked the court to set a benchmark of four months jail for those who default on NS for more than two years, with discretion given to the courts to adjust the sentence up or down depending on the merits of each case.
In Mr Chow’s case, he had been diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder when he was in his teens, and his parents had thus enrolled him at Murdoch College in Perth. The college had a programme which would help him manage his condition.
In January 2008, he was called up for NS.
According to a Straits Times report, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) granted him a deferment, but only for his foundation course, and not for his tertiary studies.
“In March 2009, Chow applied via e-mail to defer NS for his university studies,” the Straits Times said. “This was rejected. Two months later, he made the same plea and was again rejected.”
In 2013, he returned to Singapore – two months after he graduated from the University of Western Australia.
Mr Chow’s lawyer, SH Almenoar, argued that evading NS was not the reason why his client had left Singapore, but that no school here could cater to his condition.
Justice Chan Seng Onn, who presided over the case, has reserved his judgement.
In June this year, a similar case involving 22-year old Wang Yinchu was reported in the media.
Mr Wang had gone absent without official leave (AWOL) a mere one month before the end of his NS stint, to pursue his pre-clinical medical studies at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
He had left Singapore in 2008 and returned six years later, and gave himself up to the authorities.
He was subsequently sentenced by a military court to three weeks’ detention.
However, on appeal by the chief military prosecutor, his sentence was increased to 18 months.
According to press reports, Mr Wang had applied to Mindef – before he left for the UK - for a deferment of the remaining one month of service, but Mindef rejected the request. Mr Wang then made appeals within the SAF and through his MP, but to no avail.
Mr Wang’s lawyer, Anand Nalachandran, explained to the court then that "(Wang) asked the university for permission to matriculate later, but was advised to reapply for entry the following year with no guarantee of admission.
"(Wang) was driven by the lifelong ambition to become a doctor and was desperate to retain the rare and coveted opportunity to study medicine at Cambridge,” Mr Anand said.
He added that Mr Wang had made "a desperate decision that few would endorse but many would understand" and left Singapore.
Mr Wang later obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge, a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, University of London before returning to Singapore.
After completing his earlier sentence in October last year, Wang has volunteered at agencies such as the Alzheimer’s Disease Association and the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, said Mr Anand.