Photo from Er Lee Bee Wah’s Facebook

Many Singaporeans are rejoicing over Singapore’s first Olympic gold medal and sharing their joy and excitement on their social media platform.

One of such, is Member of Parliament for Nee Soon GRC, Er Lee Bee Wah who went on her Facebook to congratulate Joseph Schooling for his win and further commented that she was glad to have asked MINDEF to let elite male athletes defer their National Service (NS).

She went on to comment, “Both you and Quah Zheng Wen have used the deferment wisely and done us proud.”

Before we jump to the conclusion that she is trying to claim credit for the deferment of the two athletics, let us look at whether if Er Lee did voice out on the matter before.

According to Yahoo Sports/RedSports, the family opened talks in 2010 with the then-Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports as well as the Singapore National Olympic Council. Schooling eventually was granted deferment in Oct 2013 by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).

If we refer to the Parliament records, it does seem that she did.

On 8 March 2011, Er Lee, as MP for Ang Mo Kio GRC, raised the issue of NS deferment in her speech at Parliament, she said,

Mr Chairman, Sir, in recent years, our national athletes have done us proud in various arenas, both on an international and regional scale. This is an encouraging sign that the various projects designed to promote sporting excellence has slowly but surely paid off. If we continue to take an active stand on nurturing our athletes, a gold medal in the Olympics will not be a mere hope.

Recently, I have been studying statistics on the performances of our athletes in the last three Asian and Commonwealth Games. Out of a total of 74 gold medals won from 2002 to 2010, our men won 34 while our women athletes won 40 gold medals. Our male athletes are certainly not inferior to their female counterparts in Singapore or, for that matter, their male counterparts in other countries. Many of them have proven themselves to be excellent sportsmen from a young age, representing their schools on the national level and the nation on the international level in competitive sports, from secondary school right up to junior college. So what is the reason why they are not able to carry out such performance at senior level? Parents of male athletes have very often told me that National Service is a severe disruption to their progress. I do not know if any studies have been done in this respect. If this notion about National Service is true, then we should re-examine our policy.

In competitive sports, for athletes to retain their fitness level and dexterity requires constant rigorous training, almost on a daily basis. When the athletes go for National Service, their training regime is interrupted. While National Service training is no doubt rigorous and helps in maintaining fitness levels, it is a different type of training regime that does not promote further progress in their respective sports. Two years without training or interrupted training can lead to a significant dip in fitness and skills. By the time the athlete is ready to resume his sporting career, much more effort is required. He has to get into shape and to re-adjust to a new training regime. His competitors would have established new records and applied new techniques. Thus, our athletes would have to work doubly hard. I guess, by then, a lot of them would have lost interest as well. As such, if we want to be a sporting nation, we would need to look at our current policy and see how to help sportsmen pursue sporting excellence. I propose that MCYS work with MINDEF to provide flexibility to national athletes in serving National Service.

National athletes should be allowed to defer their National Service to a later age, let us say, 30 years old, if they choose to pursue sporting excellence. To give further encouragement, if they achieved a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games or Asian Games, or any medal in the Olympics, they be exempted from National Service. Athletes can thus make a choice to do National Service as usual or defer their National Service and pursue sporting excellence. If they are indeed passionate about sports, and I believe many of our athletes are, they would want to give their all to get that gold medal. Competing for the nation’s honour requires plenty of sacrifices on the athlete’s part. They have to undergo daily rigorous training, lead a stringent lifestyle and spend weeks away from their family and loved ones for competition seasons. All these sacrifices are already akin to serving National Service for our country.

From 2002 to 2010, only 15 male gold medallists were below 30 years old – that is, less than two per year. The number is very small and I think it is worth exploring and implementing.

In response to her question, the Senior Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports (Mr Teo Ser Luck) said,

“…Next, let me address Er Lee Bee Wah’s question on how National Service can be improved to accommodate male athletes. National Service is an universal obligation for all Singaporean males to ensure Singapore’s national security. Having said that, MCYS and MINDEF have consolidated efforts to minimise the impact of NS on the sporting development of our top male athletes and their preparation for major competitions. Members know that there is a SAF sportsman scheme that allows athletes with medal potential time off and full-pay unrecorded leave during their full-time NS to train and participate in major competitions.

One of my good friends is Andrew Phua, a rugby player in his youth. He was also in the national team. He told me that he played his best rugby in his life during his NS time because he was exempted and was allowed to train. He would come back for duties but was still allowed to train and he played his best rugby then. There are many other examples like Justin Yew, the national sailor, who was originally scheduled for enlistment in April 2010. He was granteddeferment by MINDEF until December 2010 to train full-time for and compete in the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games. He had already proven himself to be an exceptional sailor, by winning gold medals at the 2006 Doha Asian Games and 2007 SEA Games. He again did Singapore proud at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games because he won a gold medal in the men’s double-handed dinghy 420 sailing event. He has since enlisted in February 2011 and will no doubt continue to enjoy the support afforded by the scheme to do Singapore proud. MINDEF also considers on a case-by-case basis where athletes may delay enlistment or for deferment to prepare. I cannot speak for MINDEF on exemptions. The Member may want to raise it with MINDEF for them to consider.”

Later on 6 March 2012 after the General Election 2011, she further raised the issue to the Ministry of Defence, especially touching on the point of Joseph Schooling’s Olympic dream.

“Mr Chairman, the National Sports scene in Singapore has come a long way. Back in the 1950s when local athletes started representing us in international and regional games, the numbers were few. Many of them were juggling a full-time job and their sport. Due to the lack of support from the Government, talents like Olympic weightlifter, Mr Tan Howe Liang, had to finance his training. There was no monetary reward for his Olympic feat.

Today, the landscape has changed. Top coaches are hired to nurture Team Singapore with the help of carefully planned training programmes, overseas enrichment stints, amongst others, expenses covered by the various grants and sponsorships. Clearly, the importance and acceptance of professional sport has shifted dramatically.

MCYS has done well with brilliant schemes that helped to unearth new talents and hone the abilities and achievements of Team Singapore. But we can do more to give young male athletes the opportunity when it presents itself. One hurdle they now face is to get deferment from National Service. To many athletes, taking two-year breaks is detrimental to an athlete’s career, especially when he is in his teens and at the upward climb of his performance. Two years of National Service is a very long break for just about anyone.

Little wonder that parents of our 16-year-old swimming prodigy Joseph Schooling are worrying about the impact of National Service on their son’s Olympic dream. A recent Sunday Times report entitled “Joseph’s a bit special, can we help him to be even more?” accurately sums up the problems of the inflexible stance towards National Service deferment. Joseph is so talented that national swim teams like the US, Australia and Malaysia are believed to be interested in poaching him. American colleges are also inviting him to join them. Should he decide to further his swimming career in other countries, Singapore will not only lose an excellent opportunity for an Olympic medal, but also a very talented young athlete. It will be a short-sighted policy on promoting sports. Certainly, the security of our nation transcends any number of Olympic medals, and everyone has a role to play in national defence, but there can be more flexible ways to achieve this.

I now remind the Minister of the proposals I brought up at last year’s Committee of Supply. National athletes should be allowed to defer their NS as long as they are below 30 years old, just like in Korea. If they achieve a gold medal in the Commonwealth Games or Asian Games, or a medal of any colour in the Olympics, they can be exempted from NS in gratitude for the honour they have bestowed on the country. Perhaps, just require them to do basic military training. Athletes who did not do so well will serve NS after their prime performance period or major games, thus ensuring that nobody escapes their rightful duty without having their opportunities denied. If they get a deferment, they still do NS but later. This means they will be discharged later also to go to university and to seek jobs.

Prodigies like Joseph Schooling in a small Singapore are like diamonds; coming along only once in a while, fading and disappearing if we do not treasure them. Let us do the wise thing and bring our National Sports scene to even greater heights. Currently, America has “Linsanity”. Singapore will have “Josanity”, or even more, if we tweak the National Service policy now for all our deserving elite athletes.”

In response, Dr Ng Eng Hen said,

“Er Dr Lee Bee Wah and Mr Pritam Singh asked about our deferment policy for athletes and sportsmen. In particular, Er Dr Lee spoke very passionately about this, and I would like to assure her that we understand the concerns that are raised. MINDEF also exercises flexibility to allow deferment from full-time NS for exceptional sportsmen, who have been strongly supported by MCYS and selected to represent Singapore in major competitions like the Olympics. For every such case, MINDEF considers the individual’s past achievements, his potential and the need for long deferments. In addition, MINDEF also exercises flexibility to grant deferments of shorter periods to national athletes representing Singapore in major competitions. For example, 13 athletes were deferred for a period of two to six months to participate in the 2011 SEA Games and 2010 Asian Games.

Sir, the strength of our NS institution is drawn primarily from the commitment of our NSmen past and present. We must continue to preserve this sense of shared commitment and responsibility towards NS.”

With the results of Joseph Schooling in the Rio Olympics 2016, Er Lee’s prediction of “Josanity” may very well come true.

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