In view of the attitude that NS can be avoided, the High Court said that the attitude would ‘weaken our national security – (which is) simply intolerable’. To avoid this mindset, the High Court increased the jail terms of three National Service (NS) defaulters on Tuesday (25 Apr).
The court is expected to issue a detailed judgement, to set out a new sentencing framework for defaulters. Under the revised framework, three categories of defaulters will face jail terms.
In the worst category are defaulters who avoid the entirety of their NS obligations. Ang Lee Thye, who was given a 24 months jail term, had his jail term raised to 33 months for defaulting on enlistment for 23.5 years, the longest possible default period.
Ang only surrendered to authorities when he was 41 years old, he had remained outside Singapore without a valid exit permit for 23.5 years.
The prosecutors said, “He timed his eventual return, coming back to Singapore after he had turned 40 and was no longer a person subject to the Enlistment Act.” Ang has evaded his NS obligations completely and the court raised Ang’s 24-month jail term to 33 months.
Brothers Sakthikanesh Chidambaram, 26, and Vandana Kumar Chidambaram, 24, fall into the next category of defaulters - the ones who miss the entirety of the service duration of their cohort. The brothers had defaulted for more than five years and more than three years respectively.
The former sentence was three weeks’ imprisonment for Sakthikanesh and a fine of S$6,000 for Vandana last year, but due to an appeal by the prosecution last year, the High Court increased their sentences to 10 weeks jail term for Sakthikanesh and seven weeks jail term for Vandana. The S$6,000 fine will be refunded.
The third category, the court said, are the in-betweens, those who because of their default decrease their ability to serve their NS obligations, either in terms of duration or in terms of their ability.
The court comprised of Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice See Kee Oon.
Solicitor-General (SG) Kwek Mean Luck, who led the prosecution, argued for stiffer jail terms for the three men, citing the importance of general deterrence.
SG Kwek said, “A signal must be sent to those who seek to game the system that NS evasion will be met with stiff penalties."
“New threats have emerged and existing threats have evolved. Such threats underline the importance of having a credible defence force in Singapore, central to which is having sufficient soldiers who are fit to take up combat vocations."
“As Singapore’s fertility rate falls, so will the pool of male Singaporeans who are fit for enlistment,” SG Kwek said, “Every person who is fit for enlistment counts and must be enlisted for Singapore’s defence and security," he stressed.
SG Kwek also reminded the court of the potential raise for NS default, pointing to the number of transnational marriages that is increasing and the number of Singaporeans living overseas.
Exclusion of mitigating factors
The court stated that it disagreed with the sentencing framework currently in place, relating on points such as a defaulter’s connection to Singapore and the standard of their NS performance, should they return to fulfill their obligations.
The three issues commonly raised by defaulters as mitigating factors are:
- Their substantial connection (or lack thereof) to Singapore;
- Their exceptional performance (of those who return to serve NS); and,
- Voluntarily surrendering and pleading guilty when they are arrested and charged upon returning to the country.
Chief Justice Menon said, “We do not regard the substantiality of an offender’s connection with Singapore as a relevant factor (because) NS is an obligation of every male Singaporean."
“Every male citizen will be liable for NS as long as the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) issues enlistment papers to them, regardless of how long they have spent away from Singapore or the extent to which they have benefited from Singapore citizenship, except in truly exceptional cases," the Chief Justice said.
On the standard of performance of a defaulter, the court said it is the obligation of every male Singaporean to do his best in NS. This is simply a matter of national pride and loyalty. Chief Justice Menon said, “For a defaulter to be rewarded for doing no more than what his law-abiding fellow National Servicemen are doing ‘seems wrong’,” he stated.
“It would create a ‘perverse incentive’ for fit Singaporeans to choose unlawfully to do their NS later," he said, “In any event, we also fail to see how we, the courts, can be in a position to assess what constitutes good enough performance for this purpose.”
To the issue of voluntary surrender and plea of guilt, the court ruled it as ‘fact-specific.’