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Benjamin Davis’ signing with Fulham Football Club “no different in principle” from other male Singaporeans’ deferment of overseas study or work opportunities, says former diplomat

Former Singaporean diplomat, Mr Bilahari Kausikan, suggested that local footballer Benjamin Davis' opportunity to play for English Premier League club, Fulham FC, is "no different in principle" from academic or professional opportunities granted to "many other male Singaporeans [who] have had to defer" such opportunities in order to complete their National Service (NS) first.

Mr Kausikan wrote the Facebook post, dated 16 July, in response to the local football community’s concerns over the potential hampering of the 17-year-old midfielder’s progress as a result of serving two years of NS.

He ended his post with a pertinent question: "If he is allowed to defer NS, what grounds can others in the same non-football situation, be denied deferment?"

His statement appears to be in line with the decision taken by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to reject Davis’ application to defer his NS term.

"As all male Singaporeans liable for full-time NS put aside personal pursuits to dutifully enlist and serve their NS, it would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development.

In a statement made on 15 July, MINDEF reasoned that sporting-related "deferments are granted only to those who represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for Singapore. In the last 15 years, only three have met this criteria," MINDEF said.

Davis is the first Singaporean to sign a professional contract with a top-tier English club. The contract will run for two years until June 2020, according to Channel NewsAsia.

Local netizens' reactions to Mr Kausikan's post are a mixed bag.

Several netizens concurred with Mr Kausikan's statements, reiterating the need for fairness in applying laws regarding NS deferment, and suggesting that Davis' signing with Fulham is not exceptional enough to qualify for a deferment.

Vic Ho said:

Fully agree. If Davis is [of] Olympic medalist potential or the next Ronaldo, it’s a different story. But he’s not.

Peter Tan argued:

He will never be if you don't even let him try.

Kwee Huat Wee said:

It is a team sport and not only on one player.

Germain Heng commented:

Mr Bilahari, thank you for making this point. My sentiments exactly. In the event he makes it in the EPL, and earns his paycheck, will he still return to serve his deferred service?

Many make the argument that he is a one in a generation soccer player for Singapore. I find it hard to accept that provisions have to be made for him just because of that. There is no tangible contribution to the nation at all.

Anthony Khong wrote:

I disagree that it is a big thing at all. Not all Singaporeans are ardent soccer fans. We are not a nation of soccer aspirants.

To non-soccer lovers, he is just another person seeking deferment so that he may be employed overseas. How is that equitable? How is that "big" for Singapore?

Contributing to national defence and security, safeguarding the sovereignty of the country. That, is a big thing.

易俊伟 said:

Agree. Let’s say he is able to defer this... Until what age? At 19 he likely will develop to be a full player around 23-24 and then enjoy the best patch of his soccer life before he gets old in his 30s. When will he serve again? Can he afford two years to serve? And then this will open the doors to an exemption. For a professional player earning his keeps. And if this successfully brings more footballers out, and other sportsmen, we exempt them then?

There is a different angle policy makers have to consider. What about basketball? Tennis? Other sports? E-gaming then?

Timothy Tay wrote:

Let’s put it in this way: if he decides to represent another country than Singapore, especially if he has either a non-Singaporean parent or grandparent due to FIFA rules, then we will lose not just another young Singaporean, but many more young Singaporeans who have one foreign-born parent, and has leeway to seek citizenship of another country. 

We need to understand that there are many diverse ways in representing Singapore, whether as an ordinary person or as a scholar or as a professional athlete. Being a Singaporean professional athlete overseas is basically something that some will be doing as part of being a citizen of this nation.

However, many netizens also argued against Mr Kausikan's statement, generally agreeing that male athletes and sportsmen who are eligible for NS enlistment have a different career lifespan, possibly a shorter one, than their counterparts in other fields and professions, and that MINDEF's rejection of Davis's application for an exemption would be detrimental to his potential as a footballer.

Timothy Tay commented:

Isn’t representing Singapore as a professional sportsman on the global stage a form of national service? 

Raymond Giam said:

It’s a deferment not an exemption. Why not?

Hidhir Razak wrote:

Your argument hinges upon the “slippery slope” fallacy—as if granting Davis this one deferment means they would have to give every aspiring footballer a deferment too. They wouldn’t; it is so rare for any Southeast Asian to be given this opportunity, let alone a Singaporean on account of our worsening football scene.

Also, there is literally nothing stopping officials from asking Davis to sign a bond?

Jia Qing Yap said:

If I may suggest a difference, it would be the disproportionately higher age sensitivity of opportunities in professional football compared to most other professional opportunities.

Thiam-Huat Ang commented:

Bilahari Kausikan, consider these factors: 

(1) Footballing is competitive in nature ad compared to doing an ACCA where you can do at 18 or 28;

(2) Fulham's offer is for now. In 2 years’ time, it may be gone. He may suffer foot injury, footballing is over. 

In short, Fulham's offer must be premised on his footballing form: stamina, skills etc. Therefore, this case is different from pursuing other careers. [There are] Truckloads of accountants. How many Fulham qualified footballers who are Singaporeans [are there]?

Edward Tay said:

Ambassador Bilahari, I see the difference that his playing for Fulham is beneficial to Singapore's image and even Singapore's World Cup dreams. Another Harvard PhD or Cambridge LLM is not going to make [much of] a difference, but a Singaporean playing EPL football is a big thing for Singapore.

Several netizens have given alternatives to a textbook-style deferment.

David Choo said:

I think the deferment can be granted on the condition that he will play only for Singapore national team. This isn’t just about football, but building quintessential national heroes, or the potential to be one. And after Fandi [Ahmad], we waited close to 20+ years before schooling came onboard.

The same could be done for other sports. The truth is nothing unites a country like sports does. I’m sure many of us shed a tear when he won the Olympics.

Derek Goh wrote:

While I support the principle of Bilahari’s reasoning, SAF [Singapore Armed Forces] could easily post him to PTI [Physical Training Instructor] training focused on sports, football in particular, and defer his NS, and when he returns, he can continue and train the SAF team.

Andrew Fann commented:

Perhaps FAS [Football Association of Singapore] and the Ministry of Youth, Community and Culture need to work out a proper Youth Development Plan and the criteria for NS deferment... It is easier for solo sports like swimming, sailing to meet the current criteria, as it is just that person who needs to excel... But what about team sports like football, basketball, hockey, etc.? Even if we have a 'Pele' in our youth system, but with our youth team [being] one of the Worst in the world, would this 'Pele' have been able to obtain deferment? Very likely not…

Sc Low said: 

We must think outside the box. Give him a PSC [Public Service Commission] scholarship, he could then go through his 3 years of "football university" with serving his 3-month SBMT. Who knows? He would spark our dream of Singapore's Croatia team.

Tan Kuan Hian offered an incisive analysis of the case and believes that an exemption should rely on a more nuanced prediction, which he suggests MINDEF has missed the opportunity to make in Davis' case:

Ambassador [Bilahari], I think you're relying on a very narrow definition of service and contribution here, and being disingenuous when dismissing football because it merely arouses strong passions.

Why do we spend money funding the sports, sending teams overseas, building new facilities? Or why do we bother funding the National Arts Council, the National Gallery, and various other initiatives? 

There's a lot of flowery language you could use, but ultimately we believe that a) it's important to get people invested in some shared endeavour/culture b) these things - sports, the arts - help to do that. 

There are also ancillary benefits insofar as doing well may get us some positive international attention or make Singaporeans more inclined to do sports and be healthier.

So in some meaningful sense we can distinguish sports from other pursuits, like accounting, in that Singaporeans may get behind a sporting talent (although truth be told I'm not sure Singaporeans follow our volleyball team very closely) but are unlikely to get behind a team of chartered accountants, which is presumably why we don't directly fund Singaporeans at global accounting conferences. 

The silly thing is we already recognise this when we give Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen deferrals for National Service. Swimming is also a sport and, certainly for Schooling, a professional opportunity. But Schooling has nonetheless done more than enough for national pride and reputation to deserve a deferral. So the principle that something can lead to a deferral simply because it "arouses strong passions" is quite set - after all, strong passions is what we want when building and making people invested in a national identity.

The actual core of the question, which you've not really mentioned, is whether Ben Davis has the potential to contribute as much to national pride as Schooling and QZW did when they first received their deferments. And this is subjective - is it obvious that Davis will play in the Premier League? No. Was it obvious that Schooling would win an Olympic gold when he got his first deferment in 2013? Also no.

On some objective level, it's also obvious that winning an Olympic gold in swimming is a much bigger achievement than playing in the Premier League. But then again, Singaporeans (and the world) care a lot more about football than about swimming, and watch a lot more of the EPL than the FINA Swimming World Cup series. I think many Singaporeans would be as excited to watch Davis play in the EPL as they were to see Schooling in the Olympic final - and, with all due respect to QZW, the bar has really been set at his performance level, which is a bit lower than Schooling's. 

It's not clear that, even with a deferment, Davis would make the grade in the EPL. But it's obvious that without a deferment his chances fall dramatically, as anyone who follows elite sport and the EPL even casually would know. And even if he didn't make the grade, if he came back for NS in five years instead of one, it's not clear what exactly is lost - sure, we've broken the principle that nobody gets deferments, but we've broken that principle before and there's nothing magical about the word 'principle' that makes it paramount (because we can always imagine an alternative principle, such as "we should support Singaporeans who can make many Singaporeans proud", that supplants this one).

So this is obviously a subjective question. If we give Davis a deferment, what do we tell the next person who comes with a non-football opportunity? Well, we look at the opportunity and decide, all things considered, whether pursuing it would be in the national interest. And this is a difficult and fraught process with a lot of subjectivity that will sometimes have no right answer (would a world champion in chess promote national pride? Would a chess player benefit greatly from deferment? Who knows). But the fact that finding right answers will be difficult is not a good reason to instead consistently find wrong ones by insisting on a criteria of "potential Olympic medal or bust", as if that criteria is not itself the product of a subjective decision-making process that places individual achievement at the Olympics at the pinnacle of what Singaporeans should take pride in for their sporting (or non-sporting) heroes.

Saying that there is a principle at stake misses the point. The point is whether this principle is valuable, whether it should be subordinate to other principles, and whether we have the courage to make those tradeoffs even when the outcomes are uncertain. If MINDEF had approached the matter in this way, rather than simply pointing to a rulebook and saying that the case was closed, I think Singaporeans would be less upset. A flexible and subjective process is not necessarily a bad one, and just because something requires interpretation doesn't mean it can't be principled all the same.