Granting young Singaporean footballer Benjamin Davis, who has secured a deal with English Premier League club Fulham FC, a National Service (NS) deferment would result in grave unfairness to many other Singaporean sons who have carried out their obligations without also asking to be deferred despite potentially inconvenient timing on their part, said Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen in Parliament on Monday.
Mr Ng warned that granting the 17-year-old midfielder a deferment "would also erode the basis on which our Courts have upheld the Enlistment Act passed by Parliament", under which those who had an obligation to serve but deferred or attempted to evade NS have been punished accordingly.
The Defence Minister also laid down several reasons as to why MINDEF has reiterated its stance on rejecting Davis' application for NS deferment, stating overall that the Ministry has not observed any strong and solid signs of "commitment" from Davis to "serve Singapore or our national interests".
Mr Ng declared: "First, Mr Ben Davis is playing for Fulham FC as an English national, not a Singaporean citizen. MINDEF is not privy to the contract signed between them, but we assume this published information is correct and that the father must have his reasons for doing so."
Citing Harvey Davis's response to the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth (MCCY), Sport Singapore (SportSG) and Football Association of Singapore (FAS), who stated that "We are unable to commit to a date for his return should he be playing professional football in the United Kingdom or Europe", Mr Ng said that the senior Davis has "made clear his intent for his son to pursue a professional football career to the fullest", and that "it is even more unlikely that he will return to serve NS if he subsequently gets offered a contract worth many times more" than the current contract, which "provides for an allowance of a few hundred pounds a week".
"In addition, it is also a possibility that Ben could be offered a new 2-year contract in 2019 after the 1st year of his pro-contract, just like he has been offered a new 2-year pro-contract half way through his 2-year scholarship contract, or he could be sent out on loan or sold to another club," said Mr Ng as he explored Davis' possible career trajectory, which might further serve as reasons to delay Davis' signing on for his NS duties.
Mr Ng also suggested that the lack of commitment to fulfil NS obligations on Davis' part can be seen in the way Harvey Davis had suggested that his son "would still proceed to sign the contract" and "has done so", regardless of whether their request for a deferment is approved, and that Ben "would only return to fulfil his NS commitment if he is unsuccessful in his professional career".
The Defence Minister had also highlighted that the senior Davis has mentioned looking into his son's renunciation of his Singapore citizenship as a possibility "in order to pursue his career."
Mr Ng also mentioned that Harvey Davis has urged MINDEF to approve his son's request for a deferment, as he believes that his son's signing with Fulham could "serve as an inspiration for the 1000 students registered with his company Junior Soccer School & League Singapore (JSSL Singapore)", of which half of the students are Singaporeans, before adding that JSSL is "a youth football club and academy business run by Mr Harvey Davis, and advertises itself as having links to Fulham FC."
"There has been no indication, commitment or plans as to how Mr Ben Davis would help football standards in Singapore, if deferred," the Minister reiterated.
Deferment should serve "Singapore's interest first and foremost, never their own"
Mr Ng went on to touch about the criteria, or rather the criterion, that will qualify a Singaporean son of eligible age for a deferment from his NS duties.
He said that "to preserve equity for all national servicemen, MINDEF will only defer individuals very selectively if their deferment serves Singapore's interest first and foremost, never their own. That is the only basis."
Citing the deferment granted upon three Olympians, namely swimmers Joseph Schooling, who is Singapore's first Olympic Gold medallist in history, and Quah Zheng Wen, as well as sailor Maximilian Soh, Mr Ng said that "clear expectations were laid out" to them when the deferment was given, which entail having to meet certain "standards" for their training, and not having an "open-ended" and "unconditional" deferment.
He added that the sportsmen's NS obligations are inevitable, and that their "deferment will be curtailed" should they fail to meet the standards that have been agreed upon in conjunction with MCCY.
Mr Ng noted that "talented footballers" such as Ben Davis can "emulate" the footsteps of "other footballers who have also been talent-spotted to take part in trials for professional leagues overseas," and yet "have completed their NS as required".
Citing the cases of Saifullah Akbar, Ikhsan Fandi, and Irfan Fandi, he noted that the first two have "asked to be enlisted early, presumably so that they could complete their NS first to pursue their professional careers".
Mr Ng said:
Saifullah Akbar will finish his NS today, and he is going to try out for a European club.
You may have read his interviews. They asked him, "How did you feel when you were called up for NS?"
He said, "I tried to have a positive attitude. I told myself that army training will strengthen me. And now that I finish NS, I can go on to pursue my dreams".
For him, it was never a choice that he had to make [to not fulfil his NS obligations like everyone else]. He said, "I had to train harder", but he kept a positive attitude. That is the kind of example we want young Singaporeans to emulate.
Prior to his enlistment, Saifullah reportedly played for the Under-16 Singapore team, and was scouted by a professional Australian club at 16.
Touching on the Fandi brothers, he said: "I understand Irfan has gone for trials with European clubs, including an upcoming trial with Sporting Braga, and Ikhsan [along with Saifullah] is slated to follow suit at CD Tenerife and Braga."
"I think this is a good sign for football in Singapore and talented footballers," said Mr Ng.
In response to questions from Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar and other MPs regarding MINDEF's role in ensuring that the potential of young Singaporean sportsmen is not thwarted by their NS obligations, Mr Ng said that measures such as granting time for NSFs to train adequately have already been placed by MINDEF:
Let me now address the important issue that MPs have asked: Can, and how, do we achieve sporting excellence, including for team sports, if NS duties are to be fulfilled? NS does require sacrifices, certainly personal ones, but performing one's NS duties and pursuing national aspirations for sports excellence need not be mutually exclusive.
For the recent SEA Games 2015, and 2017, MINDEF supported those competing, whether they were competing individually or as a team. We adjusted some enlistment dates for national servicemen so that they could participate in the Games first and enlist later. This included some footballers.
Those who were already enlisted were given time off to train and maintain their peak performance. For the upcoming Asian Games later this month, so far, ten of our national servicemen have been given a short postponement of their enlistment of a few weeks, or if they have been enlisted, they have been given time off to train for the Games. This includes a member of the Water Polo team who clinched their 27th straight SEA Games Gold (medal) last year. We wish all these sportsmen every success and hope that they continue to do well for Singapore in the Asian Games and beyond.
MINDEF has done more beyond these provisions, we have offered disruption to Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) competing in these games. But, very few have chosen to disrupt, presumably because they are able to train adequately in the SAF.
Additionally, Mr Ng reassured that his Ministry will also continue to cooperate with MCCY, SportSG and other sports-based institutions in ensuring that national athletes will continue to perform at their best in the sport of their choice, even in the midst of carrying out their NS duties.
Enlistment Act "blind to personal convenience and considerations"
In response to the questions from various Members of Parliament (MPs) such as Ms Joan Pereira, Mr Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar, and other MPs regarding how strict the criteria for exemption should be in MINDEF's view and what would qualify as solid grounds for exemption, Mr Ng cited what he labels a "landmark case" in the Appellate High Court, in which the judges delivered the following remark, highlighting that the Enlistment Act is "blind to personal convenience and considerations":
The Appellate High Court referred to DPM [Deputy Prime Minister] Teo [Chee Hean]'s Ministerial Statement given in 2006 to this House, when he was Defence Minister. That Ministerial Statement coupled with the written judgment, illuminate the fundamentals on which our NS policy are based, that we must not unwittingly weaken lest we undo this nation's foundations. [...]
In practical terms, what the three fundamental principles of national security, universality and equity mean is that in order to ensure Singapore's national security, every male Singaporean must serve NS, and at the time he is required to under the (Enlistment) Act, without regard to his personal convenience and considerations.
When a person refuses to serve NS at the time that he is required to, and instead returns to serve at a time of his own choosing, or worse, at an age when he can no longer serve, his actions strike at the very core of the principles of national security, universality and equity.
He added that the "new sentencing framework" set a precedent for the prosecution of "thirteen NS defaulters" last year.
"In Court, in every case, each of them gave reasons why he did not enlist as required.
Some wanted to complete their university degree first before NS. Others said they had to support their families.
But in every case, in every judgement, the Courts dismiss these personal reasons, convicted and sentenced them to jail because harsh as it is, the Enlistment Act is blind to "personal convenience and considerations", no matter how talented the individual, no matter how exceptional his circumstances," Mr Ng reiterated, adding that "a critical need for a strong defence" lies at the heart of the Enlistment Act.
"This is what the law our founding leaders and subsequent leaders passed in this House. We may have forgotten it or diluted it, but the Enlistment Act stands," he said, concluding his statement on the Enlistment Act.