The debate surrounding the rejection of national service (NS) deferment for young Ben Davis to be allowed to pursue a professional career with Fulham FC continues.
The topic has sparked discussions at all levels of society with strong voices on both sides of the fence. On the one hand, you have people who are calling for the deferment to be granted so that Ben Davis may welcome this incredible opportunity to play for a world-class football team which could then lead to a bigger and brighter future with even bigger clubs around the world. They argue that his joining Fulham FC would also inspire many young Singaporeans with big sporting aspirations who will see Ben and know that they too are able to live their dreams.
On this side of the debate, many people also point out other athletes who have been granted deferments from NS such as swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zhen Wen. Questions were raised if the granting of deferments might be biased towards athletes in individual sports and again, only to those are already representing Singapore on the international stage.
During the parliamentary session on 6th of August, Minister for Defence (MINDEF) Ng Eng Hen addressed some of these issue, elaborating on the reasons why MINDEF is firm in their rejection of Ben Davis’ deferment application.
Mr Ng stressed that a deferment or disruption is only granted for the sake of national, not personal, interest. Quoting from a judgement by the Chief Justice of the Appellate High Court, Mr Ng said that it is the duty of every young Singaporean man to serve when he is called up without regard to personal convenience and considerations. In fact, it is a sacrifice, a personal sacrifice that is crucial to the nation’s survival.
Mr Ng pointed out that in the case of Joseph Schooling and Quah Zhen Wen, deferments were granted upon strict conditions that these young men would come back to fulfil that NS duties and further deferment will only be granted if they are able to meet certain benchmarks.
In fact, Mr Ng also pointed out many other examples of athletes in team sports such as two footballers who asked to enlist early so that they could complete their NS first before pursuing their professional careers.
It’s clear from all the examples given that deferments to athletes are granted sparingly and only when the deferment would serve national interest, such as winning medals in international sporting competitions while representing Singapore.
“The enlistment act is blind to personal convenience and considerations no matter how talented the individual, no matter how exceptional the circumstance. That is the core of the enlistment act,’ said Mr Ng to Parliament.
In the case of Ben Davis, his father Harvey Davis said that he is unable to commit to a date for Ben to return and complete his NS should he start playing professionally in UK or Europe, or if he is offered a longer contract, sent out on loan, or sold to another club. Mr Harvey also went on to indicate that Ben will (and in fact has already) sign a contract with Fulham FC even without the deferment and will only return to complete his NS if he is unsuccessful in his football career.
After MINDEF rejected the application, Mr Harvey followed up to say that he would consider his son renouncing his Singaporean citizenship to be able to pursue his career. Based on that, since Ben Davis’ application was solely to pursue a personal interest in professional football, MINDEF feels justified in their stand.
Mr Ng said, “MIDEF could not find any grounds to approve the application of deferment by Mr Harvey Davis for his son. There is no commitment to serve SG or national interest. To grant deferment to Mr Ben Davis to pursue his personal development and professional career would be unfair to many others who have served in NS dutifully as required and not at the time of their choosing.”
Now, that does sound like a compelling reason to not grant the deferment. Based on media reports and accounts from MINDEF as well as Mr Harvey on the issue, Ben's father has made it clear that his son’s professional career takes precedence over Singapore’s ‘national interest’. Frustrating as it may be, Harvey Davis has no leg to stand on in demanding a deferment for his son because the policy is quite straightforward. While one may disagree with these stringent policies, there is no argument that can be made for an exception based on the law.
However, there is no doubt that MINDEF’s rejection is a blow to young Ben’s potential future as a professional footballer and many young men in Singapore who are aspiring athletes. Perhaps it’s time for MINDEF to rethink this unnecessarily rigid policy, especially in a time of peace. Shouldn’t young Singaporeans be supported as much as possible in pursuit of their grand dreams and ambitions by the entire nation so that we may one day be able to proudly lift them up and say, ‘look, a Singaporean!’ and not just settle for, ‘oh look, a Singaporean-born!’.