I get it that National Service can be juggled with professional sports training. Anything is theoretically possible. The point however is not whether it is possible or not. Rather, the issue is whether it should be made so difficult in the first place.
The issue with NS and professional sport has recently taken national spotlight as a result of Mindef's refusal to permit teenage footballer, Ben Davis from deferring his National Service (NS) in order to pursue a contract with the junior division of Fulham Football Club. The reason cited by Mindef was namely that Davis was not playing football for Singapore but for a club and the current rules for deferment requires the athlete in question to be officially representing Singapore. Further, it was noted that Davis had signed his contract with Fulham as a British citizen and not a Singaporean citizen (Davis being under 21 has both British and Singaporean citizenship).
If we were to argue semantics then it becomes obvious that Davis has no legal grounds to defer his NS. However, do rules really solve the raging debate? It may resolve this particular case but it doesn't resolve the underlying issues of NS and deferments.
Let's go back to basics and ask ourselves 3 questions:
- Why do we need NS?
- Why do we need deferments?
- What does represent Singapore mean?
The answers to the above will give us a better idea of what we are really arguing about.
Why do we need NS?
NS was introduced to Singapore at a time where there were tensions with our neighbouring countries. Singapore was a new country and our past leaders were of the view that maintaining a strong army was of vital importance to the survival of our nation. Fast forward 50 years and the landscape has changed. While there are still niggles with our neighbours now and then, I am not sure that these are resolved by a strong military presence. The disputes now are mostly trade and business related.
That said, many have argued that NS is a social equaliser and should be retained on that basis. My view however is that there are many other ways to equalise society and besides, I am not really sure how well NS actually works as a social leveler given that most officers come from the top schools and there does exist an unwitting "streaming" system within NS as well.
My conclusion is that the whole concept of NS is outdated. Without NS, none of these deferment issues would have cropped up.
Why do we need deferments?
Somewhere down the line, Mindef must have realised that the blanket rule of NS for all at the same time may not work. Scholarships may not wait and the government has always been fixated with academic excellence. As time went on, Singapore become more interested in sports and deferments for high performing athletes were permitted. However the language was drafted very tightly to ensure that it did not open the floodgates.
While I understand the logic behind that, it is my submission that the drafters of the rules did not consider the possibility of football and how the world of professional football works. Even if NS is not scrapped, we still have to look at the intention behind deferments and not just hide behind rules.
What does represent Singapore mean?
I consider myself a representative of Singapore every time I am overseas. I am always proud to showcase the achievements of my country and make sure that I behave publicly in a way that holds my country in good stead at all times. While I am not representing Singapore in an official capacity, every little counts in building Singapore's international reputation as a first world country.
I just don't understand what difference it makes to Mindef whether or not Davis was playing for a club or representing Singapore in an official capacity. The point is, Davis is Singaporean and having him play in a club is still going to do wonders for not just the country's profile raising but also as a great motivator for other young Singaporeans.
Ng Eng Hen has said that Davis had signed his contract as a British national. Again, this is besides the point. If he wants to live in England for the purposes of training, it is of course easier to use his British passport for expediency. Many people the world over have dual citizenship for this very purpose. It doesn't make Davis less Singaporean. This is especially so in the context that the entire David family lives in Singapore and his brother has already served NS!
By denying deferment on these grounds sounds like a government hiding behind rules instead of dealing with the wider issues of NS and how it is operated in the first place. Are we so ingrained by the "system" that we have forgotten the intention behind the "system" at the outset?
To me, it seems like many people who are baying for Davis to serve NS are motivated by a misguided sense of patriotism. Does NS equate patriotism? What about women then? Also, are we falling prey to sour grapes? Because I served NS, he has to too! Let's be honest with ourselves.