Why can’t Singapore’s sole Olympics Gold medalist be granted further deferment or full exemption of NS?

Why can’t Singapore’s sole Olympics Gold medalist be granted further deferment or full exemption of NS?

Earlier on Tuesday (3 Aug), TODAY published a commentary piece penned by former Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Eugene Tan Kheng Boon which called into question young Olympian Joseph Schooling’s long-term National Service (NS) deferment.

In his piece, Mr Tan, an Associate Professor of Law at Singapore Management University and was a team manager of Singapore’s 2004 Athens Olympics national swim team, noted that Schooling has been on long-term NS deferment since 2014.

He added that Schooling also receives a stipend of at least S$8,400 monthly by being in the top band of SportSG’s spexScholarship programme.

Long-term NS deferment has only been granted to three sportsmen in the last two decades — Schooling, swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, and sailor Maximilian Soh — on account of their “world-class sporting prowess” and potential to perform well on the world stage, said Mr Tan.

However, he argued that Schooling’s “lackadaisical performances” in the last two to three years call into question whether there is “strong merit” in extending his long-term NS deferment.

Mr Tan observed that the “telltale signs” of Schooling’s downward trajectory were starting to show after he defended his title in the 2018 Asian Games, especially when Schooling failed to qualify for the 100m butterfly semi-finals at the World Championships in South Korea 2019.

The Olympian “did not look in the best physical shape” during the 2019 SEA Games, he said, citing national training centre head coach Gary Tan who had previously commented that the athlete might need to “work towards getting fitter”.

In the Tokyo Olympics 2020, Schooling failed to defend his gold medal in the 100m butterfly event as he finished last in his heat after clocking a time of 53.12s, placing him 44th overall out of 55.

Following his exit at the Tokyo Olympics, Mr Tan noted that it now comes to the Ministry of Defence’s (MINDEF) decision on whether to extend Schooling’s NS deferment, and if so, for how long.

“Mindef has consistently, and rightly so, indicated that it grants deferment to an individual if his deferment serves Singapore’s national interest first and foremost.

“Thus, the question is whether there is strong merit in extending Schooling’s long-term NS deferment, notwithstanding his lackadaisical performances in the pool in the last two to three years,” he wrote.

Mr Tan stressed that the “principle of equity-equality of treatment” must be stringently upheld “without fear or favour” when it comes to the applications of long-term NS deferment.

He quoted Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen’s statement in the 2018 Parliament, 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.”

Mr Tan further asserted that clear expectations were laid out for a sportsman when deferment was given, including on the standards required for their sports training.

“If a sportsman did not meet the standards agreed upon, deferment would be curtailed. He [Dr Ng] stated unequivocally that deferment was neither ‘open-ended nor unconditional’,” he added.

The former Nominated Member of Parliament went on to cite Dr Ng’s remarks that these strict conditions “are necessary because even for these individuals who can bring glory to Singapore, there are detractors, who think it’s unfair for anyone to be deferred”.

The commentary piece, however, received backlash from many netizens, as they believe that Schooling “has done more national service” than everyone else by serving the nation in the Olympics.

Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary did not serve NS because he spent 10 years “saving kids”

It is noteworthy that Senior Minister of State for Health Janil Puthucheary did not serve NS, which had inevitably sparked criticisms of him not dedicating two years of his life to serving the nation, as most Singapore male citizens are required to do by law.

This was unveiled in April 2011 when the politician responded to a question posed to him on his Facebook page that compared him with Chen Show Mao, a Taiwan-born new candidate of the Workers’ Party at the time, who volunteered to serve NS before he became a Singapore citizen in 1986.

He was quoted saying: “I did not do NS, Mr Chen did, those are the facts, yes.”

As for the criticisms that he did not serve for NS, Dr Puthucheary argued that he has been in the public service as a pediatrician and spent the last 10 years “saving kids’ lives”.

This led to further outrage as critics saw his answer as equating what he does as a profession to what Singaporeans do as an act of patriotism, besides the fact that as a pediatrician he was paid more than the average national servicemen (NSFs).

Dr Patrick Tan, son of former President Tony Tan, was granted 12 years of NS deferment to obtain medical degree

What’s more, former President of Singapore Tony Tan’s son, Dr Patrick Tan Boon Ooi, was even granted a 12-year long deferment to complete his premedical course from 1988 to 1992.

He was re-enlisted in 2000 and was deployed to the Defense Medical Research Institute (DMRI), having obtained both his medical degree and PhD degrees. Dr Tan had not undergone the conversion course for medical officers because MINDEF believed that there was no need for it as he was deployed to DMRI.

Responding to parliamentary questions posed by MP Lim Wee Kiak in October 2011, Dr Ng clarified that Dr Tan did not receive “any preferential treatment” and was treated according to prevailing policies.

He explained that since 1973, MINDEF has allowed NSFs to disrupt from medical studies in Singapore due to the country’s need for military doctors to serve in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF).

Dr Ng further said that the disruption policy for medical studies was extended to allow NSFs to study medicine overseas in 1981 because the number of local graduates was insufficient.

Disruption for overseas medical studies was no longer allowed in 1992 as the number of local medical graduates met SAF’s needs, said the Minister.

“In summary, for disruption, Dr Patrick Tan was disrupted in accordance with prevailing policy to obtain his medical degree. A longer period was granted to those who were admitted to US medical schools,” he remarked.

Dr Ng added that disruption for overseas medical studies has been discontinued since 1992, and that disruption or deferment for PhD studies has not been allowed since 1999.

“I want to assure all Singaporeans that equity of treatment for National Service has been and must remain a cardinal principle,” he noted.

What about Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s sole Olympic Gold medalist?

Given these two exceptional cases of Singapore male citizens not serving NS and not being an issue to MINDEF, one question looms large, why can’t Olympian Schooling be granted an extension of his NS deferment, or a full exemption from NS even?

Mr Tan called into question whether there is a “strong merit” in extending Schooling’s long-term NS deferment, when it is known that the 26-year-old athlete is the sole Olympic Gold medalist since Singapore’s independence.

Not to mention that Schooling’s journey to the Olympics was mainly funded by his parents, who have spent more than a million to nurture him to be the athlete he is today.

Schooling’s uncle, who goes by Max Le Blond on Facebook, has known him since he was a toddler and recalled Schooling left to the United States (US) when he was in Secondary 1 or 2.

He pointed out that his nephew’s travel, school fees, and accommodation were all paid for by his parents, not the state. The school, he noted, was an expensive one that combined “academics and sporting excellence in swimming”.

Beyond that, Schooling’s parents also footed the bill for specialist coaches, trips to various competitions, and more, according to his uncle.

Mr Le Blond explained, “Because of the taxation regime in the US, his parents had to give up their normal lives so that one of them at a time could be with him when needed in his early years in the US.”

“Those very expensive necessities were not paid for by ‘state money’ but by his parents,” he added, noting the sacrifices the young athlete’s parents made, both in business and financially, as there was little to no state money “for many many years”.

It was when young Schooling started to make his presence felt at US swimming circuits, receiving a scholarship from the University of Texas, and beating other great US swimmers that the Singapore state began to notice him, Mr Le Blond explained.

When Schooling started to make headway at the international level, the “Ebenezer Scrooge-like grip on the ‘state moneybag’ started to loosen just a little”, he added.

In fact, it is noteworthy that back in 2017, Schooling’s mother, May Yin, had already dismissed the possibility of the Government fully funding her son’s education and training.

In an interview with The Straits Times executive editor Sumiko Tan at the time, May said:

“I was told, ‘Why you so stupid? If Singapore wants your son to swim for them, they should pay.’ I said, ‘Tan ku ku‘ (a Hokkien phrase for “it won’t happen”).

“That’s why I keep telling everybody, if you feel your son or daughter has it, it’s up to you whether you want to support them. If you’re going to wait for people, don’t do it, okay?”

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