SINGAPORE - In a clear signal that the courts will not tolerate national security being undermined by those who ignore the call to serve national service (NS), the High Court ruled on Tuesday (April 25) that the "worst" category of NS defaulters - those who do not serve their obligations at all - will face close to the maximum of three years' jail.
This came as a three-judge panel allowed the prosecution's appeals for heavier sentences for three men, two of them brothers, who had dodged NS for varying durations.
Ang Lee Thye, 43, who evaded NS for 23-1/2 years - the longest possible under the Enlistment Act - was given two years and nine months' jail. He is serving his original two-year jail term and will now have to serve a longer one.
Singaporean men have to register for national service when they reach the age of 16-1/2 years and are obliged to serve up to age 40.
Ang was 41 when he returned to Singapore from the United States.
Sakthikanesh Chidambaram, 26, who failed to report for NS for five years, six months and 17 days, was jailed 10 weeks, up from his original term of three weeks.
Vandana Kumar Chidambaram, 23, who evaded NS for three years, four months and two days, was jailed seven weeks. His initial sentence was a $6,000 fine.
Both brothers completed serving full-time NS last year.
In response to queries on the cases, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said on Wednesday that it takes a firm stand on those who commit offences under the Enlistment Act, adding that each case comes with its own circumstances which the Court will consider in deciding on the sentence.
"It is important that NS has the support and commitment of all Singaporeans. To achieve this, we have to adhere to the fundamental principles of universality and equity in NS," said a Mindef spokesman.
"If we allow Singapore citizens who are overseas to avoid NS or to choose when they want to serve NS, we are not being fair to the vast majority of our national servicemen who serve their country dutifully, and the institution of NS will be undermined.”
The spokesman also touched briefly on the three cases.
For Ang, Mindef said that despite being advised to return to resolve his offences, the defaulter "chose to return to Singapore at an age when he could no longer be called up for NS at all, evading his NS obligations completely".
For the brother, Mindef said Sakthikanesh said he was aware of his NS obligations but chose to complete his university studies in India before returning to serve NS while Vandana was similarly aware of his NS obligations, as his father was in contact with the Ministry of Defence.
"Despite being aware of their NS obligations, they chose to evade NS to pursue their studies first," said the spokesman.
In considering the appeals, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said a key sentencing focus is deterrence to ensure those required to serve NS "do not evade their obligations or opt to postpone them to a time or on terms of their own choosing or convenience".
"Were it otherwise, over time the attitude that national service can be done on one's own terms will weaken our national security and this is simply intolerable," he said.
The court said it will adopt, in a modified form, the sentencing approach suggested by the prosecution. Details on the framework will be elaborated in due course.
The prosecution, represented by Solicitor General Kwek Mean Luck argued: "Lenient treatment of NS defaulters can invoke strong feelings of unfairness on the part of those who serve when called upon, and undermine public commitment to the institution of NS."
He called for a signal to be sent to those who "game the system" that NS evasion will be met with stiff penalties.
He suggested a sentencing framework based on three categories.
For cases where the default period exceeds two years but the defaulter is still able to serve full-time NS in a combat role and reservist in full, he suggested a starting point of two to three months' jail.
At the other end, for those who evade for more than 20 years and will not be able to serve full-time NS and reservist, he suggested a starting point of three years.
In the middle, for a default period of about 10 years or when the defaulter is unable to serve full-time NS in a combat role and reservist in full, he suggested two years' jail.
The court said even if a defaulter performs well when he eventually serves NS, this is not a strong factor to get a lower sentence.
Defence analyst Ho Shu Huang, from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, noted that defaulting NS is an "extremely emotive issue".
He added that if defaulters are seen to be getting away lightly, it could undermine the belief that NS is "fair and equitable".
"Ultimately, it's up to the judges to determine how to balance the interests of the accused and the public. The public should respect the judicial process and the final outcome," said Mr Ho.
Note: This story has been updated with Mindef's statement.