Athletes, officials support flexibility in NS deferments

Gary Yeo, 28, Singapore sprinter who ran at the 2012 Olympics.
Gary Yeo, 28, Singapore sprinter who ran at the 2012 Olympics.PHOTOS: ST FILE, SINGSOC/ACTION IMAGES
Soh Rui Yong, 23, Singapore’s SEA Games marathon champion.
Soh Rui Yong, 23, Singapore’s SEA Games marathon champion.PHOTOS: ST FILE, SINGSOC/ACTION IMAGES
Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong.
Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong.PHOTOS: ST FILE, SINGSOC/ACTION IMAGES

SWIMMER Joseph Schooling may be in a league of his own but many in the local sports fraternity feel more can be done to help other athletes also get a chance to develop and realise their potential, yet fulfil their national service (NS) obligations.

Several joined Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) president Tan Chuan-Jin in asking if more sportsmen can be granted deferment from NS.

In a blog post on Monday, Mr Tan had called for greater flexibility in helping athletes to juggle their sporting and NS commitments.

STRONG CASE

Qualification marks are representative of world standards. If an athlete has qualified for the Olympics, then he has proven himself and should stand a good chance of (obtaining) deferment.

- Gary Yeo, 28, Singapore sprinter who ran at the 2012 Olympics

Said SingaporeSailing president and Nominated MP Ben Tan: "It's a balance between our defence needs and our sporting aspirations.

OPPORTUNITY COST

An athlete can serve two years in the army whether he's 18 or 30. But his window for high-level (sports) performance is very small and once you miss it, it's very hard (to get back to that level).

- Soh Rui Yong, 23, Singapore's SEA Games marathon champion

"The band is way too tight and needs to be widened to achieve that balance.

"Defence takes priority but the two are not mutually exclusive."

MCCY'S POINT OF VIEW

As long as there's a case to be made for an athlete, whether it's an exceptional athlete seeking deferment... we will help represent that athlete and we will bring that case to Mindef.

- Minister of Culture, Community and Youth Lawrence Wong, on MediaCorp's 938LIVE yesterday

Schooling remains the only athlete who has been granted a longer-term deferment from NS.

The 20-year-old Asian Games champion was due to enlist this year but was granted deferment until August next year to let him focus on training for the 2016 Olympics.

Others have received shorter terms, typically for a few months.

National 400m record-holder Zubin Muncherji, for instance, was due to enlist in April but will do so only next month, having competed in the SEA Games.

Said SNOC secretary-general Chris Chan: "It's nothing new - we've always had athletes get (short-term) deferment before a major competition.

"But for anything beyond that, you'll have to go above and beyond just qualifying and show that you're on track to win at the highest level."

Some officials and athletes, however, are now asking if qualifying on merit for events as big as the Olympics is sufficient to warrant special consideration.

Both Schooling and fellow swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, for instance, have clocked Olympic "A" times that earned them automatic spots at next year's Rio de Janeiro Games.

Sprinter Gary Yeo, who was at the 2012 London Olympics, conceded that NS deferment is a privilege that should not be given out so easily.

But, he argued: "Qualification marks are representative of world standards.

"If an athlete has qualified for the Olympics, then he has proven himself and should stand a good chance of (obtaining) deferment."

SEA Games marathon champion Soh Rui Yong urged for flexibility in terms of when a sportsman carries out his NS, pointing out: "An athlete can serve two years in the army whether he's 18 or 30.

"But his window for high-level (sports) performance is very small and once you miss it, it's very hard (to get back to that level)."

Meanwhile, shuttler Derek Wong, who also competed in London, supports deferment until an athlete's sporting career is over.

He said: "How many athletes are willing to commit... 100 per cent of their time and energy to train and compete?

"Not many... If an athlete shows potential and the passion... he should be given a chance."

However, with different sports at varying performance levels, it will take more than a simple, one-size-fits-all approach.

Soh noted that runners peak at a later age than swimmers, adding: "It's hard to have a fixed cut-off for all sports.

"We're all at different levels."

Ideas such as completing basic military training, then serving out the rest of NS over an extended period of time, or putting sportsmen in the same military unit, deserve to be explored, said Dr Tan, a former Olympian and Asian Games champion himself.

"This is a good time to review where we set the band," he added, "but we should of course be comprehensive and seek expert input."

maychen@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2015, with the headline 'Athletes, officials support flexibility in NS deferments'. Print Edition | Subscribe