THE Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) is keen to help athletes with the potential to perform on sport's biggest stages juggle their national service (NS) and sporting commitments.
SNOC president Tan Chuan-Jin, in a blog posted on the council website yesterday, called for a closer working relationship with the Ministry of Defence to explore if more flexible solutions can be worked out for sportsmen on a case-by-case basis.
He said: "We do not need a blanket agreement. But can we work out local solutions with (army) units? And that might be workable, as they have some flexibility there.
"If the commander feels he can accommodate, he can make the call, why not? So try to explore that and work closely with army units and Home Team and see how to make it more accommodating."
But NS cannot be seen as a "non-factor", warned Mr Tan, who is also Minister for Social and Family Development and held the rank of brigadier-general before joining politics in 2011.
Speaking yesterday on the sidelines of a panel discussion run by sociopolitical website Inconvenient Questions at the National University of Singapore, he added that finding a balance between NS and the pursuit of elite sports is an ongoing issue.
"It's not about wishing it away, but how do we work with the system as it is," said Mr Tan.
To "push the boundaries", he had questioned in the blog post if more athletes can defer NS.
Currently, only Joseph Schooling, who won nine golds at the recent SEA Games and whose gold at the Asiad last year was a first in 32 years in Singapore men's swimming, has successfully earned deferment for a longer period.
The 20-year-old was due for enlistment this year, but was granted deferment until August next year to allow him to focus on training for the 2016 Olympics.
It is understood that plans are also afoot to facilitate fellow swimmer Quah Zheng Wen's application for deferment. Quah was the most bemedalled athlete at the SEA Games with 12 medals.
Previously, others such as national long jump record holder Matthew Goh, who in 2011 requested to defer his NS by three months to take part in the Asian and World Junior Athletics Championships, were denied.
Said Mr Tan: "The question now is do we expand that space (for more deferments)... So you adjust your threshold, so that those who are promising - and you have to define what promising means - therefore may have the possibility of deferment?"
He also questioned if greater flexibility can be given to those who do not get deferment, so that NS can be worked around the needs of an athlete's training schedule in the lead-up to major competitions, such as what took place in the lead-up to the SEA Games. Currently, the SAF Sportsmen Scheme allows national athletes to take time off from their duties to train or compete.
"Could they still clock in the hours, and as much as possible, coming closer to (major Games), are there things you could do to afford them more targeted training?" he asked.
The sports fraternity has for years argued that military conscription is an untimely obligation that poses a roadblock to the progress of sportsmen, very often stunting their progress or taking them out of sport altogether.
Countries such as South Korea and Russia face similar issues, but grant long deferments and even waivers to athletes who achieve notable results, such as winning an Olympic medal.
To find a balance, the conversation needs to be ongoing, said Mr Tan, adding: "There are existing programmes and arrangements, and for us, it's to constantly look at those and see how we are able to adjust and improve it if we can."
Part One of the panel discussion will be released on www.inconvenientquestions.sg on Friday.