Nobody would deny that teenage footballer Ben Davis is a remarkable talent. He has signed a two-year professional contract with Fulham FC, becoming the first Singaporean to pen a deal with an English Premier League club. Unfortunately for him, that dream opportunity clashes with the need to fulfil his national service (NS) obligations. In rejecting his request for a deferment, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) was of the view that there was no intention by the family to ensure that the 17-year-old would return to fulfil his NS duties. The teenager's father strongly disputes this, saying that his son should do NS - the only question being about the timing. An important consideration is that, when granted, deferment is for a defined period after which the sportsmen concerned must return to fulfil NS obligations. Ben's application was turned down because it did not meet the criteria. National agency Sport Singapore supported Mindef's decision because a definitive commitment to return to serve NS at a specified date has to be paramount for deferment applications. That is not the case in this instance.
The episode has generated public debate, with many sympathising with the boy's predicament. Their sentiments are encapsulated in the opinion that while NS can wait a little longer for just one person without harming Singapore as a whole, a promising footballer's career would be cut short, perhaps forever, if he were to not take up the once-in-a-lifetime offer now. While not untrue, this reflects an individualistic view of NS, and not the broader view of the individual's collaborative role to contribute to the safeguarding of Singapore. Mindef does indeed grant deferments, including for exceptional talent, and disruption of NS as well. But these must be exceptions to the general rules of enlistment and subject to guidelines. Only three athletes - swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, and sailor Maximilian Soh - have met the deferment criteria in the past 15 years. That reveals the high yardstick applied for deferments, one of which calls for personal achievement to also translate into national glory.