In setting a new sentencing framework for national service defaulters, the High Court brought much clarity to a matter of great importance. It beggared belief when the original sentence in 2015 for Brian Joseph Chow, who had evaded enlistment for more than six years, was just a $4,500 fine. After going to Australia to study, he wilfully defied NS reporting orders, and chose to return only after graduation. Following an appeal by the prosecution, he was jailed for 1½ months - a sentence which he tried to defer as well, as he had his sights set on commercial pilot training.
Those who calculatedly put their own interests above vital obligations to society might use various means to game the system. Older defaulters might not be fit for a combat role and could wind up doing lighter duties during NS; and age might prevent some from fulfilling all their reservist obligations by the age of 40, when most NSmen "stand down". NS defaulter Ang Lee Thye, for example, was 41 when he finally returned from the United States and was by then no longer subject to the Enlistment Act.
The public would expect dodgers like Chow and Ang to be dealt with firmly as they had failed to contribute to the defence of the nation. They also gained unfair advantages over their peers who all had to serve NS at the required time and bore similar interruptions to their studies and careers. As NSmen, Singaporeans take on challenging duties, and some of them might travel abroad for military training and on missions such as combating terrorism, piracy or forest fires. Without the unstinting efforts of more than a million NSmen over the past 50 years, it would not have been possible for the nation to have a credible army, air force and navy which are second to none in Asean, and a robust police force and civil defence corps.
Chow's father was "very disappointed" with the court's decision but didn't say the same about his son's failure to take NS seriously. Fortunately, most Singaporeans think differently - 98 per cent agree NS is critical for defence and that it provides security for the nation to develop and prosper, as an Institute of Policy Studies poll shows. So it would be an affront to such public sentiment if the sentencing of dodgers is marked by ambiguity or "discounts" for their subsequent performance during NS, for example, which is not relevant.
The fundamental principles of NS - necessity, universality and equity - were aired in Parliament in 2006, following the controversial case of NS defaulter Melvyn Tan who was fined $3,000. Since then, the Defence Ministry has asked the prosecution to press for a jail sentence in serious cases. The latest benchmarks are useful in establishing four bands of custodial sentences based on the length of the period of default. A firm judicial stance is clearly needed so that this valuable institution is not undermined by NS cheats.