SINGAPORE - Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, in his reply to questions in Parliament on Monday (Aug 6), explained why the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) rejected the application for national service deferment for teenage footballer Ben Davis.
Davis, 17, signed a two-year professional contract with English Premier League club Fulham FC in June. He had left Singapore to join the club's academy in 2017.
This is Dr Ng's full speech:
Singapore's founding leaders knew the strict conditions that National Service (NS) would impose on its citizens when they passed the NS (Amendment) Bill 51 years ago and the Enlistment Act in 1970. In 1984, just as he was about to retire, a reflective Dr Goh Keng Swee acknowledged it plain and simple - "National Service imposes (not only) a great sacrifice of time and money on the young men called up." But Dr Goh followed with the reason why NS was crucial to our nation's survival - "deep in his heart the average Singapore citizen knows the danger he faces are real and not hypothetical, and that there is a need to defend ourselves."
The Appellate High Court also brought their minds to bear on our NS policy in 2017 during an appeal on the sentencing of NS defaulters. Their written judgment spelt out the reasons why more stringent sentencing benchmarks were justified but those same reasons lie at the heart of what Members of Parliament (MPs) have asked today - how strict is this requirement for every male to serve his NS when required? What exceptions or flexibility can be given? It was a landmark decision, presided over by the Chief Justice. The Appellate High Court referred to DPM Teo's Ministerial Statement given in 2006 to this House, when he was Defence Minister. That Ministerial Statement coupled with the written judgment, illuminate the fundamentals on which our NS policy are based, that we must not unwittingly weaken lest we undo this nation's foundations. I urge all members to read them. The judges opined that, "In practical terms, what the three fundamental principles of national security, universality and equity mean is that in order to ensure Singapore's national security, every male Singaporean must serve NS and at the time he is required to under the (Enlistment) Act, without regard to his personal convenience and considerations. When a person refuses to serve NS at the time that he is required to and instead returns to serve at a time of his own choosing, or worse, at an age when he can no longer serve, his actions strike at the very core of the principles of national security, universality and equity."
Thirteen NS defaulters were prosecuted after the new sentencing framework was established last year. In Court, each gave reasons why he did not enlist as required. Some wanted to complete their university degree first before NS. Others said they had to support their families. In every judgment, the Courts dismiss these personal reasons, convicted and sentenced them to jail terms. Harsh as it is, the Enlistment Act is blind to "personal convenience and considerations", no matter how talented the individual or exceptional his circumstances. At the core of the Enlistment Act, the critical national need for a strong defence puts aside personal pursuits and mandates that each liable male performs his NS when required.
The written judgment noted that everyone was asked to do his "fair share" - "This entails every citizen who is required to serve NS making sacrifices or postponing individual goals to serve the nation when the nation needs his service". These arguments spell out in unequivocal terms the NS obligations for every Singaporean male. Deferment therefore cannot be for that individual, no matter how talented, to pursue his own interests or career, even if it vicariously brings credit or fame to Singapore. This would be fundamentally wrong and goes against the core principle of equity.
Some Singaporeans have voiced the same opinions over Mr Davis' application. Mr Suresh Nair, who wrote, "Let this Davis case be the right and timely reminder of the need for absolute fairness in applying laws regarding NS deferment".
To preserve equity for all national servicemen, Mindef will only defer individuals very selectively if their deferment serves Singapore's interest first and foremost, never their own. This was the only basis to defer three sportsmen, swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, and sailor Maximilian Soh, from NS to train and compete in the Olympics. The sportsmen deferred know this, as clear expectations were laid out when deferment was given, in discussion with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) on the standards required for their training. Neither was deferment open-ended nor unconditional. They will have to return to serve NS, and if they do not meet the standards agreed upon, deferment will be curtailed. These strict conditions are necessary because even for these individuals who can bring glory to Singapore, there are detractors, who think it's unfair for anyone to be deferred. Mr T. Ng wrote to Mindef - "Please be fair to all Singaporean males, who spent years serving NS. Every Singaporean male's career is important from his own point of view."
Disruption for individuals after they are enlisted for NS follows the same principles and is also given only for national reasons. We disrupt medical students to complete their medical studies because we need them to serve as Medical Officers during their NS to take care of their fellow soldiers. It's not an entitlement and once the reasons are no longer valid, the disruption will end. For example, we previously allowed overseas medical students to disrupt, but this was stopped in 1992, when we could produce enough doctors locally. Similarly, dental students were not disrupted after 1989, as there was no need for NS Dental Officers. For transparency, Mindef publishes a full list of all medical students who are disrupted every year.
Having stated the general principles, let me explain why the application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son's deferment was rejected even though Mindef recognised Mr Ben Davis' achievement in obtaining a senior contract with Fulham Football Club (FC).
First, Mr Ben Davis is playing for Fulham FC as an English national, not a Singapore citizen. Mindef is not privy to the contract signed between them, but we assume this published information is correct and that the father must have his reasons for doing so.
Second, Mr Harvey Davis has consistently refused to indicate when his son would return to serve NS, if deferred. The father replied to MCCY, Sport Singapore (SportSG) and Football Association of Singapore (FAS), stating - "We are unable to commit to a date for his return should he be playing professional football in the UK or Europe. In addition, it is also a possibility that Ben could be offered a new 2 year contract in 2019 after the 1st year of his pro-contract just like he has been offered a new 2 year pro contract half way through his 2-year scholarship contract. Or, he could be sent out on loan or sold to another club. There are a lot of variables all dependent on his development and progression."
Third, if he was not granted deferment, the father indicated that Mr Ben Davis would still proceed to sign the contract, and he has done so. The reason given by the father was that his son would only return to fulfil his NS commitment if he is unsuccessful in his professional career.
In fact, Mr Harvey Davis went further after Mindef rejected the application - that he would consider the option for his son to renounce his Singapore citizenship in order to pursue his career.
The father's responses made clear his intent for his son to pursue a professional football career to the fullest. If Mr Ben Davis will not give up his senior contract, which provides for an allowance of a few hundred pounds a week, to serve his NS, it is even more unlikely that he will return to serve NS if he subsequently gets offered a contract worth many times more. And if he is not given a further contract with Fulham FC, the father has said that he may find other clubs which his son can be loaned to.
The application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son's deferment is to further his son's professional career first and to the longest extent possible. He has been quite open about this. Singapore and her interests, including his son's NS obligations, are secondary consideration, if at all. There has been no indication, commitment or plans as to how Mr Ben Davis would help football standards in Singapore, if deferred. Mr Harvey Davis has urged Mindef to approve deferment for his son so that it would serve as an inspiration, he tells us for the 1000 students registered with his company JSSL, 500 or so who are local.
JSSL Singapore, or Junior Soccer School & League Singapore, is a youth football club and academy business run by Mr Harvey Davis and advertises itself as having links to Fulham FC.
Mindef could not find any valid grounds to approve the application for deferment by Mr Harvey Davis for his son. There is no commitment to serve Singapore or our national interests. To grant deferment to Mr Ben Davis to pursue his personal development and professional career would be unfair to the many others who have served their NS dutifully as required, and not at a time of their choosing. It would also erode the basis on which our Courts have upheld the Enlistment Act passed by Parliament and punished those for not fulfilling their NS liabilities to pursue personal pursuits.
As a writer, Mr Patrick Tan Siong Kuan, wrote to The Straits Times (ST) Forum - "The defence of our country cannot be a matter of serving when it is most convenient. It is a responsibility that every man must take seriously when called upon, regardless of race, family connections or financial status. It takes personal sacrifice and putting the country before self. Otherwise, there will be no Singapore tomorrow."
Mr Suresh Nair who wrote to the Mindef Feedback Unit - "If Davis is proud of his red passport, he must do what every Singapore teenager does, to dutifully observe the NS obligations."
I know it must be difficult for a 17 year old to receive such public attention. It was never Mindef's intent, but Mindef had to respond to his father's claims to the media to explain to MPs and Singaporeans the basis of our decision on this important policy.
I have dealt with the application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son. Let me now address the important issue that MPs have asked - can and how do we achieve sporting excellence, including for team sports, if NS duties are to be fulfilled? NS does require sacrifices, certainly personal ones, but performing one's NS duties and pursuing national aspirations for sports excellence need not be mutually exclusive.
Many talented sportsmen have served NS as required and yet at the same time raised the level of their own skills and the teams they played with. To Mindef's knowledge, there are three other footballers who have also been talent-spotted to take part in trials for professional leagues overseas. All three have completed their NS as required - Saifullah Akbar, Ikhsan and Irfan Fandi. In fact, Saifullah Akbar and Ikhsan Fandi asked to be enlisted early, presumably so that they could complete their NS early to pursue their professional careers. Prior to enlisting, Saifullah played for the Under-16 national team and was reportedly spotted by an Australian club at age 16 but went ahead to enlist for NS. During their NS, Irfan and Ikhsan trained and played for the Under-22 national team during the 2017 SEA Games, supported by the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) and Home Team. Irfan and Ikhsan are now playing for the Young Lions in the Singapore Premier League and representing Singapore in regional football competitions. I understand Irfan has gone for trials with European clubs, including an upcoming trial with Sporting Braga, and Saifullah and Ikhsan are slated to follow suit at CD Tenerife and Braga, respectively. All of us will certainly cheer them on to succeed. This is a good sign for football in Singapore and talented footballers, Ben Davis included, can emulate the example of Irfan, Saifullah and Ikhsan to complete both their NS duties as required and also advance their professional football careers.
For the recent SEA Games 2015, and 2017, Mindef supported those competing, both as a team and individually. Enlistment dates for NS were adjusted for those affected so that they could participate in the games first, including some footballers. Those who were already enlisted were given time off to train and maintain their peak performance. For the upcoming Asian Games later this month, so far, ten of our national servicemen have been given a short postponement of their enlistment of a few weeks, or if they have been enlisted, time off to train for the games, including a member of the Water Polo team who clinched their 27th straight SEA Games Gold medal last year. We wish all these sportsmen every success and hope that they continue to do well for Singapore in the Asian Games and beyond.
Besides these provisions, Mindef has offered disruption to Full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) competing in these games. Very few have chosen to disrupt, perhaps because they are able to train adequately in the SAF.
These many examples show that Mindef has exercised flexibility towards sportsmen competing in team sports, a question asked by Dr Intan and Mr Muhamad Faisal and others. Mindef has done so without transgressing the fundamentals of NS and still maintaining equity for all national servicemen. Mindef will work with MCCY, SportSG and other relevant agencies through various pathways that can allow sportsmen to do well and still fulfil their NS obligations, be it in individual or team sports.