Clearing the air on NS dodgers

National Service recruits demonstrate hand-to-hand combat moves as part of their two-month long basic training on Pulau Tekong off Singapore on Feb 7, 2017. PHOTO: ST FILE

The issue of what is the proper punishment for national service defaulters has always been a thorny one. The matter returned to the spotlight last week after Ang Lee Thye, 43, who evaded NS for 23½ years, had his sentence of two years lengthened to two years and nine months. But we need to look back to 2005, when an uproar erupted after it emerged that pianist Melvyn Tan, who went abroad to study music at age 12, was fined $3,000 for dodging the entirety of his NS obligations. When he returned, he was 49 and a British citizen - incapable of serving NS.

The controversy was soon tackled in Parliament by then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean , who noted inadequacies in penalties for those who have defaulted on NS for so long that they are no longer able to fulfil their obligations.

Those who default on NS for more than two years should be jailed, said Mr Teo, setting out the Government's position that the length of the sentence should depend on the length of evasion.

So, the longer one defaults, the less likely he is able to fulfil his full-time and reservist obligations, and, therefore, the heavier the punishment.

This was adopted in at least two High Court decisions, one of which laid down fixed sentencing discounts based on performance in NS, for those who eventually serve on their return, and degree of connection to Singapore.

This approach was described as "problematic" by the prosecution last week when it appealed against the sentences of three defaulters, including that of Ang. Building on Mr Teo's 2006 proposition, Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck suggested ascending "starting point" sentences for default periods at the two-year, 10-year and 20-year marks, with the last set at the maximum of three years' jail. A three-judge High Court panel said it would adopt a modified form of this framework, and will elaborate in due course. What is clear is that a defaulter's NS performance and the degree of his connection to Singapore now hold little sentencing value. More importantly, those who completely evade their NS obligations can expect to face the full brunt of the law.

Selina Lum

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 01, 2017, with the headline Clearing the air on NS dodgers. Subscribe