SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - He was one month away from completing his national service when he left Singapore without permission to pursue his medical studies at the University of Cambridge in Britain.
Wang Yinchu, then 22, left Singapore on Oct 8, 2008 and returned only almost six years later.
When he returned to Singapore on July 2 last year, he gave himself up to Immigration & Checkpoints Authority officers and was later transferred to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Military Police Command.
On Oct 8 last year, he pleaded guilty to one count of being absent without official leave (AWOL) and was sentenced to three weeks’ detention.
But, the chief military prosecutor appealed against this sentence in the military court of appeal on May 29 and urged a stiffer sentence.
Justice Choo Han Teck and four other members of the panel extended Wang’s detention period to 18 months.
In the submissions, military prosecutor Hee Mee Lin told the court that Wang, now 29, was serving with the 41st Battalion of the Singapore Armoured Regiment at Kranji Camp 2.
On Oct 12, 2008, he was due to book back into camp for duties at around 11.59pm, but he failed to do so.
When his superiors noticed his absence, the unit made multiple attempts to contact him on his mobile phone, but the calls went unanswered.
The prosecution added that Wang contacted Mindef via its feedback unit years later to say he wanted to contact his commanding officer as he wanted to surrender himself. Ms Hee said Wang had gone AWOL for five years, eight months and 20 days and pressed for at least 18 months’ detention.
Calling the three-weeks detention "manifestly inadequate", she said it could send a message that full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) would “suffer little consequences” when they go AWOL.
An earlier case was also cited where an NSF from the Singapore Civil Defence Force went AWOL for three years, two months and nine days and was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment.
In that case, the High Court also affirmed the sentence and emphasised the need for deterrence, saying: "National Service is about one’s duty to the country, and about placing the nation’s interests above one’s own.
"It would be unfair to all national servicemen who diligently perform their national service at a personal sacrifice to themselves and their families if the appellant’s contention was accepted as a valid mitigating factor."
The prosecution added that "the public interest involved in National Service required that servicemen be prepared to subordinate their personal interests to the interests of the state".
Wang’s lawyer, Mr Anand Nalachandran, urged the court to dismiss the appeal, saying that his client has "repaid the... pound of flesh".
Wang came to Singapore from China in 1996 and started at Primary 2 when he was 10. After that, he went to The Chinese High School where he displayed "outstanding academic ability and demonstrated sportsmanship, integrity... and good sense".
At Hwa Chong Institution, Wang was an outstanding student who excelled in the Biology Olympiad and wushu.
He became a citizen in 2005 when he was 19 and later entered NS.
Mr Anand said references from people such as his former seniors in his unit "all attest to his attitude, character, dedication, diligence and professionalism".
Before he left for England, he had applied to Mindef for a disruption of the remaining one month of service, but this request was denied. Wang then made appeals within the SAF and through his MP, but these were rejected.
Mr Anand added: "(Wang) asked the university for permission to matriculate later. However, the university advised him to reapply for entry the following year with no guarantee of admission.
"(Wang) was driven by the lifelong ambition to become a doctor and was desperate to retain the rare and coveted opportunity to study medicine at Cambridge."
The lawyer said that his client then made "a desperate decision that few would endorse but many would understand" and left Singapore.
Wang later obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge.
He also obtained a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery degree from Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, University of London before returning to Singapore.
After completing his earlier sentence in October last year, Wang has volunteered at agencies such as the Alzheimer’s Disease Association and the Singapore Anti-Narcotics Association, said Mr Anand.
The lawyer also said that Wang was an outstanding soldier "that his superiors and colleagues vouch for even in the present circumstances".
Justice Choo said the panel agreed that Wang has an exemplary record. But they also took into consideration the period of AWOL and the period of service left before sentencing him.
Responding to queries from The New Paper, Mindef said that AWOL is a serious offence: "We will continue to take stern disciplinary action against servicemen who commit AWOL offences."
Those convicted of AWOL can be imprisoned for up to two years.