A 25-year-old man who left Singapore at the age of 14 to study in Australia and evaded enlistment for more than six years was yesterday jailed for 1½ months.
This was after an appeal by the prosecution against his original sentence of just a $4,500 fine.
Justice Chan Seng Onn told Brian Joseph Chow that he would have been jailed for three months if not for his exceptional performance during his national service (NS), which he eventually served when he voluntarily returned to Singapore in May 2013.
In sentencing Chow, Justice Chan laid down detailed sentencing guidelines with the help of a graph, ruling that jail time is warranted for those who have a "substantial connection" to Singapore but evade NS by remaining overseas for more than two years. He said such defaulters enjoyed the benefits of citizenship but gained an unfair advantage over their peers.
Factors that influence sentencing include the number of years that the culprit evaded NS, whether he surrendered on his own or was arrested, and whether he pleaded guilty instead of claiming trial. The court would also consider the age at which the defaulter started evading NS and apply a discount if he excelled during his service to the country.
But Justice Chan drew a distinction between those with a "substantial connection" to Singapore and those who left the country at a very young age and had very little connection to it. The latter group are typically fined. But the judge declined to give benchmarks for this category, saying this was not the matter currently before the court.
MORE THAN A TECHNICAL ADVANTAGE
It might, on the one hand, seem as if an offender has secured only a technical advantage by being overseas without a valid exit permit, as he would eventually have to serve national service (NS) after having pursued his individual goals. While such a technical advantage is in itself objectionable... I must also point out that the advantage gained here is far more than a technical advantage... An individual may be less suited for a combat role as his age increases (as a result of him postponing his NS obligations); and the later commencement of NS reduces the time available (or may even make it impossible) for the individual to fully complete his post-operationally ready date (post-ORD) reservist obligations.
JUSTICE CHAN SENG ONN
SUBSTANTIAL CONNECTION TO SINGAPORE
I hold as a starting point that the custodial threshold will generally be crossed when an overseas defaulter who has a substantial connection to Singapore remains overseas without a VEP (valid exit permit) for more than two years. I must once again caution that the custodial threshold... and the sentencing benchmark that is set out in this judgment relate only to offenders who have a substantial connection to Singapore... The respondent left Singapore after having completed his primary and some part of his secondary education here and retains a substantial connection to Singapore: His family resides here and the respondent intends to reside in Singapore. He therefore has (reaped) and will reap the benefits of Singapore citizenship...
In the current case, Chow first left to study in Australia in 2005. He had finished his primary and some of his secondary education here but his parents felt the local education system was not equipped to deal with his attention deficit disorder.
When he turned 16½ in 2007, he had to apply for a valid exit permit to remain outside Singapore but did not do so. In January 2008, he was notified to register for NS. After he provided a letter from his school in Australia, the Defence Ministry offered him a deferment for his foundation course - but not for his university studies. It issued follow-up reporting orders.
In March 2009, Chow e-mailed the ministry, asking to defer NS for his university studies. He was told that he had committed an offence and was advised to return to Singapore. In May, he repeated the request and was again rejected.
Four years later, in 2013, two months after he graduated from university, he returned to Singapore.
In January last year, he pleaded guilty to remaining outside Singapore without a valid exit permit for six years and 27 days. He claimed not to have received the second rejection e-mail - an argument Justice Chan described as "spurious".
Second Solicitor-General Kwek Mean Luck argued that a fine was inadequate for defaulters who return only after completing their personal goals and there was a need for a deterrent sentence.
Chow, now training to be a commercial pilot, asked to defer his jail term, but the request was rejected and he started serving the sentence immediately. His father, who declined to be named, said he was "very disappointed" with the decision.