Whether a national service defaulter performs exceptionally well when he eventually returns to serve is irrelevant to the sentence he should get for the wrong he has done, said the High Court.
"It is the duty of every national serviceman to perform well," said the three-judge panel in disagreeing with Justice Chan Seng Onn, who ruled last year that exceptional NS performance by a defaulter was a mitigating factor.
Defaulters can harm the operational readiness of the armed forces and the morale of citizens who serve when called to do so. Even if they perform exceptionally well in NS later, it does not undo this harm.
Neither would it reduce the defaulter's culpability because the fact remains that he gains an unfair advantage over his peers in terms of the timing of his service.
"In our judgment, treating exceptional NS performance as a mitigating factor could in fact fuel feelings of inequity and resentment that law-abiding male Singapore citizens who had made personal sacrifices to serve NS might have," said the panel.
Giving a sentencing discount to a defaulter because he performed well when he finally decided to serve might be tantamount to giving preferential treatment to individuals with innate abilities such as physical fitness, it said.
It could create a "perverse incentive" for the physically fit to choose to serve NS later, when they are in fact the ones most needed to enlist when required.
But the court left open the possibility that truly exceptional acts, such as saving another soldier's life, may be taken into consideration.
It also discussed other possible mitigating factors. Voluntary surrender could be accepted as a mitigating factor to encourage defaulters to surrender early.
A plea of guilt, however, has very limited mitigating value, because defaulters have little choice as such offences are easily proved.