Mindef: NS has to be universal and fair to all

Letting those abroad avoid it or choose when to serve would undermine institution, it says

National Service recruits demonstrating hand-to-hand combat moves on Pulau Tekong on Feb 7, 2017.

National service duties must be applied to all Singapore men fairly and equitably, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) made clear in a statement yesterday after a court ruling to enhance the punishment of three men who had defaulted on their NS obligations.

"If we allow Singapore citizens who are overseas to avoid NS or to choose when they want to serve NS, we are not being fair to the vast majority of our national servicemen who serve their country dutifully, and the institution of NS will be undermined," said a Mindef spokesman.

The principles were spelt out by then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean in 2006 following public debate over the punishment meted out to defaulters who evade their NS obligations. Mr Teo had noted that only about 0.5 per cent of those liable for NS each year fail to register for NS. An average of 12 NS defaulters a year are charged in court.

On Tuesday, the High Court panel referred to the principles when it allowed the prosecution's appeal for harsher sentences for the three men, one of whom got close to the maximum of three years' jail for completely evading his obligations.

The court decision was met with approval by parents whose sons are due to enlist.

Mrs Tricia Koh , 46, who has two teenage sons, said: "I feel it's harsh, but it does send a strong message, especially to the parents... Parents have to take responsibility in ensuring that their children know the severity of the situation if they default."

Ms Stephanie Lim, 52, said her 18-year-old son, now in a boarding school in Britain, will return to enlist next year.

"We have not considered any option other than for him to come back," said the homemaker, whose older son had returned to serve NS while the family was in Hong Kong.

Parents of boys who are studying overseas for two years or more have to provide a bond for $75,000 or an amount equivalent to half the combined annual gross income of both parents, whichever is higher.

However, others say harsher penalties will likely deter defaulters who are overseas from returning to Singapore to face the music.

The mother of a 23-year-old NS defaulter was certain her son will not return to Singapore following the ruling. The 55-year-old general manager of a pharmaceutical company, who wanted to be known only as Madam Tan, has lived in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years.

An older son, now 27, also did not serve NS.

Lawyer Laurence Goh is acting for three NS evaders who have been awaiting the outcome of the appeals before deciding whether they want to return to Singapore.

One of them, who is still able to serve NS, wants to return but his parents want him to finish his degree in Australia, said Mr Goh.

The other two, who are no longer liable for NS as they are past the age of 40, have good jobs overseas but want to return to see their aged parents.

"It's a Catch-22 situation. It is deterrence for those thinking of defaulting, but also for those who are already overseas," said Mr Goh.

Lawyer Amolat Singh noted that with the new ruling, some factors previously thought to be relevant in sentencing no longer carry as much weight.

For instance, defaulters used to get sentencing discounts if they perform well during their eventual NS stint. However, Mr Singh said he will still cite these factors "because it's a plus point".

Mr Singh said he has no soft spot for overseas defaulters in a dilemma about coming back. "You live with your choices," he said.

•Additional reporting by Abigail Ng

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2017, with the headline Mindef: NS has to be universal and fair to all. Subscribe