Ng Eng Hen on NS deferment: 'Mindef can be flexible but it must be fair too'

Joseph Schooling celebrates after winning the gold medal at the Men's 50m Freestyle event at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore on June 8, 2015.
Joseph Schooling celebrates after winning the gold medal at the Men's 50m Freestyle event at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore on June 8, 2015. PHOTO: SINGSOC

SINGAPORE - The Defence Ministry can be flexible on the issue of letting sportsmen and artists juggle their competitive commitments with their national service obligations.

But it also has to be fair, said Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, and there must be "a touch of practicality", so ensuring that deferments are granted to those with exceptional talent, who can bring honour and glory to Singapore, Dr Ng said on June 26 in his annual media interview, ahead of SAF Day on Wednesday.

While Mindef has routinely allowed short-term NS deferments for some athletes ahead of major competitions, swimmer Joseph Schooling broke new ground in 2013 when Mindef held off his enlistment until August next year to allow him to focus on training for the 2016 Olympics.

In granting long-term deferments that last between two and six years, Dr Ng said in his first comments on the issue that his ministry has to be "very careful because we want to be transparent". "And there I'm keen, if we do it, to make it public, as we did for Joseph Schooling, so other Singaporeans know, and they can give feedback."

Dr Ng said the 20-year-old, who won nine gold medals at the recent SEA Games and whose gold medal at the Asiad last year was the first in 32 years for Singapore in men's swimming, was a "clear-cut case".

He said: "The way we approached this issue is, this person has the potential to win an Olympic medal, for instance... It was a clear-cut case, and I am sure, for clear-cut cases, if they were to write to me, I will respond similarly."

But the tricky part, he said, is when a person feels "special", when he may not be that exceptional. "The problem is when they don't meet the criteria and they say 'if you give him a little bit more time, maybe he can meet the criteria' - that becomes more difficult," said Dr Ng.

Social and Family Development Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also the president of the Singapore National Olympic Council, first suggested easing the criteria for NS deferment two weeks ago, saying he hoped to work closely with Mindef to see if more flexible solutions can be worked out for sportsmen on a case-by-case basis.

Such a move would benefit the SEA Games' most bemedalled swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, who is due to enlist next month. When that happens, it could throw into disarray his preparations for the Fina World Championships in Russia this month as well as the Rio Olympics next year.

It is understood that he has applied for deferment but the issue has yet to be resolved.

Dr Ng said Mindef has been working with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth to give "as much latitude" as it can to Team Singapore athletes to train so they can do well.

Of the 400 male athletes who took part in the Sea Games, about 30 were full-time national servicemen, who continued doing their full-time stints while training.

The majority of athletes were NSmen, who did not want short-term deferments, with only 24 taking up the offer, said Dr Ng. "They said, 'I can come and do my in-camp training and train at the same time, and win a medal'".