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News Reports

A line in the sand for Ben Davis?

So some people are getting hot under the collar over a young man’s possible non-footballing future. And others are wondering what the fuss is about given that National Service is a duty that every single 18 year old male citizen must shoulder. Should (or why should) Ben Davis be the exception to the rule?

I am ambivalent towards the issue. But what amazes me is the range of issues that have been thrown up in the wake of the Defence Ministry’s refusal to grant the youth deferment from NS. In fact, we can’t even get the jargon right. Is NS deferment and disruption the same thing? Apparently not. Very few people get NS deferment, that is, a postponement but quite a number get NS disruption, which means they serve some time and reserve some time for later.

So Davis is asking for a deferment because he has an offer from  English Premier League football club Fulham, which some people consider a feather in the cap for a Singaporean.

What has popped out of Pandora’s Box?

  1. Discrimination – how come some people can get long deferment and some can’t? That hoary old chestnut about the former President’s son, Patrick Tan, gets dredged up. (Very old story)
  2. Discrimination – but medical students and government scholars get deferment/disruption all the time! Why not aspiring sportsmen and artists? Why this emphasis on brains and academic ability?
  3. Discrimination – If Mindef agrees on deferment, then the slippery slope/open floodgates argument kicks in. What would prevent another parent from lamenting a lost opportunity for for his son?
  4. Defence – Is it really so hard to let one youth go especially in a 4G army? (Cue slippery slope and open floodgates) Why not look at how other countries with conscription deal with this?
  5. Nationhood – does the family even know what are the duties of citizenship? There’s plenty of self-righteous mutterings questioning the family’s commitment to the country (By the way, the eldest boy has already served NS)
  6. Nationhood – is he really a Singapore citizen? His father is English and his mother, a Thai. He can play for England or Thailand as well according to international footballing rules. (NOTE: He’s been a citizen since age 9. And given his parentage, he’s a Eurasian.)
  7. Personal dream versus national duty – which is Mindef’s point. This is not Joseph Schooling attempting an Olympic Gold for the nation but a commercial transaction benefiting the individual. The counter-argument is that if Davis doesn’t take this window of opportunity, it might close forever because athletes, unlike brainy people, have a short shelf-life. And who knows? He might play for Singapore and bring glory…later.
  8. Hypocrisy – all that talk about chasing rainbows, pursuing dreams and fulfilling potential is mere hogwash. Anyone still remember Singapore’s World Cup dream?
  9. Bureaucracy – Should Mindef stand behind what it says are principles that should apply to everyone? That is, deferment is not just for the exceptional, but those who can claim that it would allow them to represent the country. Or is this too rigid for a country that has passed a certain stage of development?

I can only say that Fandi Ahmad got his timings right for his two sons, enlisting them for NS early enough to enable them to join the Dutch clubs later. Then again, he’s a born-and-bred citizen who probably knows about the complications of a two-year stint better than a transplanted foreign resident.

Mindef has drawn a line in the sand. Senior Minister Of State for Defence Heng Chee How said that unless new “facts’’ entered the picture, the decision is final. Even in a court of law, new arguments can be surfaced, but he doesn’t seem to give any room for this.

There is an interesting column about how this incident is symptomatic of a deeper Singapore problem – everything is transactional here. I will add a few phrases: rule-based, means-tested, actuarially sound and clean wage. Singapore is all about hard edges, even towards its own citizens.

I think that this is somehow related to the insecurities of the new 4G leaders – the desire to look tough on principle, to be able to toot about taking a hard line rather than “succumb’’. Or maybe it is easier to defend the status quo than deal with consequences of change.

I don’t doubt that almost everyone agrees that defence is an important facet of the country and survey after survey has shown how valued NS is. It explains the angst against NS defaulters, who pay heavily for skipping NS.

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Keeping to the core of NS doesn’t mean we can’t blunt its edges. In an era that lauds out-of-the-box thinking, can we not come to some sort of compromise? I am a mere female but I say make him do his basic military training and then defer the rest of his stint to be completed by a certain age. Bond him if we have to. Write to Fulham if we have to.

Yes, there will be more cases like Davis (a trickle, not a flood) and it will be more problematic for bureaucrats who would have to justify their decisions to allow deferment or disruption. They might even lead to minor political explosions. This is to be expected in a polity that wants a say in governing, and especially if the governing concerns its youth. More so in an age of disruption, the innovation campaign and for passion to be made possible. For politicians, such contentions should be par for the course.

No one is asking for the slaughter of a sacred cow. Let’s keep the cow – and the Singapore son. Can we shift that line in the sand sometimes?





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An ex-journalist who can't get enough of the news after being in the business for 26 years

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