News Reports

Ben Davis is no Joseph Schooling

Dr Ng Eng Hen didn’t just shut the door on Ben Davis’ application to defer his National Service stint. He locked and bolted it.

In fact, he was tougher than the Mindef statements on the youth’s aspiration to play for English club Fulham, which has led to some pretty polarizing discussions on the internet. It wasn’t just about deferment for “exceptional talent’’ (you might as well use “exceptional circumstances’’ too) but exceptional talent that serves the national interest, said the Defence Minister. As far as Mindef was concerned, Ben Davis was putting aside his citizen’s obligation to pursue a personal interest.

It was by far the most convincing statement I’ve heard about the rejection of the youth’s application. Dr Ng referred to the Enlistment Act which made plain that all male citizens must be treated equally and should not be allowed to enlist at their “own personal convenience and choosing’’. The judiciary too had emphasized “equity’’ when it upped sentencing benchmarks for NS defaulters last year. So far, 13 such defaulters have gone to jail.

There were little nuggets of information that Dr Ng let fall which hadn’t been widely canvassed in the media. One of them: That Davis would be playing for Fulham as an Englishman and, according to Fifa rules, he will always have to play as an Englishman or for England. That sort of puts to rest arguments that he be allowed to hone his professional footballing skills abroad so that he can bring glory to Singapore at a later date.

The youth’s father, Harvey Davis, didn’t come out looking good at all in Dr Ng’s ministerial statement. Mr Davis wouldn’t give a time frame for his son’s return to do NS. In fact, the senior Davis’ pronouncements made it clear that he intends for his son to pursue a professional footballing career for as long as he can, said Dr Ng. He had said, for example, that Ben could be given an extended contract by Fulham, be sold or loaned to other clubs or sign up with another club. He had also raised the notion of renouncing citizenship.

“The application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son’s deferment is to further his son’s professional career first and to the longest extent possible… Singapore and her interests, including his son’s NS obligations, are secondary consideration, if at all.’’

Whether he intended to or not, Dr Ng pointed to a possible pecuniary incentive for the Davis’ posture. Mr Davis had said the successful deferment would be an inspiration for the students registered with his company Junior Soccer School and League Singapore (JSSL). It is a youth football club and academy business run by Mr Davis and “advertises itself as having links to Fulham FC”. It also has 500 Singapore youths…

He also suggested that after receiving hundreds of pounds playing for Fulham, and possibly a lot more later, the youth would be unlikely to return to Singapore.

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Did the ministerial statement answer all the questions that have shrouded the NS enlistment issue?

In some ways, yes. Deferment is a privilege and comes with strings attached. Swimmers like Joseph Schooling have benchmarks to meet – or risk having his deferment curtailed. Dr Ng also spoke of medical students who are allowed to defer their stint but this was because they would serve as medical officers during their NS. In 1992, Singapore disallowed deferment for those pursuing overseas medical degrees, because enough doctors were produced locally.

While Dr Ng appeared to have used the term deferment and disruption inter-changeably, he didn’t touch on the issue of Government scholars who seem to have been given some leeway on national service. He should have, because the concern isn’t just over the building of sporting or artistic talent, but how it is balanced against developing young people with good grades.

Nor did he talk about the conscription systems in other countries such as South Korea, which is popularly believed to be less stringent in its enlistment requirements. Perhaps, it was because no MP raised the point, which is a pity.

There was a question from MP Lim Wee Kiat, who asked if the youth would have got his deferment if a deadline on his return was pledged. Dr Ng went back to first principles – was this in the youth’s personal interest or the national interest?

The door has been shut, locked and bolted. I think Dr Ng also threw away the key.

Further reading

© 2022 Bertha Henson

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