For fence-sitters on the Ben Davis National Service (NS) deferment saga, Ng Eng Hen’s defence of Mindef on Monday may have swayed them to the government’s side.
Responding to questions from MPs in the House on the episode, the Defence Minister reiterated Mindef’s reasons for rejecting Ben’s deferment application which was given earlier.
But it was Dr Ng’s revelation that Ben “is playing for Fulham FC as an English national, not a Singapore citizen”, which may tip the scale of public support to Mindef’s side.
After all, this entire episode is perched on whether Ben would be representing Singapore’s interests if he was granted deferment from serving the nation.
How would you be promoting Singapore’s national interest if you were playing as another nationality?
“Mindef is not privy to the contract signed between them, but we assume this published information is correct and that the father must have his reasons for doing so,” Dr Ng said.
Ben Davis was born in Thailand and possesses both British, Thai and Singapore passports. Under FIFA rules, he is eligible to play for any of the 3 countries.
If what Dr Ng said is true, then Mr Davis will have some explaining to do. There could indeed be a legitimate reason for his decision to let his son play as an English national. So we await his response.
In the meantime, as things now stand, it looks like Mindef made the right decision in rejecting Ben’s application.
On Monday, Dr Ng laid down the principles behind the institution of National Service 51 years ago, the policies which underline the granting of deferment and disruption applications, the facts on the Ben Davis case, and how Mindef had supported and accommodated sportsmen who had to also serve their NS.
It was a patient and stout defence of Mindef by Dr Ng.
Invoking what the late Dr Goh Keng Swee had once expressed, Dr Ng said “deep in his heart the average Singapore citizen knows the danger he faces are real and not hypothetical, and that there is a need to defend ourselves.”
This is why every Singaporean male has to serve his time in uniform, and to renege on this obligation brings harm to the nation. One cannot serve, to use a local military jargon, at one’s “own time own target”.
“When a person refuses to serve NS at the time that he is required to and instead returns to serve at a time of his own choosing, or worse, at an age when he can no longer serve, his actions strike at the very core of the principles of national security, universality and equity,” Dr Ng said.
The minister revealed that in the last year alone, 13 defaulters were prosecuted and jailed for desertion. They had given various reasons for not answering the call to enlist – ranging from wanting to complete their studies, to having to support their families.
“In every judgment, the Courts dismiss these personal reasons, convicted and sentenced them to jail terms,” Dr Ng said. “Harsh as it is, the Enlistment Act is blind to “personal convenience and considerations”, no matter how talented the individual or exceptional his circumstances. At the core of the Enlistment Act, the critical national need for a strong defence puts aside personal pursuits and mandates that each liable male performs his NS when required.”
So, will Ben return to serve NS?
Doubts were raised by Mr Davis’s own publicly reported remarks on this.
Dr Ng reiterated that Mr Davis has, in fact, “consistently refused to indicate when his son would return to serve NS.”
“[If] he was not granted deferment, the father indicated that Mr Ben Davis would still proceed to sign the contract, and he has done so,” Dr Ng said.
“In fact, Mr Harvey Davis went further after Mindef rejected the application – that he would consider the option for his son to renounce his Singapore citizenship in order to pursue his career.”
Mindef thus could not find any valid grounds to approve the application for deferment by Mr Harvey Davis for his son, Dr Ng said.
“There is no commitment to serve Singapore or our national interests,” Dr Ng said, referring to the Davis’s. “To grant deferment to Mr Ben Davis to pursue his personal development and professional career would be unfair to the many others who have served their NS dutifully as required, and not at a time of their choosing. It would also erode the basis on which our Courts have upheld the Enlistment Act passed by Parliament and punished those for not fulfilling their NS liabilities to pursue personal pursuits.”
But Dr Ng did not stop there. He also addressed concerns about whether Mindef’s seemingly strict rules would undermine the sporting ambitions of athletes, as some MPs asked.
“NS does require sacrifices, certainly personal ones, but performing one’s NS duties and pursuing national aspirations for sports excellence need not be mutually exclusive,” Dr Ng said.
He gave several examples of how athletes and sportsmen were able to do their NS without negatively impacting their sporting careers.
Some had even voluntarily asked to enlist early, including one of the sons of football legend Fandi Ahmad.
“To Mindef’s knowledge, there are three other footballers who have also been talent-spotted to take part in trials for professional leagues overseas,” the minister explained. “All three have completed their NS as required – Saifullah Akbar, Ikhsan and Irfan Fandi. In fact, Saifullah Akbar and Ikhsan Fandi asked to be enlisted early, presumably so that they could complete their NS early to pursue their professional careers.”
“All of us will certainly cheer them on to succeed,” Dr Ng said. “This is a good sign for football in Singapore and talented footballers, Ben Davis included, can emulate the example of Irfan, Saifullah and Ikhsan to complete both their NS duties as required and also advance their professional football careers.”
Ben Davis is only 17-years old and his future, even after almost 2 years of NS, remains bright. Innate talent does not disappear because of NS, as many have shown, although the level of one’s physical and mental abilities may be affected because of lack of training or being in a competitive environment.
And this indeed can have devastating consequences for a sportsman – just ask former World’s Fastest Man in the water over 50m, Ang Peng Siong.
Ang’s ambition to win Olympic gold for Singapore – and be the first to do so – was dashed when he was called up for NS in the 1980s. This scuppered his training, and indeed his physical fitness as well.
In fact, it destroyed his hope of winning that precious gold medal.
Ang was emotional when he spoke of how Joseph Schooling had won the Olympic gold for Singapore in 2016, a goal which Ang had wanted to win for Singapore decades earlier.
So, while we may support Mindef in this Ben Davis’s case, we also hope Mindef will be mindful of the consequences for some athletes who may not be able to train as they should at the highest level while they don the camouflage uniform.
As Dr Ng rightly said, serving the nation and pursuing sporting excellence are not mutually exclusive.
We hope Ben can fulfill his dreams, and remain a Singaporean and do good for Singapore football, alongside Fandi Ahmad’s sons.
Read Dr Ng’s full speech here on Mindef’s website.