Even as the media and the public question its policy on National Service (NS) postponement, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) continues to remain silent. However, the ministry revealed that from 2012 to 2017, some 114 scholars were granted disruptions from their NS.
Yahoo Singapore on 23 July, in an op-ed by its Assistant News Editor, said that queries to the ministry on the apparent double-standards of its policy went unanswered.
Namely, the controversy surrounds Mindef’s disruption policy. Recipients of Public Service Commission (PSC) Overseas Merit scholarships are given disruption, after serving basic military training (BMT), to further their studies in another country.
This privilege – to disrupt in order to pursue overseas studies – is not given to anyone else, unless under very special situations, which is rare.
The public outcry over the disparity in the policy surfaced when 17-year old footballer Ben Davis’ application for deferment from NS was rejected. Ben had signed a 2-year professional contract with English Premier League side, Fulham last year. He is scheduled to be enlisted into military service at the end of this year, a situation which will not enable him to fulfill his professional obligations to his new club.
Mindef has since accused the Davis family of having “no intention” to return to Singapore for Ben to fulfill his NS responsibilities if he was granted deferment, a claim which some saw as irrational since the Davis’ have already public stated they want Ben to serve his NS, as his elder brother did.
Harvey Davis, Ben’s father, refuted Mindef’s allegation and said in a statement that it has also been made known to the authorities that Ben would serve, and that it was just a question of when.
“Mindef declined to respond to Yahoo News Singapore‘s queries on why this policy on automatic disruptions for scholars is in place, why academic achievements are seemingly favoured over sporting ones and whether it would consider revising the deferment criteria for sportsmen,” Nicholas Yong, the website’s assistant editor wrote on Monday.
“But Mindef did reveal that some 114 scholars were granted disruptions between 2012 and 2017,” he added.
Do note the difference between NS deferment and disruption. (See this Mindef handbook.) Basically, deferment refers to pre-enlistment applications, while disruption refer to postponement of NS after having served some months of BMT (and Officer Cadet School). Those who did not apply for deferment but whose course studies begin after having been enlisted can also apply for disruption.
PSC scholars, however, are automatically given NS disruptions, after serving six to 10 months of NS.
In the last 15 years, only 3 deferments, including one for Olympic champion Joseph Schooling, were granted to sportsmen, while in the last 5 years alone, 114 were granted to scholars.
That is an average of 23 deferments given to scholars each year.
“Such special consideration is only given to PSC scholarship holders as it is an important conduit for bringing key talent into the Public Service,” Minister of Defence, Ng Eng Hen, told Parliament in 2006.
Following the Ben Davis saga, former Non-constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), Yee Jenn Jong, questioned why scholars were given this special privilege of postponing their NS duties. He asked if they should be required, as everyone else is, to serve their NS without such privilege.
Mindef, in responding to the Ben Davis controversy, had claimed that its rejection of Ben’s deferment application was because to grant it would be “unfair” to all male Singaporeans who sacrifice their personal ambitions to serve the nation.
Mindef described Ben’s Fulham endeavours as “personal pursuits” which did not merit NS derferment.
Mr Yong, however, pointed out:
“But it is clear that many of the arguments made against Davis – there is no guarantee that he will make it as a professional footballer, he is pursuing personal and not national interests, it would be unfair to other servicemen – can also be applied to scholars.”
He highlighted how scholars (although not PSC scholars) had broken their bonds, leading to then A*Star chairman Philip Yeo deciding to name and shame them publicly.
“Even President’s Scholars are not immune to falling by the wayside – while this reporter was serving NS, one was stripped of his scholarship for misbehaving while studying overseas,” Mr Yong said.
“Furthermore, it would be disingenuous to claim that scholars only have the nation’s interests at heart, given that they are getting a free education and a job once they graduate. It does not take a scholar to see that personal aspirations and national interests are not mutually exclusive.”
Mr Yong concluded:
“For all that talk of Passion Made (Im)Possible and Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s waxing lyrical about what young people can achieve when they are encouraged, talented sportsmen like Davis who are chasing that rainbow may find themselves being tackled prematurely by unyielding red tape.”
Passion Made Possible is the 2018 tagline of the Singapore Tourism Board’s international campaign.
Meanwhile, Ben Davis’ footballing career with Fulham hangs in the balance as the double-standards controversy continues, even as Mindef remains silent about it.