In a statement on Wednesday, the Ministry of Defence (Mindef) accused the family of 17-year old footballer Ben Davis of having “no intention of returning to fulfill their son’s NS duties.”
Mindef went further and charged: “(Benjamin’s) actions are meant to further his own professional career, not national interest. As his father openly admitted, he is looking out for his son’s future, not Singapore’s.”
Mindef’s accusation is baffling, when considered against the correspondences Ben’s family has had with various government departments (where they reiterated that Ben would serve NS), and Ben’s own remarks at different stages of his young footballing career so far.
The ministry’s statement was refuted by Ben’s father, Harvey Davis, later that evening.
Mr Davis said it was untrue that Ben does not intend to return to serve his military obligations. In fact, Mr Davis revealed, the family has always reiterated this in letters to Sport SG and the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth (MCCY).
“This point was reiterated in an email response which was sent to MCCY on 15 May,” Mr Davis said. “In that email, I had said very clearly that while renunciation was an option, it is “NOT” Ben’s intention at all as he would like to represent Singapore.”
Mr Davis added: “I had also made it clear that for “clarity, and for the record, I agree 100% that Ben should do his National Service. My older boy has already completed his NS and both Ben and his younger brother Jai will also complete their NS.”
Mr Davis already has one son who has done his NS, and has pledged – publicly – that his other two will do the same.
For Mindef to therefore make such a serious accusation against the young man and his family would require concrete evidence, which Mindef has not provided.
To simply conclude from what Mr Davis’ had said – that “renunciation was an option” – as evidence that there was intent is, really, to grasp at straws.
What Mr Davis said must be seen in context.
Here we have a situation which not many people in Singapore would face – a father whose son has been offered (and he has accepted) a professional contract with a Premier League club in England.
To any parent here, especially football-loving ones, nothing is more thrilling.
This presents to the son a unique and indeed precious opportunity to perhaps play with top English players, an opportunity which most can only dream of, not just those in Singapore but anywhere in the world.
Any parent in such a position would be elated, not only that their son is so talented, but the windows which will open up for their child. And there is nothing wrong in feeling so.
At the same time, the parents are also faced with a dilemma, one which they had hoped (and perhaps thought) could be resolved with honest discussion with the authorities.
In such a situation, having to decide between foregoing this golden opportunity and becoming a deserter, all options must naturally be considered. And that was what Mr Davis did, when he said that renunciation (of citizenship) would have to be considered.
But instead of understanding how difficult it is for the Davis family to make this decision, Mindef has chosen to denigrate them, and with nothing more than a presumptuous allegation.
Is Ben so ungrateful to Singapore, a country he has called home since 5, that he would so readily up and leave?
Let’s take a look.
Ben, who became a Singapore citizen in 2009, has represented his country at the Under-13, U-14, and U-16 levels. He has played for Singapore in the U-18s at the AFF U-18 Championships in 2016, and the AFC U-19 Championships qualifiers a month later.
When Ben was offered and signed the deal with Fulham last year, this was what his father said to the media: “It’s fantastic news for Singapore football … It shows that Singapore can produce footballers who can play at the highest level in the UK.”
It was Singapore that he was happy for, besides naturally being thrilled for his boy.
And when Ben himself was called up to the senior national team earlier this year, he too was elated that he could finally play for Singapore.
“I was pleasantly surprised to receive the call up and this moment means a lot to me as I have always wanted to play for the national team,” he said.
“My training at Fulham has been enriching and I am learning all the time. I will be making the most of this opportunity to learn from coach Sundram and the more experienced players whom I will be joining.”
This is hardly someone who would up and leave in a spur of the moment.
Also, as Mr Davis said, the family has kept Mindef and MCCY informed every step of the way on the situation with his son.
Couple this with Mr Davis’ unequivocal affirmation, in his letters and now in his public statements, that Ben would do his National Service, it is hard for any reasonable person to agree with Mindef’s unsubstantiated allegations.
As one person online asked: Can Mindef read minds?
Another said: “Ben Davis nor his father at any point expressed anything about not fulfilling NS duties – it is all conjecture from Mindef and is an unfair statement and add to that the unequal access to the media – this is just bullying.
“Mindef should just restate its stand without the character assassination.”
The Government has been concerned about fake news recently, and had even convened a Select Committee to look into the matter. It is thus necessary that government ministries be mindful that their public statements do not propagate such fake news, or falsehoods.
Or unsubstantiated allegations which are then disseminated by the mass media.
From the evidence presented, the benefit of the doubt, if indeed any is needed at all, must be given to Ben and his family.
They are put in a difficult position by a government policy which, incidentally, most would agree was well-intentioned: to ensure that everyone is treated fairly when it comes to national service.
Nonetheless, leadership demands that Mindef show some empathy, understanding and maturity in how it responds to the family’s concerns and predicament.
The last thing the Ministry of Defence, which is supposed to care for our sons when they are in service, should be doing is to belittle and make baseless allegations against them, they who will give of themselves – and their lives, if necessary – to serve the nation.
Mindef should do better.