We’ve Scored an Own-Goal


These uplifting words were prominently displayed in Bishan-Ang Mo Kio Park in the week of the 2016 Chingay Parade. Do they ring true or ring hollow?

What impeccable timing – on the day of the FIFA World Cup Finals, the Ministry of Defence announced that the first Singaporean to enter the English Premier League will not be allowed to defer his National Service enlistment. I don’t care too much for football, but I imagine that this is sad news for Singaporean football fans.

Actually, I think it’s a killjoy for all Singaporeans. The news that Ben Davis, a 17-year-old Singaporean who recently signed a two-year contract with Fulham FC, is legally required to postpone his dream of playing in the EPL was greeted with derision, frustration and despair by netizens.

MINDEF claimed in its statement that “it would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development”. It also stated that in sports, “deferments are granted only to those who represent Singapore in international competitions like the Olympic Games and are potential medal winners for Singapore”.

In response, many netizens have advised Davis to give up his Singaporean citizenship and chase his dream. Some have even assured him that Singaporeans will bear no grudge against him.

Besides offering a window into the general sentiment of Singaporeans, some of these online comments put forth compelling arguments against MINDEF’s decision, which are worth contemplating.

Davis’ sporting career is a form of national service

One of the sentiments expressed by netizens is that Davis is proudly flying the Singapore flag on the global sporting stage by playing in the world’s most popular football league. While the Government’s perspective is that Davis is merely seeking to further his own career, several were quick to point out that his achievement serves a greater purpose – to inspire young sporting talent, and to broaden our society’s definition of excellence.

As one person commented on the CNA article, “our idea of national service needs to be updated”.

Just imagine – Davis’ Singaporean heritage is going to be mentioned every time he plays in an EPL match. But he will not only be an ambassador for Singapore. In the same way that Joseph Schooling’s victory united and inspired Singaporeans, Davis has the potential to become a rallying point for Singaporeans.

In “Total Defence” parlance, Davis can contribute to strengthening our social and psychological defence by giving us something to be proud of as a nation, and by demonstrating that Singaporeans are free to pursue their dreams. On the contrary, MINDEF’s announcement has discouraged Singaporeans, many of whom have encouraged Davis to flee the country – like a prisoner escaping a bleak jail cell.

Davis’ success is the reason we serve NS

Other commenters have lamented that a country that pours cold water on a young boy’s dreams is not worth defending.

One of our most popular army songs asks the question, “Have you ever wondered, why must we serve?” The response: “Because we love our land, and we want it to be free…”

These lyrics remind us that the safety and security of our nation is not the ultimate goal of NS. We stand ready to protect our nation so that all its citizens can live meaningful lives, free to pursue their values and ambitions. We deter aggression to guard and preserve the lives of our fellow citizens, but we do so believing that those lives can be lived to the fullest.

Of course, MINDEF is right to say that “all male Singaporeans liable for full-time NS put aside personal pursuits to dutifully enlist and serve their NS”. What is implied is that if every Singaporean son has to put his dreams on hold for two years, Davis should do so as well. But this ignores the fact that Davis’ opportunity is time-sensitive. As many netizens have argued, he will no longer be at the top of his game after two years of NS and will miss the opportunity of a lifetime. Public sector scholars, on the other hand, can still pursue further studies after two years of NS, and yet they are still offered deferment.

Davis is even more “local” than Schooling

This episode has naturally invited comparisons between Davis and Schooling, who was granted two NS deferments to continue training for the Olympics. Davis’ father declared, “If Joseph had not been given the deferment and opportunity he would never have won the Olympics.” MINDEF also preempted the inevitable reference to Schooling by stating that deferments are only granted to those who represent Singapore in international sporting competitions and are potential medal-winners for the country.

In this TOC article, reference is made to a Facebook comment highlighting the irony of this comparison. The netizen points out that Schooling spent most of his training years outside Singapore and was granted deferment, while Davis spent most of his time training locally but is told to serve his duty first – all because the former could (and did) bring back an Olympic medal, while the latter is seen to be merely “serving his own interests”.

Davis still intends to serve NS

Davis’ father has stated that he wants his son to return to fulfil his NS obligation. Several online comments stress that he is not asking for exemption. His father stated in no uncertain terms that Ben will serve in the military, just like his older brother has. He also claims that he has been “completely transparent with the authorities”, keeping them informed of his son’s scholarship and contract with Fulham FC.

But what if Davis decides to continue playing in the EPL beyond 2020? It’s certainly possible that after experiencing the thrill of professional football for two years, he would want to keep going. At the same time, however, it seems like Davis is quite strongly rooted in Singapore. He grew up in Singapore, studied in the Singapore Sports School, and has a father who recognises the importance of his three sons serving their country. He’s also close to his family, and is probably not going to jeopardise his citizenship by defaulting on his NS obligation.

It’s impossible to predict what Davis will do beyond 2020 if he is granted deferment from NS. But in the eyes of many Singaporeans, now that Davis has been denied deferment, the logical course of action is to give up his Singapore passport rather than give up on his dream. After all, he still has British citizenship. In other words, Davis is almost guaranteed to leave Singapore if he is not granted deferment.

Presented with this pragmatic argument, the Government may respond that the principles of equality and fairness in military conscription should be upheld. But pragmatism has trumped principle before. Michael Fay was given four strokes of the cane instead of six when President Bill Clinton intervened. Our government also gave its assurance to the British authorities that David Roach, the StanChart robber, will not be caned if he is extradited to Singapore.

Even then, in granting deferment to Davis, principle isn’t really being sacrificed on the altar of pragmatism. The principle of fairness in military conscription recognises that deferment should be allowed in certain deserving cases, and a strong argument can be made that Davis deserves deferment.

Davis’ father and the Football Association of Singapore are appealing MINDEF’s decision. I sincerely hope that Davis’ deferment is granted, and that he does return not only to fulfil his NS obligation but also to revive Singapore’s floundering sports scene.

Ben Davis has worked extremely hard to achieve his aspirations. Judging from online reactions, the decision to bar Davis from pursuing his own goals may be an own-goal in itself.


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