COMMENT: Why does Mindef value scholars over sportsmen?

Nicholas Yong
Assistant News Editor
PHOTO: MINDEF

Amid the furore over footballer Ben Davis and his quest to defer his National Service (NS), the irony of it all is this: if the 17-year-old had excelled in his studies rather than in sports, it would not even be an issue.

Current and former Public Service Commission (PSC) scholars told Yahoo News Singapore that they are typically granted an automatic disruption from NS after they have completed a three-month Basic Military Training stint. This applies for both overseas and local scholars. The remainder of their NS obligations can also count towards fulfilling their bond.

Students who have obtained places in certain local universities and served at least a year of NS and medical students pursuing their courses in Singapore are also eligible for disruption.

By comparison, only three Singapore athletes have met the Ministry of Defence’s (Mindef) criteria for deferment – which is not the same as disruption – in the last 15 years. “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,” said Mindef in a recent statement. By this standard, Fulham signee Davis does not “meet the criteria for long-term deferment”, it added.

A former scholar who served out the full length of his bond said, “This double standard imparts the value judgment that civil servants are a class above sportsmen.”

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. But Mindef did reveal that some 114 scholars were granted disruptions between 2012 and 2017.

In 2006, then Second Minister for Defence Ng Eng Hen also told Parliament that among scholarship holders, only PSC scholars are given “special consideration” for disruption after serving six to 10 months of NS to pursue tertiary studies, before returning to complete the remainder of their NS. He also revealed that, at the time, about 30 scholars were granted such early disruptions annually.

“Such special consideration is only given to PSC scholarship holders as it is an important conduit for bringing key talent into the Public Service,” said Ng.

A double standard?

The Football Association of Singapore has said that it ‘strongly supports’ Ben Davis’ NS deferment. PHOTO: Jose Raymond/SPIN

So why not have a similar disruption arrangement for Davis, the first Singaporean to be taken on professionally by a top-flight English football club, and other promising athletes like him? This query also went unanswered by Mindef.

According to the PSC website, the PSC Scholarship is the “premier government scholarship”, awarded on the basis of merit to outstanding young men and women who have chosen a career in the Public Service. In return for sponsored study, they serve a bond of up to six years in various government agencies.

So why do PSC scholars deserve “special consideration” but outstanding young sportsmen do not? Perhaps it is all down to the national fixation with academic achievements and quantifiable results, not to mention a risk-averse approach to all things. After all, the career of an athlete is shorter than most, with no guarantee of medals or honours.

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.

Over the years, there have been well-documented cases of scholars breaking their bonds. In 1998, then Economic Development Board chairman Philip Yeo even made the controversial decision to publicly name the agency’s bond-breakers (though they were not PSC scholars).

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.

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.

Sporting struggles

It is baffling Mindef cannot recognise that, just like any other national sportsman, Davis is also representing Singapore in the English Premier League. If he makes it as a pro, how much pride would we take in being able to say, “We have a Singaporean playing in the EPL”?

But the chances of Davis being granted deferment or disruption now seem remote, given Mindef’s latest statement claiming that he had “no intention of returning” to Singapore to fulfill his NS obligations. Perhaps Mindef did not take well to his father Harvey’s public remarks that his son would consider giving up citizenship if his appeal for deferment were to fail.

This apparent hardening of Mindef’s position does not bode well for Davis and Singapore athletes in general. It sends the message that the current policy on sportsmen will remain unchanged, and that their sporting potential, no matter how great, takes second place in the grand scheme of things. How many potential athletes would look at how Mindef has handled the Ben Davis saga, and conclude that the pursuit of their sporting ambitions would only ever have limited support from the powers that be?

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.

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