COMMENT: Singapore’s National Service obligations need clarity in a global world

Singapore Armed Forces personnel perform a drill during National Day celebrations on 9 August, 2013. (Reuters file photo)
Singapore Armed Forces personnel perform a drill during National Day celebrations on 9 August, 2013. (Reuters file photo)

by Daniel Yap

He was born and educated in Thailand, served in the Royal Thai Army and is no longer a Singapore citizen. Yet Ekawit Tangtrakarn, 24, now faces a potential jail term of nine weeks for defaulting on his national service (NS) obligations.

Ekawit, whose mother is Singaporean and father is Thai, pleaded guilty on Tuesday (28 August) to remaining outside Singapore without a valid exit permit, the typical charge for NS defaulters.

The Thai national’s case follows closely on the revelation that Crazy Rich Asians author Kevin Kwan, who left Singapore at age 11, is “wanted” here for a similar offence.

Unlike Kwan, Ekawit’s case has received far more public sympathy. He has no substantial connections to Singapore. His citizenship by descent was registered by his mother when he was a year old, but he ceased to be a citizen by descent after he failed to take the Oath of Renunciation, Allegiance and Loyalty by age 22.

The two cases struck close to home. I have just relocated my family to Finland, my wife’s home country. My children are citizens of both Finland and Singapore, although they currently only hold Singapore passports. Four of them have NS liabilities.

I am not the only one. While no statistics have ever been published on how many Singaporeans also hold another passport (in essence dual-citizens), the Population In Brief 2017 report shows that between 2006 and 2016, the percentage of marriages in the Republic between a Singapore citizen and a non-citizen was between 36 and 41 per cent. In other words, children from more than one third of all unions could potentially be de-facto dual citizens.

The numbers before 2006 may be very similar. Singapore has long been a global hub, where international trade is facilitated by multi-national labour. There is no reason to think that the statistic will change significantly in the coming decade.

What about my sons?

A military contingent from the Singapore Armed Forces at the National Day Parade celebrations at The Float at Marina Bay on 9 August 2018.
A military contingent from the Singapore Armed Forces at the National Day Parade celebrations at The Float at Marina Bay on 9 August, 2018. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

I remember clearly the phone conversation I had this year with a Ministry of Defence (Mindef) officer who was supposed to answer my questions about dual citizenship and NS. The call was as informative as it was confusing.

An earlier call to the Immigration and Checkpoint Authority (ICA) had only revealed that renunciation of Singapore citizenship is impossible until age 21. Mindef had the rest of the information I needed. It was as the recent reports had clarified: NS liability under the Enlistment Act begins at 16 and a half, but my children will need exit permits when they turn 13 (I, too, will need an exit permit until I turn 50).

I was concerned about the bond. Four children at $75,000 each is the price of an apartment. The officer assured me that the bond was only for exit permits longer than two years. As long as I was happy to renew the exit permit every two years, I needn’t worry about the bond.

Finland allows dual citizenship and for minors to renounce their citizenship. It also has mandatory national service. Should my children serve in the Finnish Army first, would they also be able to serve in the SAF? Or vice versa? The answer was yes – there is no restriction against serving in multiple militaries, at least from Mindef’s point of view. That answer struck me as oddly pragmatic for a country that doesn’t allow dual citizenship.

I asked specifically if any of my sons, especially considering that one of them is only a year old, could theoretically give up their citizenship without serving NS. I don’t recall the precise answer, but I was given the clear impression that it was a negative. Perhaps the officer merely repeated the point that renunciation was impossible until age 21, and that enlistment is at age 18. Was it phrased to say “no” without saying “no”? In any case, that was the only answer I could get out of her.

A shroud of secrecy

In 2006, Deputy Prime Minister and then Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean said that “only those who have emigrated at a young age and have not enjoyed substantial socio-economic benefits are allowed to renounce their citizenship without serving national service.”

Given that one cannot renounce citizenship until the age of 21, and that NS liability begins at age 16 and a half, it is unclear how this is accomplished, and the authorities are tight-lipped on how a Singaporean might access this conditional right to renounce their citizenship without serving NS.

It is also unclear how the Enlistment Act applies to persons from the age of 16 and a half, but has provisions for persons aged 13 in its section on Exit Permits, with the addition of the undefined term “relevant child”.

It is especially unclear why Ekawit is being charged for defaulting on his NS obligations, given what Teo had said. The period of his offence corresponds to his age from about the date of his conscription until the end of his citizenship.

The shroud of secrecy as well as the eagerness to prosecute even those defaulters who left at a young age may stem from a fear that Singaporeans will exercise such an option once we know it is on the table. While the implications of having a large chunk of our population leave that way are significant, it sets up a strange paradox – Singapore recognizes that there is a point before which a male child is expected to be fully liable for NS, but sets up its visible laws and regulations such that there is a de-facto liability from birth (or at the point of becoming a citizen).

Are we so fearful of ingratitude and disloyalty that we would act in such a way? Does our lack of confidence in our citizens to stay loyal show our inadequacy for the global stage, or are we just more wise to the risks of globalisation? In any case, we ought to expect that our laws be clear, consistent and properly communicated.

It is easy to say that nothing needs to change because nothing is really broken. Why risk a flood of wantaway Singaporeans by marking the exit path clearly?

But something is already broken: boys like Ekawit Tangtrakarn are paying the price for our neuroses. And if Singapore cannot do right for this one estranged former son, all the future sons of Singapore, especially those with a choice of which nationality to identify with, would think twice before joining the family.

Daniel Yap was the publisher of defunct news portal The Middle Ground. He blogs about society and policy at The views expressed are his own.

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