By Alywin Chew
Singapore football has been a tragic mess for a very, very long time.
The way out of the rut is simple – talent development, which is, unfortunately, not so simple.
You see, talent development isn’t just about holding football clinics and getting top-notch coaches and scouts. It extends to even the intangible things like inculcating a love for the sport on a national level and, perhaps most importantly, supporting our footballers and their sporting dreams.
Most people would be quick to assume that we did not support Harry Birtwistle, who had his deferment request declined by the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF).
But there are several unknowns involved in this matter, such as whether he even saw himself playing for Singapore one day.
It doesn’t help that the facts laid out in the media are rather confusing.
According to the headline of this Yahoo article, Harry never wanted to renounce his Singapore citizenship. But the way his father’s statement was worded seems to suggest otherwise.
"From the beginning of 2017, I asked Mindef for deferment of national service, if necessary, pending renunciation of his Singapore citizenship when Harry turns 21 years old." – Harry’s father John Birtwistle
I think most of you reading this would agree with me that MINDEF was right not to grant him deferment if he had all along intended to renounce his citizenship. I mean, why grant the bugger a free pass if Singapore doesn’t stand to gain from his skills and experience in the English Premier League?
But it seems that the consensus on the ground is that MINDEF has been inflexible. The official statement that was released didn’t do much to paint MINDEF as an organisation that has the nation’s footballing aspirations at heart.
"Mr Harry Birtwistle is a Singapore Citizen who had stayed in Singapore and also carried a Singapore passport. Under the Enlistment Act, all male Singaporeans are required to serve National Service (NS) at age 18 or older. Mr Birtwistle's parents applied to renounce his Singapore Citizenship. His applications were rejected as renunciation should not be used as a means to evade NS duties.
"In his family's correspondences with the Ministry of Defence, they had stated that Mr Birtwistle will not be registering for NS.
"Since then, Mr Birtwistle failed to register for NS as required. He is also staying overseas without a valid Exit Permit. Mr Birtwistle has committed offences under the Enlistment Act."
I don’t know about you, but this seems like a taichi-esque statement, to me. It’s like a man who got caught in the act of adultery saying, “My wife stole a piece of candy from the convenience store. She’s a criminal.”
Unfortunately, MINDEF appears to have a track record of issuing statements that makes itself look like the bad guy.
Remember Ben Davis, the kid who signed for Fulham in 2018?
According to a Straits Time article written by Football Siao’s very own Shamir Osman, this was the official statement by MINDEF explaining their rejection of Davis’s deferment request:
"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 the last 15 years, only three have met this criteria."
This line of reasoning is problematic and it paints the powers that be as being rather clueless to how sports work.
You see, if we were to adhere to such a criteria, Singapore can very well forget about the World Cup in 2034. In fact, I reckon the world will come to an end due to global warming or TikTok addiction before we can even qualify for football’s grandest stage.
Why? Because an outstanding footballer can’t win matches on his own. He needs the support of his teammates. Case in point? Even five-time Ballon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo could not prevent his hapless Man United side from losing five-kosong to Liverpool.
As such, we need to take a chance on our young footballers. We need to be more generous at granting deferment to players who have signed contracts with certain foreign leagues.
There would be a catch, of course - those like Harry and Ben who also have citizenship in other countries must commit to playing for Singapore.
A move like that throws the ball back into their court. It’s like saying, “Okay. I’m willing to let you off. But you have to meet me in the middle.”
Should such players opt to give up their Singapore citizenship, it’s clearly them who will look bad. Should this happen, MINDEF can throw these boys under the
bus 5-tonner and no one would even bat an eyelid.
There’s another catch involved. Dual citizenship isn’t allowed in Singapore, which means players like Harry would need to give up their British citizenship to play for the Lions.
But with the English Football Association making it more difficult for English clubs to sign non-EU players, such players would need to hold onto their British passport to continue playing in England.
The solution? Allow special cases to hold dual nationality, lah.
We must be flexible in our approach to nurture football talent. The prerequisites for deferment must be revised. Entities like MINDEF and the Football Association of Singapore must work hand-in-hand to make Singapore’s World Cup dreams come true.
The impact that a stint in a foreign league could have on Singapore’s footballing aspirations is potentially massive.
Why? Because we are all products of our environment. Joseph Schooling didn’t win his Olympic gold by swimming laps at Clementi Swimming Complex. He won gold because he got to train with some of the best in the world in the United States.
Besides, getting to train with a top team at this particular stage in life is crucial to development. On the contrary, serving NS at this very moment in life has a negligible impact on our nation's defence. It’s not like the Singapore military is going to be crippled by a rising footballer’s temporary absence.
Imagine this: A Singapore-born footballer signs for a club like Norwich. He is brought on in the 80th minute in a match against Man City. He scores the winning goal. Thousands of Singaporeans watching the match on their televisions roar in unison and revel in the outburst of national pride. Think about the impact that such a moment could have on inspiring our younger generation to become professional footballers and galvanizing Singapore’s World Cup aspirations.
This is what holistic talent development should be about.
No, granting such players deferment does not open a can of worms and set a dangerous precedent. It’s not as if there are many Singaporean footballers who can ply their trade in competitive leagues around the world.
I’ve seen at least one netizen bring up naturalised Singaporean Ben Davis and how him “flopping” in England (he’s gone from Fulham to Oxford United) is an example that those who get to play in the top leagues don’t necessarily become top footballers.
One person even commented that Ben currently earns £690 a week at Oxford and should’ve passed on the opportunity at Fulham because he would likely make more money as a footballer in Singapore.
Look, money and success are not even relevant here. It’s the experience of playing at the higher level that truly matters. How many Singaporean footballers can claim to have such an experience? Such players could even use this experience to help their fellow Singapore national teammates improve. You could even argue that these players are flying the Singapore flag high in foreign leagues.
Like many people have already pointed out, we can certainly learn from other nations that have military conscription as well. Look at South Korea. They tweaked the rules and allowed players like Man United cult hero Park Ji-sung and Spurs hotshot Son Heung-min to flourish. Why can’t we do the same?
We just need to set reasonable thresholds for long-term deferment. We can even set up a task force to get this done if needed. After all, we seem very good at doing such things. I propose we call it FANDI - Football Atonement National Development Initiative.
Let’s be flexible. Let’s get into that darn World Cup.
This article, "For Singapore to reach the World Cup, we must first 'sliding tackle' NS deferment", originally appeared on Football Siao – Singapore’s craziest EPL website.