Foreign parents of Singaporean boys worry over NS-related issues

Wan Ting Koh
Reporter
File photo

UPDATE: Story updated to address the citizenship status of a Singapore-born child who has a foreign parent and a Singaporean parent according to the Constitution. 

When Eric Tee read about the conviction of a Thailand-born man over his failure to meet his national service (NS) obligations in Singapore, he worried whether his 21-month-old son might face similar problems in future.

The 44-year-old Singaporean and his American wife have been thinking about the case as their son holds both Singapore and US citizenships.

Tee, a product manager, noted that Ekawit Tangtrakarn, a 24-year-old Thai whose mother registered her son for Singaporean citizenship when he was one, didn’t derive significant benefits of being a citizen here.

“If you benefited from the government, you had education here or used up government benefits, you should be liable for NS. But for the case of the Thai kid, he didn’t go through the Singapore education system. I feel like it’s unfair for him, for the family,” said Tee, whose wife is a Singapore permanent resident.

Tee is among a number of parents with foreign spouses who face the possibility of their sons violating NS obligations should they migrate to other countries. These parents spoke to Yahoo News Singapore about the implications of any long-term move overseas for their sons in the wake of Ekawit’s case, and urged flexibility from the authorities on the issue.

On Tuesday (28 August), Ekawit, who has a Thai father and grew up in Bangkok, pleaded guilty in a Singapore court to one count of staying overseas without an exit permit.

The case has also put a spotlight on the dilemma that Singaporean males face should they wish to renounce their citizenship. Ekawit’s mother told Singapore authorities that she wished to renounce her son’s Singapore citizenship but was told that Ekawit could do so only after turning 21.

Ekawit was stripped of his Singapore citizenship as he failed to take the Oath of Renunciation, Allegiance and Loyalty (Oral) within 12 months from the age of 21. 

Many netizens who have followed Ekawit’s case questioned why a Singaporean male who could only renounce his citizenship at 21 is obligated to do NS before that. Under the law, Singaporean males are liable for NS registration from the age of 16.5 years old.

One father, an Australian citizen with a nine-year-old Singaporean son, told Yahoo News Singapore that the age for renunciation of citizenship should be lowered. The logistics company director, who only wants to be known as Williams, is married to a Singaporean banking executive.

While he has no intention of moving his family overseas for now, he said that Ekawit’s case has made him concerned.

“That is a doubt or concern in my mind. If we move back to Australia tomorrow, what would happen to my son having to come back to do national service? The fact that he can’t renounce his Singapore citizenship (before the age of NS liability) is crazy,” the 48-year-old said.

Parents like Tee and Williams also have to deal with the issue of exit permits once their sons become teenagers if they were to relocate overseas for a significant period of time.

Singaporean males are required to apply for exit permits from the age of 13 should they stay overseas for three months or longer. If the overseas stay is longer than two years, they are required to put up a bond amount of $75,000, or an amount equivalent to 50 per cent of the combined annual income of their parents for the preceding year, whichever is higher. The bond comes in the form of a banker’s guarantee.

In Ekawit’s case, his mother had failed to put up an exit permit for her son despite being reminded twice through email from the Central Manpower Base, the body that oversees NS enlistees. According to court documents submitted by Ekawit’s lawyer, the family could not afford the bond amount.

Tee noted that the bond amount for an exit permit was “quite high” and that some affected families would face difficulties in fulfilling the requirement. In his case, Tee said he might have to consider such a scenario if his family were to care for his wife’s aging parents in the US in future.

For Daniel Yap, a Singaporean who is married to a Finnish citizen, the bond amount would be a bigger concern – the couple has four sons and the family is presently residing in Finland. In a Yahoo News Singapore commentary, Yap flagged his concern that the bond amount that he may have to put up is equivalent to the cost of an apartment in Singapore.

Lawyers weigh in 

When asked by Yahoo News Singapore, lawyers said the relevant statutes are clear for Singaporean males as far as NS obligations are concerned: serve NS before you are allowed to renounce your citizenship.

This means that even if a Singaporean male intends to renounce his citizenship upon turning 21, he has no choice but to serve his NS first, or be liable to prosecution.

Lawyer Paul Loy said that his firm has occasionally come across cases of parents who had left Singapore “without fully appreciating the gravity” of their sons’ NS obligations.

Ekawit was convicted despite having “limited actual connection or ties to Singapore”, according to Loy. The case underscores the state’s position that the requirement for male Singaporeans to fulfill their NS obligations is “paramount”, Loy said.

Loy and lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam pointed out that under the Constitution, a child born in Singapore to a foreign parent and a Singaporean parent shall be a Singapore citizen by virtue of his birth.

The exceptions to this rule are if both parents are foreigners; “his father was an enemy alien and the birth occurred in a place then under the occupation of the enemy; or his father, not being a citizen of Singapore, possessed such immunity from suit and legal process as is accorded to an envoy of a sovereign power accredited to the President”, according to the Constitution.

On the $75,000 bond amount, Thuraisingam said there are no provisions in the legislation that address the situation of affected families who can’t afford the guarantee.

Loy pointed out that there are some misconceptions that NS defaulters are typically punished with fines and not imprisonment. He said that the High Court set out new sentencing benchmarks last year that peg the penalties for NS dodgers to the length of their default period.

Under the benchmarks, those who default for two to six years face a jail term of two to four months, while those who dodge NS for seven to 10 years face a sentence of five to eight months’ jail. For those who evade NS for 11 to 16 years, they face a jail term of 14 to 22 months while who do so for at least 17 years may be jailed between 24 months and 36 months.

For NS defaulters who are convicted, their voluntary pleas of guilt or voluntary early surrender would be considered possible mitigating factors, Loy added.

Thuraisingam noted that of particular interest is that the extent of an NS defaulter’s connection to Singapore is not a factor in the sentencing process.

“This is because the assessment of the degree of the defaulter’s connection to Singapore is within the prerogative of the Ministry of Defence (Mindef), and as such, is a matter of Mindef policy, not law,” he said.

Yahoo News Singapore has reached out to Mindef on the issue of NS obligations for young Singaporean males with dual citizenships or who have stayed overseas for a considerable period of time.

Loyalty to the nation

Ekawit’s case and that of Crazy Rich Asians’ Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan, who is a wanted man in Singapore for failing to register for NS, have highlighted to parents like Tee about the intertwined issues of national allegiance and NS obligations.

To ensure that his family wouldn’t face NS-related complications in future, Tee said he would make his son feel “rooted enough” in Singapore to want to serve his NS.

“The only option now is for him to go through national service. Even if he wants to renounce in the future, it is a safer option to fulfill NS first,” he said.

But for Williams, it is pointless to compel Singaporean males to serve NS if they were to renounce their citizenship and would not be present in Singapore in the event of a war.

“It gets down to the crux of what is the point of…dragging them back (from overseas) to Singapore when they obviously don’t want to live here and putting them through NS, which costs taxpayers’ money, when they are not even going to be there to serve the country.

“If he doesn’t want to live here, don’t make him do NS but take his passport away. It is as simple as that,” he said.

Find the Yahoo Story Contest question: What can be done to help Singaporean boys who have stayed overseas for years feel committed to doing national service? [Contest is closed]

Related stories:

Thai citizen born in Bangkok pleads guilty to defaulting on NS in Singapore

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

Yahoo Poll: Should male citizens with little connection to Singapore be made to serve NS?

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ author Kevin Kwan wanted in Singapore for defaulting on national service