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

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)
Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) personnel. (Yahoo News Singapore file photo)

He was born and raised in Thailand, and graduated from Thammasat University Bangkok. Ekawit Tangtrakarn, a 24-year-old Thai national whose mother is Singaporean and whose father is Thai, even served three years in the Royal Thai Army.

But on Tuesday (28 August), Ekawit, who was also a Singapore citizen until he was 22, pleaded guilty to one count of remaining outside the Republic without a valid exit permit between 17 April 2010 and 16 October 2015 in the Singapore State Courts. Ekawit’s actions are a breach of the Enlistment Act.

Another charge under the same section, but relating to the period between 17 October 2006 and 16 April 2010, was taken into consideration for his sentencing.

This is the first case of its kind where a National Service defaulter coming back to face charges was not liable for NS at the time of the charges for the sole reason that by then, he was no longer a Singapore citizen or permanent resident, according to the prosecution.

The charge comes about because Ekawit did not fulfil his National Service obligations, even though he ceased to be a Singapore citizen in 2015. Ekawit was registered as a Singaporean citizen by his mother when he was one even though the family had moved to Thailand before he was born.

Ekawit was no longer a Singapore citizen as from 17 October 2015, when he didn’t take the Oath of Renunciation, Allegiance and Loyalty (Oral) within 12 months from the age of 21.

Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) Mansoor Amir asked the court for a sentence of nine weeks for Ekawit, as a key sentencing consideration is general deterrence for this and all NS defaulter cases.

The accused only returned to Singapore when he was no longer liable to serve since he is no longer a Singapore citizen, said the DPP. After being classified as an NS defaulter, he was advised on two occasions to return, but chose to pursue his university studies instead.

DPP Mansoor noted that while the usual sentence should have been 14 weeks, the prosecution was willing to give Ekawit a five week “discount” as he had voluntarily surrendered himself.

Ekawit Tangtrakarn, 24, leaving the State Courts after pleading guilty. (PHOTO: Wan Ting Koh/Yahoo News Singapore)
Ekawit Tangtrakarn, 24, leaving the State Courts after pleading guilty. (PHOTO: Wan Ting Koh/Yahoo News Singapore)

In Ekawit’s defence

Ekawit’s lawyer, S Radakrishnan, said that his client had no reason to believe that he would still be liable to serve in the armed forces of a country that he did not really understand or had links to.

“For all intents and purposes, (Ekawit) was born, lived, studied, served national service and found a job in Thailand, and identifies as a Thai national. He has spent his entire life to date residing in Thailand,” said Radakrishnan.

“He has never received any benefits from any social, economic, or educational services rendered by the Singapore government or its statutory boards.”

Apart from short visits to his grandmother who lives here, Ekawit never lived in Singapore long enough to comprehend the gravity of the charges he is facing now, added the lawyer.

Ekawit’s mother Genevieve Lim was the only one who kept in touch with the Central Manpower Base (CMPB), a unit under the Ministry of Defence that oversees National Service enlistees.

When Ekawit was seven years old, she flew to Singapore and informed CMPB that her son wished to renounce his Singapore citizenship. However, she was told that he could only do so at the age of 21.

According to Radakrishnan, Lim also flew to Singapore when Ekawit was 14, to apply for an exit permit for him. However, she was unable to afford the S$75,000 bond that was required to secure the exit permit.

Ekawit’s father, the sole breadwinner of the family, only earned a monthly salary of 25,000 Baht (S$1048.03), the lawyer told the court. The family could not find anyone else to execute the bond on their behalf.

Radakrishnan added that Ekawit voluntarily “surrendered himself and decided to travel to Singapore personally to assist in investigations and face the charges bravely as he had genuinely wished for the matter to be resolved.”

Ekawit, who works as an application engineer in Thailand, wishes to continue his life there and has no intention of obtaining Singapore citizenship in the future.

Radakrishnan therefore asked for a hefty fine, as a jail sentence would be “manifestly excessive”.

The prosecution responds

When asked by Judge John Ng if the prosecution was disputing that Ekawit was a Thai national from the day he was born, DPP Mansoor said no. However, at the material time of the offences, Ekawit was a Singapore citizen.

And it was untrue that Ekawit had not benefited from being a Singapore citizen, as Ekawit had used his Singapore passport to travel in and out of the country on one occasion.

Ekawit’s mother was also reminded on two occasions by CMPB via email – in 2006 and 2007 – to apply for an exit permit for her son without paying the bond first. Over the years, Lim remained in regular contact with CMPB, which gave both advice and warnings to her.

In an email exchange in 2006, when the accused was 12, Lim said that she had informed her son about “the implication and the duties” he would have to “perform” if he wished to hold on to his Singapore citizenship. Having understood the situation, Ekawit decided to continue his education in Thailand.

But in another exchange in 2007, Lim told CMPB that her son had asked how he could serve in an army which he had no loyalty for.

Further, said the DPP, his insubstantial connection to Singapore is not a mitigating factor. If this was so, others would be able to evade NS simply by saying they had no connection to Singapore.

The fact that Ekawit served in the Thai army is irrelevant: what matters is that he was not here to serve NS when required to, added Mansoor.

The DPP also noted that one of the reasons Ekawit returned to the Republic to resolve his NS offences was to avoid any trouble should he need to travel Singapore in the future for work.

Judge Ng told the court, “(This is) not a simple, not an easy case.” He adjourned the case to 18 September, when Ekawit will be sentenced.

Under the Enlistment Act, all male Singapore citizens and permanent residents aged 13 and above are required to apply for an exit permit if they have stayed overseas from a young age or study overseas. This is to ensure that they return to Singapore to fulfil their NS obligations, according to the CMPB website.

For the charge of remaining outside of Singapore without a valid exit permit from when he was 16 to 21 years old, Ekawit can be fined up to $10,000 or jailed up to three years, or both.

A perennial hot button issue, the subject of NS defaulters was revived recently when it was revealed that Kevin Kwan, the author of bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians, defaulted on his national service.

Like Ekawit, Kwan, who migrated to the United States at the age of 11, also stayed overseas without a valid permit and is wanted for defaulting on his NS obligations, according to Mindef.

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