Can we – and should be – grant Singaporean athletes deferment for their National Service (NS) liabilities? The rationales are quite straightforward: athletes may peak at these ages, and the lack of intensive training could compromise performance; there might be crucial tournaments or major Games forecasted during the two years of NS; and corresponding preparations are then necessary for sportsmen to do their best. The idea of a deferment has been mooted some time ago, but vis-à-vis our recent sporting developments and vision for the future, we need to present young Singaporeans with more viable alternatives should they wish to pursue their sporting interests professionally and competitively.
I think it is very difficult to disagree with the motivations for doing so, but I foresee two possible contentions: first, how would we define an “elite” sportsperson (though for sports, there are tangible benchmarks in terms of qualification for competitions, awards and rankings); second, there is the slippery slope argument (here), on where to draw the line. At the present moment, deferment is only granted to top-performing scholars with the Public Service Commission (PSC); if the same privilege is granted to budding sporting talents, should we then allow the crème de la crème from other fields – music, the performing arts, technology and science et cetera – to make similar applications?
I say, why not? Policymakers, together with the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), can render the deferment process and criteria more transparent, as well as to agree on certain focuses or domains that could be included in deferment applications.
Granting Singaporean Athletes National Service Deferment
I think it is important to reiterate here that I am not proposing for a complete exemption for these individuals. After their period of deferment, they are still expected to fulfil their NS obligations based on their combat competencies and vocational commitments. Sportsmen should remain cognisant that they can do get can schedule for special training sessions under the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Sportsmen Scheme while in service, and if this arrangement would suits them better, then they should opt for the latter.
For me, it is now a question of execution and implementation. Given that different sporting events have dissimilar expectations and training regimes, I am proposing for individual National Sports Associations (NSA) to craft their respective, specialised set of criteria – subject to approval of the relevant ministries – to guide sportsmen who wish to pursue deferment. Since the applications will be handled on a case-by-case basis, the sportsperson in question would conscientiously make forecasted training plans together with their coaches and professional team to decide on the period of deferment. With these submissions, progress should be quantified year-on-year, and MINDEF can cap the deferment at four or five years.
As posited by some, “success” in sports is relative, so a transparent system of deferment would be beneficial (taking into account the aforementioned recommendation). For instance, many would be hard-pressed to simply turn away an application by Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, who has qualified to swim at the 2012 Olympics, and is seeking a potential podium finish at the 2016 Olympics. I was equally disappointed when Matthew Goh, national long jump record holder, was denied a request to defer his NS for just three months.
These sportsmen are not evading their NS obligations, so why can’t we exercise greater flexibility in deferment? Countries with compulsory conscription policies have been able to empower their outstanding athletes through deferment – and even exemption – schemes. Some might say that deferments constitute an employment of double standards, but it is imperative to note that these are exceptional sporting individuals – with a blend of physiological advantages and extremely hard work – are in a relatively small minority. Deferment requires a set of strict procedures, and we should only award it to the best of the best. We are already doing it with our public service scholars, so why not sportsmen (and in the future, artists, musicians and scientists)?