Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Ben Davis playing for Fulham as an English national, not as a Singapore citizen: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen explains why MINDEF rejected footballer's application for National Service deferment

Thailand born Ben Davis, 17, is playing for Fulham as an English national, not as a Singapore citizen

His father, Harvey Davis had "consistently refused to indicate" when his son would return to serve National Service

Harvey Davis had also indicated that Ben would still sign the contract with Fulham if deferment were not granted and would consider the option for his son to renounce his Singapore citizenship in order to pursue his football career

Parliament: Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen explains why request from Ben Davis was rejected
Minister sets out fundamentals of NS policy and lists 3 reasons for denying deferment request
By Muhammad Sazali Abdul Aziz, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2018

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen yesterday laid out in Parliament the fundamentals on which the national service (NS) policy is based to explain why the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) turned down young footballer Ben Davis' request to defer his NS so that he could play for Fulham Football Club in the English Premier League.

He said that in order to ensure Singapore's national security, every male Singaporean must serve NS, and at the time required to under the Enlistment Act, without regard to his personal convenience and considerations: "The Enlistment Act is blind to 'personal convenience and considerations', no matter how talented the individual, no matter how exceptional his circumstances."

To preserve equity for all national servicemen, MINDEF will defer individuals very selectively, and only if their deferment serves Singapore's interest first and foremost, never their own, he added.

Dr Ng was responding to MPs' questions sparked by the public debate on Ben's case. The 17-year-old signed a two-year professional contract with Fulham in June after his deferment request was rejected.

Speaking on the long-term deferment for swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen and sailor Maximilian Soh to train and compete at the Olympics, Dr Ng said their deferment was not open-ended or unconditional. Clear expectations were laid out on the standards required for their training.

"They will have to return to serve NS, and if they do not meet the standards agreed upon, deferment will be curtailed. These strict conditions are necessary because even for these individuals who can bring glory to Singapore, there are detractors who think it is unfair for anyone to be deferred."

In Ben's case, Dr Ng listed three reasons for MINDEF's rejection of his NS deferment application. The first is that he is playing for Fulham as an English national, not as a Singapore citizen. He was born in Thailand to an English father and Thai mother before moving to Singapore with his family when he was five. He became a Singapore citizen in 2009.

The former student of the Singapore Sports School left the Republic to join the London-based club's academy last year. In his profile on Fulham's website, the youth is said to "hail from Singapore", but his nationality is listed as English.

The second reason is that Ben's father, Mr Harvey Davis, had "consistently refused to indicate" when his son would return to serve NS, if it is deferred. He had said Ben could be offered a new contract or sold or loaned to another club, so the family could not "commit to a date" for his return.

Third, MINDEF said Mr Davis indicated that Ben would still sign the contract with Fulham if deferment were not granted - as he did - and would consider the option for his son to renounce his Singapore citizenship in order to pursue his football career.

"MINDEF could not find any valid grounds to approve the application for deferment by Mr Harvey Davis for his son. There is no commitment to serve Singapore or our national interests," said Dr Ng.

"To grant deferment to Mr Ben Davis to pursue his personal development and professional career would be unfair to the many others who have served their NS dutifully as required, and not at a time of their choosing.

"The application by Mr Harvey Davis for his son's deferment is to further his son's professional career first and to the longest extent possible. Singapore and her interests, including his son's NS obligations, are secondary considerations, if at all."

When contacted, Mr Harvey Davis declined to comment.

Dr Ng added that there had been "no indication, commitment or plans" as to how Ben's signing for Fulham would help raise football standards in Singapore, if the teen were granted a deferment.

Mr Davis had urged MINDEF to approve deferment for his son so that Ben could serve as an inspiration for the 1,000 students registered with his company, Junior Soccer School and League Singapore. Dr Ng said that the youth football academy is a business run by Mr Davis and advertises itself as having links to Fulham.

Dr Ng said MINDEF has exercised flexibility for sportsmen competing in international competitions, such as adjusting enlistment dates or giving them time off to train if they have enlisted.

He also cited three footballers who have completed their NS and are hoping to earn professional contracts in Europe.

National football coach Fandi Ahmad's two sons, Irfan and Ikhsan, are set for trials with Portuguese top-tier side Sporting Braga while national under-23 midfielder Saifullah Akbar is leaving for Spain today for a 10-day trial with Spanish second division side Tenerife, after completing his NS yesterday.

Dr Ng added that medical students are given NS disruption for them to complete their studies because they are needed to serve as medical officers during their NS. But dental students were not granted NS disruption after 1989 as there was no need for NS dental officers.

Dr Ng also revealed that 13 NS defaulters were prosecuted after more stringent sentencing benchmarks were established last year.

He said: "Some wanted to complete their university degree first before NS. Others said they had to support their families.

"In every judgment, the courts dismissed these personal reasons, convicted and sentenced them to jail terms... The critical need for a strong defence puts aside personal pursuits and mandates that each liable male performs his NS when required."

"I know it must be difficult for a 17-year-old, Mr Ben Davis, to receive such public attention.

It was never MINDEF's intent, but we had to respond to his father's claims to the media to explain to MPs and Singaporeans the basis of our decision on this crucial national policy."

Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen replying to Parliamentary Questions on National Service Deferment for Ben Davis

MCCY does not favour individual sports over team sports, says Grace Fu
By Muhammad Sazali Abdul Aziz, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 7 Aug 2018

The Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) does not favour individual sports over team sports, and objectively assesses national sports associations' (NSAs) development plans and targets, as well as the performance and potential of their athletes, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu said in Parliament yesterday.

She was responding to Dr Lim Wee Kiak (Sembawang GRC), who had asked about MCCY's policy on assisting Singaporeans who seek national service (NS) deferment to pursue their sporting ambitions, and whether there is an approved list of sports or recognised international sporting bodies where young men can qualify for NS deferment if they are accepted for training.

Ms Fu's reply followed an explanation by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on why the Ministry of Defence rejected the application for NS deferment by 17-year-old footballer Ben Davis, who signed a two-year professional contract with English Premier League club Fulham in June.

"My ministry shares Singaporeans' aspirations for excellence in sports, and does not favour individual sports over team sports. Across all sports, we objectively assess the NSAs' development plans and targets, as well as the performance and potential of the athletes," said Ms Fu.

"For team sports, we have to adopt a whole-team development strategy which covers the entire squad of athletes, beyond just an individual athlete. We have several considerations when we assess our support for NS-liable athletes involved in team sports."

"For example, we look at the robustness of the national sports association's development plans for the team, whether there is a clear target of a major games competition in sight and the plans to achieve this, as well as the individual athlete's role and potential contribution to the national team," added Ms Fu, who revealed that enlisted members of the national football and water polo teams have in the past been given permission to train with their teammates in preparation for the SEA Games and other major international competitions.

Only three sportsmen - swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, and sailor Maximilian Soh - have been granted long-term deferment from NS, and all three trained and competed in the Olympics.

Among some of MCCY's considerations for supporting athletes' applications for deferment are the potential and motivation of the athlete, his training and development plan, how he is being developed to progressively achieve personal bests and breakthrough performances, and how the two-year stint in NS will affect the athlete.

"MCCY is prepared to support NS deferment applications by sporting talent who have consistently demonstrated the potential to succeed at the highest levels of competition, serve Singapore's interests and have provided a definitive commitment to return to serve NS," said Ms Fu.

Mr Henry Kwek (Nee Soon GRC) asked about MCCY's programmes to nurture talented young sportsmen, especially for team sports, given that their training could be interrupted by NS.

"Through Sport Singapore and its partners, including the Singapore National Olympic Council, the NSAs, the Singapore Sports School and the National Youth Sports Institute, the High Performance Sports (HPS) system has been established to support our athletes to reach their fullest sporting potential," Ms Fu said.

"The (HPS) involves identifying, developing and benchmarking the progress of sporting talents across key sports, covering the provision of training facilities, coaching support, sports science and sports medicine expertise, as well as overseas training and competition opportunities."

NS deferment: It's all about equity
By Eugene K.B. Tan, Published The Straits Times, 9 Aug 2018

National service is the cornerstone of Singapore's defence and security. In serving NS at 18 as military conscripts, Singaporean young men put on hold personal pursuits and aspirations.

Sometimes, they request deferment. This issue of long-term NS deferment was the focus of several parliamentary questions at Monday's Parliament sitting.

In June, the Ministry of Defence rejected 17-year-old footballer Benjamin James Davis' application for long-term deferment from full-time NS. Deferment would enable him to first embark on his professional career before NS with newly promoted English Premier League team Fulham.

In Parliament, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen explained at length why MINDEF rejected the application. First, it assessed that Benjamin is playing for Fulham as a British national, not a Singapore citizen. Second, his father, Mr Harvey Davis, declined to indicate when his son would return to serve NS if it were deferred. Third, Mr Davis indicated that his son would return to serve NS only if he was unsuccessful in his professional career.

The crux of MINDEF's assessment is that Benjamin has no intention of returning to fulfil his NS duties, especially if he is offered another contract after his two-year senior contract. It decided that this did not demonstrate commitment to serve Singapore's interests and did not merit a deferment.


The issue drew much attention from the public, with heated debate from some who argued that MINDEF should be more flexible.

What is often inadequately appreciated is that NS has significant public acceptance and legitimacy because it is applied even-handedly and impartially.

Where deferment applications are concerned, the principle of equity - equality of treatment regardless of background or status - must be stringently upheld.

Benjamin's case is not unique.

Many young Singaporeans have precocious ability in a variety of domains. An oft-cited reason in deferment requests is that NS impedes a person's talent development and ability.

However, MINDEF has granted deferment to individuals if their deferment serves Singapore's national interest first and foremost. In the past, MINDEF has granted long-term deferments to individuals in sports, the arts and other areas who represent Singapore in international apex competitions and are potential medal winners. (In the past 15 years, only three sportsmen secured long-term deferment.)

The requirement of contributing to the national interest is necessary if the NS deferment framework is not to undermine the ethos and sacrifice of Singaporeans who put aside their personal interests to serve when called upon.

Last year, in cases concerning NS defaulters, a specially empanelled three-judge appellate High Court acknowledged the fundamental principles that undergird NS: national security, a critical need; universality, where those fit to serve are conscripted; and equity.

Equity requires that those serving full-time NS should do so "at around the same age". When required to enlist, a person must do so "without regard to his personal convenience and considerations". Otherwise, there will be "strong feelings of unfairness and resentment in those who have made personal sacrifices to serve NS, and, over time, lower their morale and eventually also erode public support for NS".

Further, any "perception that NS can be done on one's own terms would undermine the strength of our defence force and thus our national security", the panel decided.

These principles and norms apply with equal force and validity to deferment as well.


But can there be more flexibility in accommodating sportsmen's training and competition needs, such as being less tight-fisted on granting deferments and permitting NS to be served in phases?

Over the years, MINDEF has adopted various measures to accommodate sportsmen, including adjusting enlistment dates, granting short-term deferments, and providing time off for training and participation in major competitions, subject to the exigencies of service. Similarly, the SAF Sportsman Scheme grants full-time national servicemen additional time off and leave for training and competitions.

Dr Ng cited the examples of Saifullah Akbar, Ikhsan Fandi and Irfan Fandi as promising young footballers who served NS and are now on the threshold of advancing their professional careers with European clubs.

These examples show that NS need not impede sporting development and ability. These footballers demonstrated their commitment, discipline and grit in serving NS while also conscientiously chasing their football dreams.

To be sure, sacrifices are made and opportunities lost during full-time NS.

Even where notions of fairness and equity evolve over time, the requirements of exceptional talent and national glory must never be flouted. Otherwise, equity will not only be illusory but also a sham. NS will become unstuck.

The saga is a timely reminder that citizenship is not just a bundle of rights and privileges but carries with it responsibilities.

Benjamin's father had declared that he would encourage his son to renounce his Singapore citizenship in order to pursue his footballing career if deferment was not granted. (Benjamin's obligation to serve NS remains even if he were to renounce his Singapore citizenship.)

Such a remark must grate on patriotic Singaporeans' ears. For Singapore must never be the back-up option for any citizen, especially one who has benefited from the system. Neither should the principles girding NS be held to ransom by any citizen, not least from a citizen who plays for a team as a foreign national.

Questions will persist as to whether NS extracts too high a price from individuals serving NS. This tension is inevitable as society evolves. Each era will find its own balance.

When NS was introduced in 1967, Singaporeans recognised that every young male Singapore citizen had to be conscripted, irrespective of ethnic background, descent or socio-economic class.

Universality and equity in NS must be jealously guarded and nourished. Anything less would result in NS losing public support, and that would be to our collective peril.

Eugene K. B. Tan is associate professor of law at the School of Law, Singapore Management University.




No National Service deferment for Fulham teen Ben Davis, says MINDEF

By Shamir Osman, Correspondent, The Straits Times, 14 Jul 2018

Teenage footballer Ben Davis will have to return to Singapore in December to enlist for full-time National Service (NS), despite having signed a professional contract with English Premier League (EPL) club Fulham on June 29.

This comes after the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) confirmed that his application for NS deferment had been rejected.

"Benjamin James Davis' application for deferment was not approved as he does not meet the criteria for long-term deferment from full-time NS. This decision was made in consultation with the Ministry of Culture, Community & Youth, and was communicated to Mr Davis and his parents on 11 June 2018," MINDEF said in a statement on Saturday (July 14).

MINDEF explained that all male Singaporeans liable for full-time NS, at the earliest opportunity once they turn 18, have to put aside personal pursuits to enlist and serve, hence it "would not be fair to approve applications for deferment for individuals to pursue their own careers and development".

"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," it added.

Singapore's first Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling and fellow swimmer Quah Zheng Wen were given NS deferment to compete at the 2016 Olympics and again for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Sailor Maximillian Soh was the other athlete who was granted a year-long deferment in 2007 to compete at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

Reiterating that its policy has been "applied strictly and fairly to all individuals", the MINDEF statement added: "Mr Davis was also notified that he is due for enlistment and must dutifully serve NS along with others in his cohort."

Davis' father Harvey told The Straits Times that he will be submitting an appeal for his son, who earned a pro contract just one year into the two-year scholarship. Ben, 17, is the first Singaporean to sign a pro contract with an EPL club.

"We have been completely transparent with the authorities who were immediately informed of his scholarship contract back in 2016 and his professional contract back in May this year," said Davis Sr.

"We fully understand the importance of serving your country. My older son has already served and so will Ben, as will my younger boy.

"With Ben, the question is when (he will serve), and we hope he is given the opportunity to pursue his dream, make Singapore and Singapore football proud."

He asserted that while this MINDEF decision affects his son directly, it also has wider implications.

"As a Singaporean it asks the question as to what exactly is the criteria needed for a young, talented sportsperson to pursue an international sporting career in a team sport outside of Singapore," he added.

In response to ST's queries, the Football Association of Singapore's general manager of youth development, Varatha Rajan said that it had supported Ben's application for deferment.

"Training and playing in an environment like Fulham would be a boost for Benjamin Davis' development as a player," he explained. "His path also illustrates to aspiring talented players in Singapore that football can be a viable career to pursue."

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