Author Kevin Kwan’s crime — skipping two-year mandatory conscription in the Singapore armed forces — and the recent case of a prominent young athlete who has not been allowed to defer his obligation have thrust the city-state’s debate over national service to the forefront, leading some to question how relevant the stringent, inflexible requirements are to the young country’s growing aspirations and changing demographics.
Singapore’s Defense Ministry said Thursday that Kwan “failed to register for National Service in 1990, despite notices and letters sent to his overseas address.” Kwan, who did not respond to a request for comment, left Singapore at age 11 and now lives in the United States. He tried to renounce his citizenship in 1994, an option Singaporeans with dual citizenship have when they turn 21, but his request was rejected, the Defense Ministry said.
If he returns home and is convicted, he could be imprisoned for up to three years or fined. He did not show up for a red-carpet premiere of “Crazy Rich Asians” in Singapore on Tuesday that featured the film’s Singaporean cast members.
Singapore’s tough laws when it comes to conscription, compulsory for all Singaporean men and male permanent residents older than 18, have also complicated the aspirations of 17-year-old Ben Davis, who in June signed a two-year contract with English Premier League club Fulham F.C. — the first Singaporean to ink a professional contract with a top-tier club in the most recognized soccer league in the world.
Davis’s request to defer his national service requirements was rejected by Singapore’s government, which argues that Davis would be serving his own career aspirations, rather than the goals of Singapore.
“There has been no indication, commitment or plans as to how Mr. Ben Davis would help football stands in Singapore, if deferred,” Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament this month. “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 [national service] dutifully as required, and not at a time of their choosing.”
Harvey Davis, his father, has insisted to the government that his son plans on completing his national service requirements, pointing out that his two other sons have fulfilled theirs. The question, the elder Davis said, is one of timing, because Ben should have “the best opportunity to play at the highest possible professional level in the U.K. and Europe.”
Singapore’s mandatory conscription is modeled after policies in nations such as Israel and Switzerland. The country of 5.6 million residents has no standing army and relies on a reservist force of men trained during their two years of compulsory military service. Known as National Servicemen, they make up 80 percent of Singapore’s military defense system.
South Korea — which has long contended with a hostile nuclear power to its north — has similar requirements, but it grants Olympic medalists or those who win gold medals at the Asian Games a complete exemption. Singapore offers a deferment to athletes who win medals on the country’s behalf at major sporting events, but it has offered this to only three young men in the past 15 years.
'The Enlistment Act is blind'
Singapore argues that its small size makes it vulnerable to attack, and it invests in defense — including an annual parade marking its day of independence, complete with a large marching contingent and elaborate air force flyovers — to deter potential enemies.
“The government’s strong position is one that it is going to maintain, and there’s a strong basis in terms of Singapore’s defense and strategic needs for the government to maintain that position,” said Tim Huxley, the executive director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Asia, who wrote a book on the Singapore Armed Forces. He argues that instability in such countries as Malaysia and Indonesia could still pose a “direct threat to Singapore’s interests and physical security.”
Last year, Singapore toughened punishment for those who flout the law, and it has since jailed 13 defaulters. The strict implementation of the law, the ministry said in response to questions from The Washington Post, “is the reason why strong support [for national service] has been maintained for over 50 years.”
“In court, in every case, each of them gave reasons why he did not enlist as required,” said Ng, the defense minister. “But in every case, in every judgment, the courts dismiss these personal reasons, convicted and sentenced them to jail because, harsh as it is, the Enlistment Act is blind to ‘personal convenience and considerations,’ no matter how talented the individual, no matter how exceptional his circumstances.”
Some, however, are questioning the government’s rigidity amid Singapore’s changing demographics and aspirations to produce talents across all fields. The city-state is highly reliant on immigration, and citizens make up only 60 percent of Singapore’s population. More than 1 in 3 marriages are between a Singaporean and non-Singaporean, meaning more and more young men have the option to leave the country, skip their military requirements and take up their alternate citizenship.
Still, Singapore allows citizens to renounce their status only after they turn 21, three years after men must join the military. Davis — who holds Thai, British and Singaporean citizenship — could opt to give up his Singaporean citizenship, but he would be likely to face penalties if he did that before serving in the military and ever returned to Singapore. The same would be true for others taking up alternate citizenships.
Many in the soccer-crazy country have backed Davis, arguing that the government’s decision is unduly inflexible and discourages exceptional talent. Swimmer Joseph Schooling, who won Singapore’s first gold medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, beating American swimmer Michael Phelps, encouraged Davis to “follow his dreams”, according to local media reports.
In barring Davis’s deferment, analysts say, the Singapore government is speaking to Singaporeans, rather than those with the option of leaving, worried that more will be emboldened to find ways around military service.
“The inflexibility is built in and will only get worse” as more cases like Davis’s and Kwan’s arise, said Donald Low, a Singaporean economist and associate partner at Centennial Asia Advisors. “It is not tenable, and it is not going to satisfy people.”