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The Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) is prepared to allow more national athletes to disrupt their full-time National Service (NS) obligations to train and compete in international competitions, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said in Parliament today (Jul. 5).
However, Ng said that there is provided that they fulfil the full period required after their disruption, and also perform their NS duties satisfactorily while in National Service.
Ng was responding to two parliamentary questions submitted by Seah Kian Peng, Member of Parliament for Marine Parade GRC, and Leong Mun Wai, Progress Singapore Party (PSP) Non-Constituency Member of Parliament.
Seah asked if the ministry will review its policy regarding national athletes and their NS obligations, while Leong asked whether the ministry will relax the eligibility criteria for NS deferment for Singaporean men who have the potential to succeed in the sports and arts.
Athletes granted short-term disruptions should still perform NS duties “satisfactorily”
Ng recognised that there are national athletes who want to do well in both their sport and in fulfilling their NS duties, adding that while some have achieved both, it is not easy and that “we must not set unrealistic expectations on all of them”.
“However, for those who want to pursue both goals, MINDEF is prepared to allow more to disrupt, to train and compete in international competitions during their full-time NS,” Ng said.
“This is on the understanding that they fulfil the full period required after their disruption, and also perform their NS duties satisfactorily while in NS.”
Ng said he was proud that Singapore’s national athletes understand this duty of NS.
“None of them have asked to be exempted from NS duties, including those who trained hard and participated in recent regional and international events. They understand that everyone must fulfil their NS duties, even if you are a sporting or art talent,” he added.
Long-term deferments rare
Ng stressed that all NS men must still perform their duties.
Short-term disruptions or leave for sportsmen to train for and compete in international competitions are only allowed outside critical NS periods, Ng said.
In the most recent Southeast Asian Games, paddler Koen Pang, hurdler Ang Chen Xiang and triathlete Luke Chua were given short-term leave from NS to train and compete.
However, long-term deferments from full-time NS are “exceptional”, Ng said.
These long-term deferments are only for those who have the potential to win medals at top-tier international competitions like the Olympic Games, he said.
Swimmers Joseph Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen were granted seven and six years deferment, respectively, to compete in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games.
Granting NS disruptions and deferments can cause “invidious comparisons”
Ng said that each appeal for deferment and disruption from sports and arts talent must “pass a very high bar”.
“Each request is assessed on its own merit, in consultation with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY), taking into consideration the applicant’s past achievements, and potential to excel in international competitions and bring national glory,” Ng said.
Even when granted, the applicant’s NS duties must still be taken seriously and that he be trained to be competent in his assigned vocation, Ng added.
This includes periods like Basic Military Training (BMT), specialist and commanders’ courses and his unit’s key operations, which the applicant must fulfil as part of NS duties.
Ng said that even with these strict requirements, not all Singaporeans are supportive of granting deferments and disruptions for sports.
He cited examples of MINDEF receiving letters from the public that questioned whether it was fair that these sportsmen received financial rewards from endorsements while others served their NS requirements.
“I cite these criticisms, to show that even when sparingly applied, deferments and disruptions can have a pernicious effect, to cause invidious comparisons that some are given preferential treatment and are not performing their NS duties,” Ng added.
Ng said there was space for ground-up dialogues about the deferment issue in the future, and that MINDEF will “will incorporate views across the spectrum of supporters and detractors” of NS disruptions or deferments.
“Everyone, regardless of talent or status must fulfil their NS obligations as a first priority, and all personal pursuits must be secondary to this during their full-time NS. And based on this understanding, for sporting talent who bring national glory to Singapore, we can, and have, allowed limited deferments and disruptions, but without compromising their NS obligations,” said Ng.
Top photos via MCI/YouTube and Our Singapore Army/Facebook