Friday, 15 August 2008

Need to refine deferment policy?

I wrote this for TODAY upon their suggestion. I suppose it was logical for me to do this, since I had written about Melvyn Tan a while back.

It seems to me that NS as an institution is being increasingly questioned by Singaporeans. I see that as a positive thing, in that it demonstrates a more questioning and thinking citizenry, that is not prepared to simply take the Government's statements at face value.

As I write below, I firmly believe in the need for NS -- but I also believe it can be tweaked, and more importantly, it needs to be refined and updated to maintain its relevance and legitiacy in the minds of Singaporeans. Otherwise, resentment against NS will simply grow, and that will ultimately undermine its legitimacy as an institution. And there can be no sacred cows in this process.

I had originally included an additional point, that it is actually more disruptive to an enlistee's NS experience, to allow him to disrupt NS to go for university studies (as many Government scholars do), than to have the enlistee enter NS later. If the Government is prepared to allow that, then it seems inequitable to me to prevent young men who have already started their undergraduate studies from completing those studies before starting NS, and especially so if they are overseas. They should still be young enough when they get their degree. Unfortunately, this point was cut by the editor for space reasons.

Need to refine deferment policy?

Increasing number of young Singaporean males are growing up and studying overseas

Tuesday • August 12, 2008


THREE years after pianist Melvyn Tan was fined $3,000 for not fulfilling his National Service (NS) obligations, the issue of National Service defaulters is in the spotlight again.

This time, two young men were convicted for staying outside Singapore without an exit permit.

Mr Shantakumar Bannirchelvam, 19, was initially placed on six months’ probation and ordered to do 40 hours of community service. Upon appeal by the prosecution, he was fined $1,500. Judge of AppealV K Rajah noted the need for a fine “as a matter of policy and ­precedent”.

On the other hand, Mr Amit Rahul Shah, 23, was jailed for three months. It is not clear why he received such a severe sentence, considering the benchmark of a $3,000 fine. Perhaps it was because he had not applied for a deferment, unlike Mr Shantakumar.

What is clear is that both men had voluntarily returned to ­Singapore to serve NS, with full knowledge of the charges they would face. In other words, they were essentially punished for not doing NS at the appointed time, and not for evading NS completely.

In response to a recent question in Parliament, Defence Minister Teo Chee Hean reiterated the policy of calling up NS-liable males when they turn 18, and the key principles of maintaining universality and equity in granting deferment from full-time NS to pre-enlistees still pursuing their studies.

In the Ministry of Defence’s view, all should be given the opportunity to attain their ‘A’ Levels, International Baccalaureate, polytechnic diploma or equivalent qualifications before enlistment, but not higher educational qualifications such as university degrees.

But is this policy outdated, in a globalised world with a growing Singaporean diaspora?

As more Singaporeans and their families settle down in other countries, whether due to overseas postings or otherwise, an increasing number of young Singaporean males will be growing up and studying overseas. It would be unrealistic to expect the educational systems in those countries, or their educational paths, to accommodate our enlistment policy.

Let me be clear: I am a strong advocate of the central role of NS in the Singapore psyche.

In 2006, I wrote a piece in Today criticising the portrayal in some quarters of Mr Tan as a “lost son of Singapore”. I firmly believe in the desirability of having all fit Singaporean men perform NS, and punishing those who do not.

NS is a compulsory obligation, and we must ensure its continued legitimacy amongst Singaporeans. Even as I agree with Mindef on the principles of universality and equity, I wonder whether its deferment policy can be refined such that it remains relevant in a globalised world, without undermining those key principles.

Failure to do so may result in Singaporean males resenting the institution of NS, which could then undermine its legitimacy.

Of Scholars and NS timing

If we were to ask Singaporean men what the true sacrifice of NS is, how would they answer? I dare say it would be the two years of full-time NS and the subsequent reservist obligations.

I also dare say the timing of those two years — whether they are served before or after one’s undergraduate studies — would be far less important.

As it is, the Government itself allows some scholars to disrupt full-time NS to go for undergraduate studies. It seems arbitrary to say that scholars should be allowed to disrupt their NS, but non-scholars already in undergraduate studies should not be allowed to defer their enlistment.

Yesterday, for example, it was reported that Mindef rejected a Singapore Institute of Management student’s appeal to defer his enlistment for three months to sit for his first-year exams first.

I believe we should distinguish between those who are unable to return at 18 years because of certain commitments or opportunities but do so upon the conclusion of those commitments or opportunities — such as Mr Shantakumar — and those who never return and do not evince any desire to complete their NS obligations, such as Mr Tan.

If a Singaporean male had gone overseas as a child — for instance, before he turned 15 — and upon turning 18 is undertaking or about to commence undergraduate studies, perhaps we should allow him to defer enlistment until he completes those undergraduate (but not postgraduate) studies, so long as he undertakes to return to Singapore and enlist at that time. We can also require a guarantor if needed.

This would strike an appropriate balance between maintaining the universality and equity of NS, by having all Singaporean males complete full-time NS by their early 20s, and allowing Singaporeans who grow up overseas to pursue their goals without undue disruption.

And I think most, if not all, ­Singaporeans would be perfectly fine with this.

The writer is a Nominated Member of Parliament and corporate counsel, commenting in his personal capacity.


HaveAHacks said...

It would make more sense to withdraw the scholars' privilege of disrupting than to allow everyone to disrupt/defer.

Once you start allowing people to finish their degrees first, and smell the money that Wall Street dangles in front of them, they will simply pay off their deferment bonds and essentially buy their way out of NS.

Glass Castle said...

Do you think there would be scope for reducing the length of NS, if women were also conscripted?

I am not entirely convinced by the arguments of military necessity justifying NS at all, but this is not a topic about which I am well-informed so I'm fairly agnostic about it. Nonetheless, it seems to me that if the NS system is at all necessary, the burden should be shared by everyone, rather than men only, especially if universal NS would reduce the burden on each individual conscriptee.

- Jolene (

Ray said...

Dear Mr Siew,

The gist of your article is essentially to argue for the reversion of the deferment policy back to the state it was before the change in deferment policy due to the Melvyn Tan incident.

I'm pretty sure Mindef and quite possibly the executive, is under the opinion that a reversion of NS deferment
policy would send a signal of weakness out to the general public that they are losing control of the brain drain situation due to NS. And it would worsen the brain drain in the process.

I am one of the rare few (<30 every year) that actually got a university education before NS (before the Melvyn Tan incident). And I understand, from their perspective, why the deferment policy had to change, for the worse, the instance the Melvyn Tan case surfaced.

There are only so many male citizens (less than 30 every year, I knew everyone in that group, and those 1 year before and after me, that exploited this 'loophole' before it was closed in 2004.) that found a way to enter university before they turned 17.5 years of age. The knowledge of the fact that people could have deferred NS until after they completed their tertiary education is certainly not well-publicized until the Melvyn Tan incident was reported in the mainstream media.

Given the above knowledge, coupled with the ease of fast-tracking for Singapore students overseas thanks to our rigorous primary and secondary education, and the costs of an overseas education coming down rapidly in the last 2 decades, it would more or less trigger a flood of 15-16 yr old male citizens being sent overseas for tertiary education by middle-class or higher parents after 2004.

Certainly, a lot of my friends from the middle-class and up lamented the fact that if they or their parents knew this possible 'loophole' before it was plugged, they would have certainly taken action to pursue 'it' as they had the resources to do so.

Also, those whom have 'exploited' the same 'loophole' as I did, most of us are overseas again soon after we finished NS. Its very likely for a large number of us, if we had the perfect career opportunity and approval of our parents before we enlisted for NS, we might have just not returned.

However, I do know of a friend from this group (my age) that signed on as a Guards Officer and I believe is currently a CPT or MAJ in the SAF. So there are still some hope for patriotism even if this 'loophole' is left open.

Unfortunately, I dare say for most of 'us', we're generally keeping our SG citizenships and serving NS more for pragmatic and circumstantial reasons, rather than mostly out of patriotism. And I believe for the above is also true for most Singaporean males who have served NS.

I know of a ex-president scholar, currently an assistant professor in a top US school (possibly associate professor now), who did not return for NS (his family paid liquidation damages for his scholarship bond and everything, but on records, he is listed as AWOL.). He was given the perfect career opportunity after the completion of his undergraduate studies, and he burnt all his bridges in Singapore to pursue that opportunity (he had disrupted from NS to go for his overseas scholarship previously). He can probably never return to Singapore without getting arrested, unless they decide to do a repeat of Melvyn Tan, which might cause an even larger outburst of mob rage in Singapore if our state news media blows this up then.

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