By now, even non-football fans in Singapore have jumped onto the bandwagon to argue about Mindef’s decision to deny NS deferment for 17-year-old Singaporean Ben Davis, who just managed to secure a professional contract with English Premier League club Fulham.
The arguments go from outright condemnation of the Government, with many calling for Davis to give up his Singapore citizenship, to those who question why an exception should be made for Davis. After all, Fandi Ahmad served NS, and it didn’t stop him from eventually getting an offer from Ajax Amsterdam.
On the surface, it seems like an indication of the lack of commitment from the Singapore Government to sporting excellence, and it’s hard to argue against that.
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But that is a simplistic view. Let’s not mince words, defence is a far more important pillar of our society than sports is. Singapore’s defence spending is roughly $14 billion, whereas Sports SG’s grants from the Government clocks in at around $400 million, based on their 2017 Annual Report.
So it isn’t exactly surprising that the Government values defence more than sporting excellence. From Mindef’s perspective, wanting Davis to serve National Service rather than playing professional football is indeed their prerogative.
That’s not really the issue. The problem is this statement released by Mindef.
“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.”
The statement then goes on to state that only three applicants have ever been successful.
This is not a Mindef problem, it’s much bigger than that. It really also isn’t just a Singapore Government problem. It is, in fact, a Singapore problem.
You see, Mindef takes the position of allowing deferment as part of a transaction. Essentially, what they are saying is, if you can win an Olympic medal, then we will allow you a deferment. They position this as an issue of fairness, that if they allow Davis’ application, then they are opening the floodgates to a host of other such deferment requests.
Indeed, 18-year-old Iskandar Radewaldt, who is playing in the Under-19 team at FC Viktoria 1889 Berlin, a fourth-tier club in Germany, is still awaiting the results of his deferment application, reported The New Paper. If Davis is allowed, then why not Iskandar, one would argue.
If we are to be absolutely honest about this, as Singaporeans, we have always viewed our relationship with sports as a transactional one as well.
Apart from maybe 3,000 die-hard fans, almost every other Singaporean football fan would not support our national team, unless the Lions show that they can win. The last game they played, a friendly match against the Maldives, saw 2,500 fans in the 50,000-seater National Stadium. As football fans know, prior to that match, our team had been on a 16-month winless streak, and hence, fans stayed away, not lending support to a team that they thought were not winners.
Similarly, very few parents in Singapore would allow their child to pursue a professional career in sports, unless assurances are given that the child would have a good income when they grow up.
And it’s just not football. Parents only rushed to send their kids to swimming school after Joseph Schooling won the Olympic gold and proved that swimming might just be a viable career.
Even those who argued against Davis’ deferment used a transactional mindset, that if he wanted Singapore citizenship, then he has to serve NS just like everyone else. When retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan posted on Facebook that same argument and was questioned by some on why Government scholars were then allowed deferment, his rebuttal was that it was because they came back and served a bond.
This is who we are. But maybe this is who we don’t need to be.
This part of us made sense during our nation building years, where everything was about efficiency and productivity. Everything needed to have a return-on-investment, and we grew up with a key performance indicator mindset.
Today, though, maybe it’s time for that to change, at least in the areas where we want to do better in. There is no point comparing ourselves against the successes of the national football teams of Croatia and Iceland, both with populations far smaller than ours, if our mindset remains the same.
Rather than ask our elite athletes what they can do for our country, perhaps our starting point should be what we can do for them, and trust that if we take care of them, they will be more committed to bringing pride to the nation.
In Davis’ case, it must be seen as an opportunity of a lifetime that not even a handful of Singaporeans can ever achieve. In the structure of an EPL professional player’s development, he is now entering his most crucial years – the next two years could determine whether he makes it as a professional playing in one of the top leagues in the world.
So rather than worry about whether or not he will be a good return on investment, maybe Mindef should see how we can support him and give him every opportunity to succeed. While it may never result in us winning an Olympic football medal, or playing in the World Cup Finals, it is a strong statement we make as a nation that SG cares, and that we can Be Greater than who we currently are.
I guarantee that if we did that, more likely than not, our athletes would bleed for our flag, even if there are probably the odd few who would betray that trust.
The second thing that this decision says about what’s wrong with us is our inability to think outside the box. Of course the military mantra is extreme discipline, and that policies need to be one size fits all. The army man would be concerned about opening a Pandora’s box. After all, the strength in our armed forces comes from compulsory military service.
If they allowed Davis to go, then where do we draw the line? The thing is, it’s not as though we haven’t made exceptions. And if we are truly committed to excelling in sports and the arts, then why not broaden the definition on a case-by-case basis?
Yes, Davis does not fall into the typical criteria for deferment, but Davis’ situation is also not typical. It’s not very difficult to use this opportunity to set a new precedent. So instead of just saying the athlete needs to potentially be able to win Olympic medals, how about broadening it to include getting a professional contract at a club playing at the top leagues in the world? You can even define which leagues – let’s say only the top tier in England, Germany, Italy, Spain and France.
I guarantee that you won’t find even five teenagers over the next few years in Singapore that can fulfill that criteria, so the trade-off is small. On the flip side, you start to send out a message that when our traditional way of operating is disrupted by unusual circumstances, we are still able to adapt and grow.
If, as Singaporeans, we need to make a case study for success, then look no further than our Asian counterparts South Korea. Despite living under the threat of war with their Northern neighbours, they still managed to find it in themselves to exempt Park Ji Sung, Lee Young Pyo and Park Chu Yong, who signed contracts with Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal respectively. Yes, it was controversial and it did evolve into a political landmine which made politicians nervous, and yes, they do have more stringent, if not widely popular, rules as to who made the exemptions.
But as NBC Sport’s Jeff Kassouf observed: “For South Korea, a medal really isn’t the prize. The chance for players to better control their future is the real reward.” Enough said.
A caring and innovative nation. I’m not asking for much. Support without expectations, and I guarantee we will truly achieve sporting excellence.