NS Deferment? Defer to talent

Jun 23, 2015 05.00PM |

by Yen Feng

I’m not a sportsman so I have no idea what it’s like to be an athlete – much less compete in something like the SEA Games. But I can imagine, it must be pretty tough. Now, if you’re a guy and have to worry about NS on top of that – damn stress lah!

It’s not a new subject, and one that has been debated in the past – the question has come up not only for our athletes but for talent in other fields, including music and medicine, to name a few in recent memory. Throughout it all, the G has taken a hard stand on this. It has made exceptions, but by and large, getting a deferment might be harder than, well, getting a Gold.

So imagine everyone’s surprise when Minister Tan Chuan-Jin, who is also the president of the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC), came out to say he wants to work with Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to “push the boundaries” and allow our national athletes more flexibility in fulfiling their NS duties?

Even the president of Singapore Athletic Association said he was “pleasantly surprised” – after all, other people like him including leaders from the Singapore Table Tennis Association, Singapore Sports Council, and the Singapore Badminton Association, have been talking about this for years without much effect.

That a former brigadier-general has come out to support this call now is fantastic news, of course, – one that TNP columnist Leonard Thomas said today was “a hugely significant development”.

There has to be more to supporting our athletes than NS deferment.

Right after reading Leonard’s column, I was struck by what I read on the next page – how apparently some fans had abused (verbally I assume) the football coach Aide Iskandar, his family, and some players when the Under-23 football team lost 1-0 to their Indonesian counterparts in the Games.

“It got a bit ugly,” said Mr Tan in a message he posted on SNOC’s Facebook page. Even the story’s headline in TNP made me sad: “Fan vitriol can make athletes stronger; negative criticism comes with the territory, say former stars”.

There’s plenty of room to grow as a sporting nation, and cultivating young sports talent has to start with giving them a supportive environment – yes, at the stadiums, but also in structures and processes. If you’re world-class, the G should really just stay out of your way.

Opening the door for potentially more deferments is an acknowledgement that the G has to recognise the value of making exceptions for exceptional, world-class talent against the needs of national security. When it comes to international rivalry, soft power is just as important as military might.

What about in other fields besides sports?

Responding to whether artists can apply for NS deferment, a MINDEF spokesman said in 2013 that they would have to “convincingly” show that it was necessary for them to practise full-time, and that they have the potential to achieve “outstanding results” at top international competitions.

But unlike sportsmen, artists may not share the same international platforms as the Olympics or SEA Games, or the kind of passion and fervour such sporting events attract. It may also be harder for the G or the public to get behind an artist if the talent is perceived to be too arty farty and out of touch with the average Singaporean.

Still, exceptions have been made – some examples include violinist Lim Chun and pianist Lim Yan, though they have been rare.

Between 1999 and 2009, MINDEF granted deferments on “less than 10 occasions”, said then Second Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen, in a 2009 parliamentary speech. It’s unclear how many of these were for sports or other reasons, but between 2003 and 2013, only five people applied for NS deferment to pursue the arts, of which two were granted.

Will – or should – Mr Tan’s call for more flexibility to NS deferment apply to artists as well?

Boundaries have to be drawn somewhere. But exceptional talent is a precious thing. If you’re that good and winning all kinds of international awards and competitions, you should be allowed to keep doing what you’re doing. Not just allowed, encouraged even. Make us proud.

But hey, what do I know. I’m not a sportsman – and I’m rubbish at art too.


Featured photo by Shawn Danker.

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