If Singapore is serious about sports, it needs to relax National Service rules for athletes

Harry Birtwistle became the first player born in Singapore to sign a professional contract with an English Premier League club, Wolverhampton Wanderers.

He is born to a British father and a Singaporean mother but has been unable to return to visit his mother and siblings in the Republic since his move to England to pursue a career as a professional footballer.

In an interview with The Straits Times, he spoke about being unable to travel due to Covid-19, and fitting in his travel plans with his football schedule. He also spoke about missing the local food in Singapore, and about his openness to representing the Republic in international football.

That news broke on Oct 27. Two days later, Singapore’s Defence Ministry revealed that Birtwistle is overseas without a valid exit permit and his parents had applied to renounce his citizenship.

All male Singaporeans aged 18 and above are required to serve two years of National Service (NS). Those aged 13 years and above would need to apply for a valid exit permit if they planned to exit the country.

Birtwistle left the country at the age of 13 and had been there since then. He failed to register for NS, and his family had corresponded his desire not to serve NS. Their application to renounce his citizenship means he has no real desire to represent Singapore on the international stage, and was rejected.

This situation mirrors that of Ben Davies, a boy born in Thailand to a Thai mother and a British father. Davies moved to Singapore at the age of five and had represented the country at the Under-16 and Under-19 levels. He received a call-up to the senior national team but didn’t take to the pitch.

Four months after receiving an international call-up, he signed a professional contract with Fulham to become the first Singaporean to sign a professional contract with a top-tier English club.

Like Birtwistle, Davies too, was based overseas without a valid exit permit and did not report for his NS duties. Davies is liable, upon conviction, of a fine of S$10,000 or imprisonment of up to three years, or both, for defaulting on his NS duties.

Davies later switched his international allegiance to Thailand and is now playing for Oxford United.

Singapore, for better or for worse, is a country that strictly upholds its laws and doesn’t bend for anyone. A deferment is given to all Singaporeans only once, to pursue their post-secondary school education at a polytechnic, junior college, or private institution for the duration of the course.

After that period of study, he would need to complete his NS duties before pursuing further studies or a full-time career.

In the case of Birtwistle and Davies, the opportunity to receive a professional contract from a top-tier English football club, is a chance of a lifetime.

In such a situation, it is very difficult for one to reject such an opportunity, to serve NS.

Arguably, for both players, the sense of patriotism and belonging to the nation might also be lacking due to their parentage and background. They were both educated in private schools popular with expatriates in Singapore and stayed in areas with a heavy expatriate population.

Singapore’s stance is firm due to equity; it rejects requests for deferment to pursue a professional career overseas for an extended period, or to reduce the time spent in NS.

However, if the country is serious about sports, Singapore might want to consider relaxing the rules to allow budding talents time off to pursue their career overseas, and come back during off-
season, or at an agreed-upon date and serve a shorter period of NS.

One could argue that such an athlete is also serving his nation, albeit in a different way, when he dons his nation’s jersey in international tournaments and matches.

With this as an option, more athletes might be encouraged to go overseas for their, and ultimately, the nation’s betterment as a sporting country.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.