By Ng Jean Yee
Athletes from NTU have mixed reactions over the government’s decision to reject footballer Ben Davis’ request to defer from National Service (NS). While some agree that such a decision will hinder an athlete’s training progression, others feel that NS is more important.
Davis, 17, who signed a two-year professional contract with Fulham Football Club in June, became the first Singaporean to play professionally in England.
But his application for deferment was rejected because the contract would only further his professional career, and there was no indication on how deferring his NS would benefit Singapore football, said Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen.
Davis is not the only athlete whose sporting career has been put on hold by NS.
NTU alumnus Anders Aplin’s football career was impeded by his NS.
However, this did not stop him from becoming, at the age of 27, the first Singaporean footballer to play in the Japanese Football League.
Aplin was the first to enlist in NS among the football players he trained with in the Singapore Sports School and the National Football Academy.
In his first year of NS, they made it into the national team.
Due to his vocation as a commando in the Singapore Armed Forces, Aplin could train only on Sundays and play in the amateur National Football League (NFL), unlike his former teammates in other units who were allowed to leave camp on weekdays for training.
“I wondered what could have happened if I did not get called up (for NS) so early. A part of me gave up playing professionally, although I was still interested in football and played every week,” he said.
NS sets athletes back
After his two years of NS, Aplin made a tough decision to extend his service for another year to graduate with his trainees in his Commando battalion, although it meant putting football on hold for longer.
“I got a bit jaded (during NS). I felt that I couldn’t pursue football much, so I paid more attention to NS,” said Aplin.
However, he has no regrets, and believes that one should complete NS as it is one’s duty as a Singaporean.
After a five-year stint in the NFL, Aplin finally earned a spot in the S-League team Geylang International Football Club in 2016.
“I was 25 when I made my S-League debut. Most footballers debut at 17 or 18, but I had to play catch up, so I trained harder.”
After an overseas trial in Nagano, Japan with Matsumoto Yamaga earlier this year, the Nanyang Business School alumnus signed a four-month contract with the club, which plays in the second division of Japan’s Professional Football League.
Similar to Aplin, other national athletes said that Davis’ rejected deferment could be a potential setback to his sport development.
One of them is former national floorball player Amshar Amin. He found the outcome “unfair” as Davis was offered a “rare opportunity”.
Davis may not know where he stands as a player if he does not get the time to hone his skills and has to return to Singapore to serve NS instead, said the third-year Sport Science and Management (SSM) student.
If athletes’ opportunities are taken away due to NS, they may not feel inclined to pursue their sport professionally, or they may not want to play it in Singapore, he added.
Amshar’s training was disrupted for 10 months when he went through Basic Military Training (BMT) and Officer Cadet School under the Singapore Police Force (SPF).
As he had time off only on the weekends, his training with the national floorball team was reduced to once a week, compared to thrice a week before he enlisted.
“A whole year of training only on Saturdays affected my performance. Maybe others can still perform well, but my performance dropped,” he said.
However, Amshar’s training picked up when he was posted out after 10 months and worked regular nine-to-five shifts with the SPF. He could train up to four times a week and was given unrecorded leave, or extra days off, to prepare for the 2015 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games.
Serving NS first
Meanwhile, national taekwondo player Ng Ming Wei agrees that Davis should return to Singapore and complete his NS.
“If he is successful in Fulham, he may not even come back to Singapore to serve after (his contract ends),” said the third-year student from the School of Social Sciences.
“If one person can defer, others will make a big fuss and want the same to pursue their sport, music or other ambitions,” said Ng, who was serving his NS during the 2015 SEA Games, where he won a bronze medal in the “Under-54 kilogrammes” category.
Being in the army enhanced his performance in taekwondo, he said.
“There is no stress from work or studies when you are in NS, so you can keep your mind focused on your sport,” said the athlete, who has been in the national team for 10 years.
Ng strategically planned his days off around public holidays, and was therefore able to train in Taipei before the Games. He was given unrecorded days off as well, and had ample time to prepare for the games.
National floorball player Yeo Xuan, 21, was initially disappointed that Davis’ deferment was not granted, but understood the reasons for the government’s decision.
“If Ben is only interested in his personal development, he may not contribute to Singapore’s sports scene when he is back,” the third-year Material Science and Engineering student said.
She added that sports in Singapore can do better if supported athletes give back to the community, referencing Joseph Schooling who recently opened a swimming school at Our Tampines Hub, after winning an Olympic gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Schooling, 23, will have his NS deferred until after the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. In the past 15 years, only three athletes — swimmers Schooling and Quah Zheng Wen, as well as sailor Maximilian Soh — were granted deferment to represent Singapore in international competitions.
Yeo’s boyfriend, Lim Jian Hong, 23, missed the chance to play in the 2016 World Floorball Championships because of his BMT.
However, Lim’s overall fitness improved because of rigorous physical training in the army. After NS, the first-year SSM student represented Singapore in the 2017 Men’s Asia-Oceania Floorball Cup in Thailand, where his team came in second.
His superiors were understanding of his need to train for the competition. They gave him time off for national team training twice a week, provided that he completed his duties first.
“My training sessions started at 8pm and ended at 10pm, so I asked them if I could stay out and return the next morning and they approved,” he said.
“It was a win-win situation being in the army while in the national team.”