Should Singapore follow S.Korea and allow for National Service exemption?

With the South Korean Olympic team getting the reward of exemption from conscription, writer Dillon Teo contemplates the possibilities in Singapore
Unbeknownst to many before the men’s soccer bronze-medal playoff match at the recent 2012 London Olympics, the South Korea team had an added incentive to win the game apart from sporting prestige.

Under Korean laws which allow for exceptions for male Olympic-medal winners, the roster of eighteen players would be exempted from a compulsory stint in the army if they beat Japan, as these endeavours are seen as benefiting the nation.

In the end, they won the game and thus successfully avoided the 21-month long military service they would otherwise have had to serve.

Coach Hong Myung-Bo has claimed that this would “bring them big benefits for their careers”, in addition to it being important for the development of Korean football as they will be able to focus on their careers at club level. Top young Korean players in the squad pursuing a professional contract overseas would also have no need to worry about having to return for a spell in the army.

Such news definitely resonates within the local football set-up, which has been dogged with issues regarding exemption and time-off for footballers from the mandatory National Service every Singaporean male has to serve once they reach the age of 18.

This makes one wonder whether a similar scheme could be implemented here, as a form of incentive for current players.

A local footballer, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes it could be. He pointed out that such an achievement can also be considered as serving the country in addition to doing the country proud, while also mentioning that the training such sportsmen undergo might be equivalent or even tougher than the two years’ worth one gets during NS.

He raised the example of many players turning their back on football after completion of NS due to frustration at the lack of support and opportunities during the two years, resulting in them losing crucial development time during the peak years of 18 to 20.

Another reason he contributed was that exemption would allow certain promising players to go overseas and seek greener pastures, as is the case with Malaysia’s Nazmi Faiz, who signed a three-year deal with Portuguese top-flight club Beira-Mar in May after a successful trial.

Implementing such a ‘reward-based’ exemption scheme might also be more acceptable to the general public than granting exemptions to national sportsmen straight-off , which will certainly see many claiming that it is unfair for them while their counterparts are obliged to serve.

But I personally believe that such a reward scheme will be difficult to put in place here, as it will be difficult to benchmark a standard for exemption.

Clearly, an Olympic medal is still quite a far-off target for most sports and while a case can be made for international-level competitions, such events do not hold the same prestige as the Games. It is possible for the benchmark to be set at a regional level such as the Asian Games, where a medal is a more realistic aim.

Another point to note is that the Koreans must serve before they turn 29; the limit here is 22, which simply does not allow enough opportunities and time for most sportsmen to achieve a medal at whatever benchmark set.

I do however believe that more flexibility can be granted to footballers and other athletes who are serving NS, with regards to time-off for training.

According to the Athlete Services Handbook released by the Singapore Sports Council (SSC) for 2012, under the section regarding application for release of full-time NS (NSF) sportsmen, full-pay unrecorded leave (FPUL) and time-off for training are considered only for South-East Asian, Asian, Commonwealth and Olympics Games in general, as well as qualifying events for such major competitions.

Otherwise, it is believed that athletes have to take time off from their own annual leave if they wish to train.

Perhaps for S.League footballers who are in NS, as well as LionsXII players like Hariss Harun, the FPUL scheme can be extended to apply to them as well so that they have adequate time to train and develop with their clubs.

Having adequate training support schemes would also encourage young sportsmen to choose sports as a career, without worry that their training will be disrupted when they reach the age where they are liable for NS, which can only benefit Singapore in the long run.

I strongly feel that it is imperative that the relevant authorities come together and find a way to work around this age-old issue, especially in light of the recent furore sparked by the foreign-born table tennis players winning Olympic medals. If we want local talent to start coming through, then we have to start putting our money where our mouth is.