Singapore sporting dreams collide with national service
Calvin Cheng broke records in his native Singapore and his career as a long jumper was starting to take off internationally.
But then came national service.
Now 31 and a lawyer, Cheng can’t help but wonder what could have been: “Unfortunately, I just wasn’t able to get the time off to train.
“That was when I decided that it just wasn’t worth it, and that was when I gave up,” Cheng told AFP by telephone.
Singaporeans are required to spend two years in the military, police or emergency services upon turning 18, a decades-old policy that leaders say remains necessary to defend the city-state.
But critics have increasingly questioned this obligation — which applies to men only — when it comes to athletes, saying it can torpedo sporting careers just as they are getting off the ground.
The debate has been fueled by two Singaporeans who refused to enlist so they could pursue their careers with top English football teams — and were then warned they had broken the law, meaning they could face jail.
Cheng, who served in Singapore’s military doing clerical duties in 2010-2012, does not believe he was necessarily destined for the highest levels of long jump.
But he has no doubt that national service brought his sporting career to a premature end.
“It was a very good run, but it was a short run,” he said.
“When it was time to enlist — that was it.”
Cheng did not apply to postpone his national service because such requests are very rarely granted.
In the past 20 years, only three deferments have been given for exceptional sportsmen — swimmer Joseph Schooling, Singapore’s first and only Olympic gold medalist, fellow Olympic swimmer Quah Zheng Wen and sailor Maximilian Soh.
More commonly, authorities allow Singaporeans to delay or interrupt their national service for educational reasons.
National service became a subject of heated debate in 2018 after footballer Ben Davis was refused permission to defer after signing a deal with Fulham, who were in the English Premier League at the time.
Authorities argued that, for athletes, such allowances are only made for potential medal winners in major tournaments such as the Olympics, whereas Davis was seeking to further his own career.
The refusal sparked fierce criticism in the city-state, where the Premier League has a large following, with a petition calling for Davis to be given a deferment garnering over 24,000 signatures.
Davis, who now plays for third-tier Oxford United, has not returned to Singapore since. He could face a three-year jail term for breaking the enlistment act.
There was a similar case in October when Harry Birtwistle signed for Premier League side Wolves.
Soon afterwards, officials said the 18-year-old — who reportedly has a Singaporean mother and British father — had broken the law by failing to enlist.
The government has long insisted national service is vital for the defense of a city-state that has a population of just 5.5 million and is surrounded by much larger neighbors.
“Singaporeans know that they cannot count on others and must defend Singapore themselves,” said the defense ministry in 2018, around the time of the Davis controversy.
Officials also say they are flexible, helping athletes to fit training around national service, and some have won medals at major tournaments while enlisted.
For Derek Wong, signing up for national service in the police in 2007 did not signal the end of his badminton career, and he managed to continue training.
He went on to compete in two Olympics and won a Commonwealth Games silver medal in 2014.
National service “helps to build a guy’s character. It helps to build our teamwork”, Wong, now 32 and working in business development, told AFP.
But Cheng believes Singapore could produce more world-class athletes if it showed more flexibility, such as by granting more deferments, and points to the example of South Korea.
Able-bodied South Korean men have to do military service to defend against the nuclear-armed North, but Cheng says Seoul is more obliging when it comes to sportsmen than Singapore.
Premier League star Son Heung-min, who plays for Tottenham, only had to do four weeks’ national service, rather than 21 months, after he helped South Korea win an Asian Games gold medal in 2018.
“Essentially the message (the authorities) are sending to Singapore athletes is that unless you are Joseph Schooling, you won’t get a deferment,” Cheng said.