Singapore’s National Service: All Doom & Gloom?

In light of a few incidents in recent months, FFT’s Kenneth Tan and Gary Koh take a look into the perennial conundrum revolving around Singaporean football.

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Eyebrows were raised when Singapore Under-23 first-choice goalkeeper Syazwan Buhari returned home south after his team’s first match in the Pesta Bola Merdeka tournament held in Pahang, Malaysia last September.

The Courts Young Lions custodian was staking a serious claim for a place in the 2013 SEA Games squad after he pulled off a series of outstanding saves to frustrate the Harimau Muda and kept the score low in a 1-0 defeat. Unfortunately, the 21-year-old had to leave the tournament prematurely as his ‘weekend off’ had expired and return to his regular commitments – something the majority of young Singaporean males cannot shirk from. Welcome to the world of National Service (NS) for the young, aspiring local football players in Singapore. Introduced in 1967, two years after sovereign independence of the city-state, all Singaporean males from the age of 18 years onwards are legally bound to give at least two years of their prime to serve the nation full-time.

During that period of service, they will be regarded as full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) and be attached to the military, police or civil defence units depending on their postings. As the Singaporean government firmly believes in the importance of defence of the island republic in the delicate regional political environment, young footballers are not spared from going through the mandatory two-year cycle.

It is widely believed in the football world that between the ages of 18 and 21 years is the most crucial period for the physical, mental and technical development of players where they are on the verge of breakthroughs in final preparations towards the rigours of professional football. So when Singapore’s sole professional league, the S.League, was inaugurated in 1996, two uniformed clubs with direct links to the military and police forces respectively – the Singapore Armed Forces Football Club (SAFFC, now renamed as Warriors FC) and the Police Football Club (later rebranded as Home United FC) – were included to cater to these needs then.

At Warriors’ former home of Jurong Stadium – and subsequently at present ground Choa Chu Kang Stadium – military footballers were given the privilege of serving out the remainder of their national service with the club after they were done with basic and vocational military training. Overseeing their discipline was retired regimental sergeant major and ex-club official Peter Dhanaraj. In his service at the club from 1996 to 2010, he was responsible for the likes of former Singapore internationals Noh Alam Shah, Noh Rahman and Ahmad Latiff Khamaruddin when they were NSFs in the club. The military back then took great interest in ensuring that the best NSF players had minimal disruption in their playing careers and there was little need to negotiate with commanders for the release of players to play.

The young LionsXII conquered the 2013 Malaysian Super League

“To be able to play for the SAFFC as a NSF was a real privilege,” Dhanaraj says. “Whether it was football or other sports, we cannot run away from NS, but the main difference then was the NSF players were able to play football with the club as their main vocation.” Apart from doing errands for the club such as moving of equipment and setting up of sound system during training breaks, the NSFs booked in and out at the training ground to train alongside the professionals in the first team squad. The privilege was not unconditional though. As Dhanaraj explains, regular troublemakers could see their NSF rights stripped and be sent to regular units to serve out the remainder of their NS commitments. That would mean having the rights to play could be subject to the mercifulness of the respective unit commanders.

This trend has been increasingly more common in recent years after the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) stipulated that NSF footballers would come under the umbrellas of the Young Lions and local representative in the Malaysia Super League, the LionsXII. It was coincided by the decision in the part of the uniformed clubs to professionalise by not absorbing any NSFs into their respective first-team squad rosters at the same time. Warriors stopped doing so after 2006 with current Tampines Rovers full-back Shaiful Esah being the last NSF to feature, while fellow internationals Shahdan Sulaiman and Zulfadli Zainal Abidin were the last NSFs to play prominently in 2010 for Home United. For Dhanaraj, the Warriors’ decision to exclude NSFs altogether in the first-team and reserve teams was a clear-cut decision by the club to gear more towards professional football excellence. “It was a policy change by the club as we felt professionalising the club would give us greater impetus to progress in football,” says the veteran football administrator. Meanwhile, Home’s decision to exclude NSFs in the first-team was more down to pragmatism, according to club manager Foo Seck Lye. The retired civil defence commander thinks that the difficulty in releasing the NSFs for club duty was becoming a major strain for a club that boast high ambitions to remain among the elite in local club football.

“It has been increasingly tough for the club to negotiate with the unit commanders to release the players for training and matches,” Foo says resignedly. “For the commanders, active duty comes first. If the players are only involved on standby or administrative duties, getting the release is possible. However, if they are involved in active front line duty, it’s a no-go. It gets very frustrating for the coaching staff to plan training and tactics as they are unsure whether the personnel will be available.”

Presently, those in the military are eligible for the SAF Sportsmen Scheme with either the Young Lions or LionsXII. Under this programme, Singaporean footballers will be allowed to use up to half of their NS term for time-off dedicated towards training and competitions, subject to the exigencies of commitments required from their respective units. But it only allows them to prepare and play in international competitions such as the SEA Games, the Commonwealth Games and the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup and does not apply to domestic competitions (including the Malaysian club competitions in the case of the LionsXII) or friendly international matches.

Not every unit or vocation is likely to be accommodating as they have their operational needs that require the services of these young men. It means military footballers have to request for time-offs or take leaves where possible from their duties for matches and training. 21-year-old Madhu Mohana, who started alongside Syazwan in the game against Malaysia, was lucky to stay on for the remainder of the tournament but had to take five days of leave. Not only was that, his regular appearances in the 2013 Malaysian domestic season with LionsXII had also forced him to spend a huge chunk of his allotted yearly leave for continued playing time.

Madhu Mohana (left) plays for the LionsXII while serving his country

“The biggest problem is the away games,” says the versatile defender. “Sometimes I have to fly on the match day itself and reach there after lunch. If it’s a weekday game, I have to take a seven-hour road trip back to Singapore [to book in the next day]. In total, I’ve used 13 days of leave for playing commitments, thus I only have one day of leave left to claim for the year.”

For all his troubles, at least Madhu ensured he was responsible and accountable for his actions. Fellow LionsXII defender Shakir Hamzah was not so fortunate though. Shakir created headlines when he was charged for leaving his work commitments with the police force without permission to travel and play against Pahang last year. On his return, the 21-year-old left-back saw his discharge date from active service extended and was sentenced to four days of detention. Such an instance has prompted Dhanaraj to believe that the military, police and civil defence authorities could have hardened their stance in releasing players under their command for football commitments in optimal time. “It’s very unfortunate that some footballers choose to abuse their privileges to train full-time as their NS vocations,” observes the former military man, before further lamenting Shakir’s indiscretion. “It was not as if he was going to Bedok Stadium or Jurong Stadium. He simply left the country without permission and that was not acceptable.”

That moment of infamy certainly has not helped the local football administrators’ cause in their tug-of-war with the military, police and civil defence counterparts. With the uniformed authorities hardening their stances on NS, the young footballers occasionally end up being sandwiched in the middle by the warring parties. LionsXII midfielder Gabriel Quak was one of those players as he missed out on one full calendar year of competitive action.

The erosion of talent and deterioration in youth development due to the players’ NS commitments have irked Singaporean supporters

During his NS term from November 2010 to September 2012, the only action which the 23-year-old was able to get was the SEA Games in 2011, in which he performed admirably. Quak was duly rewarded for his efforts with his inclusion in the first LionsXII squad in 2012 but had to be released shortly after failures to secure releases from his unit. Upon his return to intensive training on the pitch, Quak admits that the prolonged enforced period of absence has had a negative impact on his games. “I had a lot of catching up to do,” says the left winger. “Even for the 2011 SEA Games, I was only released a month before, thus I had to work twice as hard compared to others. After all, combat fitness is not exactly equivalent to match fitness.”

“I was always waiting for a confirmation from MINDEF [Singapore’s Ministry of Defence], but nothing materialised in the end,” he laments. “While waiting, all I could do were some simple jogs around the camp and a few simple futsal sessions, but those were not enough to improve my match fitness.”

Photo Credit: Getty Images

The erosion of talent and deterioration in youth development due to the players’ NS commitments have irked local supporters as they have continuously vented their frustrations on social media and forums. Unlike South Korea and Taiwan, which allow flexibility for males to enlist before the age of 30, Singapore has remained firm in getting NSFs at the peak of their physical powers regardless of backgrounds. Most talented sportsmen and entertainers have not been spared from the disruption at the tipping point of breakthrough in their individual careers to serve the nation. However, all is not doom and gloom – at least for one footballer.

Current Geylang International midfielder Fabian Kwok was one player who benefited from the tough training in the military. Before his enlistment in 2010, he only made brief appearances in the S.League with the Young Lions and Geylang. During NS, he went through nine tough months and was commissioned as an officer that shaped him physically and mentally. After completing his stint in 2012, he found his breakthrough in the 2013 season as he played almost every game before sustaining a serious injury. “NS has helped me in my career,” says the hardworking midfielder. “It has helped me to be a mentally strong person. Physically, it has also helped me to maintain my fitness standards as we had to attain at least a silver in our physical fitness test to be able to commission as an officer.”

On top of that, there could be a silver lining for future NSF footballers yet after recent announcements from the government. World class Singaporean swimmer Joseph Schooling, who was due for enlistment in 2014, has been granted a two-year deferment by the MINDEF to train for the 2016 Olympic Games, which effectively means the 18-year-old has the luxury to train full-time three years without disruption. Regarding the special exemption, Minister for Defence Dr. Ng Eng Hen explained in Parliament that deferment from full-time NS may be granted in “exceptional circumstances to individual sportsmen, who are assessed to be potential medal winners at international competitions like the Olympic Games and [able to] bring national pride to the country,” before adding that individuals “have to show why deferment is necessary for them to train full-time and compete successfully at international competitions” and that each case will be assessed individually in consultation with the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

Consistent positive results at the international stage could very well be the catalyst for NSF footballers to soften the hard-nosed bureaucrats’ insistence that football or sports in general is secondary to an effective civil service, and to strengthen their cases for training and delivering results while serving their nation on the pitch.

*This article was first published in FourFourTwo Malaysia/Singapore December 2013 issue