Singapore’s National Service: All Doom & Gloom?

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.

The young LionsXII conquered the 2013 Malaysian Super League

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.

“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.