National Service (NS), along with multiculturalism, religious harmony, is one of the foundations that make up Singapore’s unique social fabric. All men of modern age have been through the rites and ceremonies of NS, even our most talented athletes. While these athletes are destined to be future champions in their chosen sport, very few of them will ever make Singapore proud at international competitions. These potential sports stars are now gone. Was NS a factor in these potential sports stars’ passions and determination to succeed? What is the reason so many people quit their sport after high school and NS? Perhaps it’s time to reexamine our NS policy in order to support these sports stars and not compromise the national security.
It isn’t new to argue that NS is harmful for the continued development of our young athletes. The affected athletes have been trying for years to convince the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF), to make special arrangements and concessions to allow them to continue their training with their coaches. MINDEF has generally agreed that athletes can continue their sports careers as long as they do not compromise their obligations to their respective NS units. Athletes will need to rely on their commanding officers for special arrangements to allow them to continue their training while also fulfilling their duties with their units. A most difficult task at best. A top-class athlete will tell anyone that to succeed and compete with other world-class athletes, it is essential that you train twice daily, seven days a week with all nutritional and physiological support. NS training is difficult enough without having to ask our athletes to train and spend time in NS. Most of our athletes are forced to leave when they find themselves in this predicament. Only a few, who are lucky and determined enough to make it work, will manage to find the time and balance training and NS commitments to achieve some degree of success. These athletes are not able to compete against other sportsmen around the globe. What does it mean for sportsmen from countries that do not require NS? Let’s explore this further.
The usual Olympic Games powerhouses with the highest medals are countries such as China, USA and Russia. These countries do not have to perform military service. No. This is a logical conclusion. Their athletes have clear paths to their sporting goals and their peak performance. Some might argue that these countries have large populations. China is home to 1.3 billion people. It is not difficult to find champions in various sports from this large population. It is true. Let’s now compare the sporting achievements of countries that have similar populations to Singapore.
You can search the internet to find the following countries with similar population sizes as Singapore: Norway (4.8m), Ireland (44.5m), Croatia (44.4m), New Zealand (4.3m), Finland (5m), Denmark (5.5m), ssobet and New Zealand (4.3m). This list will make you wonder what you see. All these countries are well-known for their sports achievements, despite being small in population. These three Scandinavian countries have been awarded 350 Gold Medals in all Olympic Games. They are also well represented at World Sports Events. Many football World Cups have featured Denmark and Norway. Finland has a tradition of producing NHL professional ice hockey players. They have each won 8 and 3 Olympic Gold Medals, respectively, in the history of Ireland and Croatia. These two countries are also strongholds in other sports. Ireland is a strong contender in World Cup Football, Rugby, and golf. Croatia has the World Stage’s best handball and water-polo teams. New Zealand is a great example of this. New Zealand has produced 36 Olympic Gold medals in its history, apart from the All Blacks. These countries didn’t have large populations like Russia and China, but they still managed to achieve peak performance in sport. Did I mention that these countries do not require their citizens to serve in the military?
If we shift our perspective and consider a country like Singapore, the impact of NS on sport might become more apparent. Israel’s population is 7.5 million, which is a fraction of Singapore’s. Because of security concerns, they also have to serve in the military. What number of Olympic Gold Medals has each one won? One. They are also prominent in international sports. Not quite yet. Israel, like Singapore, has been sending contingents to major competitions. However, the successes are few. Is compulsory military service somehow affecting their sporting achievements? We can see that NS plays a role in limiting peak performance in sport if we examine the evidence.
NS removes the prime time for an athlete’s growth. Our bodies reach their maximum sporting potential between 17-20 years old. These are the times when sports talents must be nurtured. The disruption caused by NS is going to break this important cycle, and demotivate our athletes from pursuing sports development. How many of our school record-breakers continue to swim and run beyond the school years and into NS? It is not common. Imagine the achievement possible if these athletes were encouraged and supported to keep training in their sport. Singapore’s sporting achievements can go beyond what we have seen so far.
Of course, there are opponents to allowing these athletes to be freed up for full-time sports development. Many feel that NS is detrimental to the social fabric of Singapore. Many parents of servicemen feel it unfair that their sons serve NS, while sportsmen ‘takes the easy route out’. It is clear that NS is vital. It is essential that we never lose it. It is essential for our security and our prosperity. We are in an age of rapid change, where different peaks are crucial for nation building. Our social fabric must be enhanced by focusing on excellence in sports and other areas. These people are rare. If we want to see more success in sports, we need policies that support these people. Otherwise, they won’t be able to reach their full potential as we have suppressed the passion for these fields. Is it possible to serve NS by playing sports? I reply to those who criticize sports as easy, saying that they’ve never experienced what it is like to be a top-class athlete. The training regimen of a top-class athlete is much more difficult than that of an NSF worker in Singapore. Try training twice daily, seven days per week if you don’t believe me. You can also try eating sports diets seven days per week. For a while, you may have to give up social life in order to train for a competition. It’s a difficult job to win a Gold Medal.