National Service (NS) is one of the key foundations, together with multiculturalism and religious harmony, in Singapore’s unique social fabric. Every male of the modern generation has gone through the rites of NS, including our very best athletes. These athletes leave their schools as future sports champions of our nation, but very few of them actually fulfill their potential to do Singapore proud in international competitions. What happened to these potential sports stars? Did NS hinder their passion and motivation to excel in their sports? Why do so few carry on in their sports after school and NS? In our national quest for more sporting excellence and glories, perhaps it is time to re-look at our NS policy and see how we can truly support and encourage the journeys of these potential sports stars without necessarily compromising the security of the nation.
The argument that NS is detrimental to the development and continuous journey of our budding athletes from school is not new. Athletes who are affected have been fighting for years to get the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) to make special concessions and arrangements for them to continue with their training programs with their sports coaches. In most cases, MINDEF has adopted a general guide line that athletes can still continue with their sports career as long as their obligations with their respective NS units are not compromised. This basically means that athletes will have to count on the good graces of their commanding officers to make special arrangements for them to continue training, and at the same time fulfill their training and duties with their units. A most difficult task at best. Any top class athlete will tell you that in order to be successful and be competitive with the rest of the other world class athletes, training twice a day, seven day a week, with full nutritional and physiological support is common practice. NS training by itself is already tough, and asking our athletes to spend time in NS and train at the same time is just not possible. When faced with this situation, most of our athletes have no choice but to drop out. Only a handful, with good fortunate and determination will be able to find the time to balance the NS commitments and training to the effect that some measure of success is possible. Even these athletes do not compare well when competing against other sportsmen from around the world. How do sportsmen in countries without compulsory NS fair? Let us investigate a bit further.
In the Olympic Games, the usual powerhouses that garner the most medals include countries like China, USA, Russia, Australia, Britain, Germany, and to a certain extend South Korea and Japan. Do these countries have compulsory military service? The answer is no. A logical conclusion here is that their athletes have unimpeded paths towards their sporting ambitions and peak performance in sports. Of course some might argue that these countries are large in terms of their population size. China has a population of 1.3 billion. Surely, from these mass of people, champions for various sports can be found. That is true. Let us now examine countries with similar population as Singapore and compare their sport achievements.
A search on the internet will reveal that the following countries have comparable population size as Singapore (5m); Norway (4.8m), Ireland (4.5m), Croatia (4.4m), New Zealand (4.3m), Finland (5.3m) and Denmark (5.5m). What strikes you as you view this list? These are all countries with well known sports achievements despite their limited population size. The three Scandinavian Countries listed above have won in access of 350 Gold Medals in all Olympics Games, and they are also well represented in World Sports Events. Norway and Denmark has featured in many football World Cups. Finland is consistent in producing NHL professional ice-hockey players. As for Ireland and Croatia, they have won 8 and 3 Olympic Gold medals respectively in their history. But let us not forget these two countries are also power houses in other sports. Ireland features highly in World Cup Football, Rugby and even golf. Croatia produces the best water-polo and handball teams regularly on the World Stage. Need we say more about New Zealand? Apart from the All Blacks, New Zealand has also produced 36 Olympic Gold in their history. These countries did not have huge population bases like China and Russia, but yet they have been consistently successful in peak performance in sports. By the way, did I mention that these countries have no compulsory military service for their citizens?
If we change our perspective and look at a country that Singapore is modeled after, maybe the effect of NS on sports become clearer. Israel has a population of 7.5m, a fraction greater than Singapore’s. They also have compulsory military service because of their security concerns. How many Olympic Gold Medals have they won? One. Are they prominent in other international sports? Not quite yet. Israel like Singapore has also been actively sending contingents for major competitions, but successes are far and few. The question is ‘has compulsory military service somehow affected their sporting achievements?’ If we look at the evidence presented here, we cannot deny the fact that NS does have a part to play in limiting peak performance in sports.
NS takes away the prime period of an athlete’s development. At 17-20 years of age, our body is reaching their full sporting potential. This is the time whereby, sports talents need to be continuously nurtured. The disruption caused by NS will break this important cycle and de-motivate our athletes to stop sports development in their lives. How many of our national school record breakers continue on to run and swim beyond their school and NS years? Hardly. Imagine how much achievement is possible if these athletes are supported and encouraged to continue on training in their sports. The sporting achievement for Singapore can be so much more than what we have achieved so far.
There are of course opponents to freeing these athletes up for full time sports development. Many argue that not doing NS will break the social fabric of Singapore. Many parents of servicemen feel that it is unfair for their sons to serve NS while sportsmen ‘take the easy way out’. There is no denying that NS is important. We must never take that away. Our very security and prosperity depends on it. But we are also at an age of dynamic change whereby different peaks of excellence are important in nation building. We need to add on to our social fabric by sewing on peak performance in sports and other areas. And people who contribute to these areas are far and few. Hence, if we are to achieve more sporting success, we must have policies that support these talented people; otherwise they will never reach their full potential because we as a nation have snuffed out the passion for these areas. What of those who feel that sports an easy way is out compared to serving NS? My answer to these critics is that they have never gone through what a true top class sports person has gone through. In many ways, the training regime of a top class athlete is more demanding than a typical NSF in Singapore. If you do not believe, try training twice a day, seven days a week. Try, eating sports diets seven days a week. Try foregoing social life for a few years to train for a competition. It is a tough job to try and win a Gold Medal.