Ben Davis and Singapore’s fears and aspirations

I’ve just got back home from the UEFA U19 Championship match between France and Ukraine, played in Vaasa, Finland. That’s 22 youngsters, Ben Davis’ age, playing top-notch football, vying for the world stage. I wondered if any of them would have to shelve their football careers for two years to swell the ranks of their national armies.

Mindef’s decision to deny Ben Davis his deferment is a death sentence for our aspiring athletes. It’s a clear sign that our sportsmen stand no chance, no matter how good they become, if they don’t win world-class competitions before they’re 18. Which is basically impossible, especially in team sports.

This fear will ripple through our sporting culture, bleed the talent out of it, and scuttle our aspirations of sporting glory to feed our fear of foreign invasion.

But Mindef’s decision, like so many before it, follows a consistent (some would call this fair) and transparent logic that has been applied for years. The troubling thing about the Ben Davis situation is not how MINDEF makes these decisions.

The troubling thing is that Singaporeans are faced again with the feeling that we are not in control of our destiny as a community and as a people. We don’t get a say in what kind of country we want to be. We don’t get to say that this level of military obsession is too much or too little. We don’t get to say that we would rather press our boys into service in sports than press them into service as armskotemen or army clerks or cannon fodder.

SMS for Defence Heng Chee How called it a “good balance”. But what does that mean really? Who decides what is good or balanced?

“For a country like Singapore, we want to value every Singaporean and we want to develop our talent of course, but at the same time, we must also remember that the purpose for all this development is that we have a country and that all of us actually have a duty to one another and this country. So we have got to make a good balance between our duty to this country and our very genuine urge to enable everybody to reach their highest potential.”

Do we sacrifice our people so that we can have a country? That sounds like Dulce et Decorum est (read the poem). What is our duty to our country? And what is our country’s duty to us? Do we have dialogue about this or is it a done deal to be shoved down our throats by some higher-up?

From all the reactions so far, it is clear that many Singaporeans feels that we don’t have a say in what we want Singapore to be. That’s why we are cynical about Our Singapore Conversation and whatever newfangled conversation the 4G leadership claims it wants to have with us. That’s why we want Ben Davis to break the law, become a fugitive and chase his sporting dream. We want to live vicariously through Ben.

As far as I can see, the perception is that the G simply wants to uphold a standard set in the 1960s as if it was perfectly relevant today. There will be no public input to re-evaluate how important NS is to us, or how important sporting and other pursuits and aspirations are to us. Our aspirations are frozen in time, dominated by the fears and aspirations of an era past – economic, military, civil order, control.

But don’t we fear existence without substance? Don’t we fear life without beauty? Don’t we fear the meaninglessness of an endless reach for wealth?

Aren’t we afraid that we’ll never get to talk about how to build this country into something more meaningful for us?





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