SINGAPORE: Singapore’s High Court upped the jail terms of three National Service (NS) defaulters in a landmark decision on Tuesday (Apr 25), saying the attitude that NS can be avoided would “weaken our national security … (and that it was) simply intolerable”.
The court - comprising Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Justice See Kee Oon - said it disagreed with the sentencing framework currently in place, touching on points such as a defaulter’s connection to Singapore and the standard of their NS performance, should they return to fulfil their obligations.
The court is expected to issue a detailed judgement, in which it will set out a new sentencing framework for defaulters. Under the revised framework, which will be released at a later date, three categories of defaulters will face jail terms.
Defaulters who avoid the entirety of their NS obligations - such as Ang Lee Thye, who defaulted for more than 23 years, only surrendering to authorities when he was 41 years old - make up the “worst category”, the court said.
On Tuesday, it raised Ang’s 24-month jail term to 33 months.
Then there are defaulters who default for two years, who miss the entirety of the service duration of their cohort, such as brothers Sakthikanesh Chidambaram, 26, and Vandana Kumar Chidambaram, 24.
They defaulted for more than five years and more than three years respectively.
Last year, Sakthikanesh was sentenced to three weeks’ jail and Vandana was fined S$6,000. The court upped their sentences to 10 weeks for Sakthikanesh and seven weeks for Vandana, whose S$6,000 will be refunded.
The third category includes the in-betweens, those who by reason of their default impair their ability to serve their NS obligations, either in terms of duration or in terms of their ability, the court said.
CONNECTION TO SINGAPORE, EXCEPTIONAL PERFORMANCE NOT MITIGATING FACTORS
The court also dealt with three issues commonly raised by defaulters as mitigating factors: Their substantial connection (or lack thereof) to Singapore, their exceptional performance (of those who return to serve NS) and voluntarily surrendering and pleading guilty when they are arrested and charged upon returning to the country.
“We do not regard the substantiality of an offender’s connection with Singapore as a relevant factor (because) NS is an obligation of every male Singaporean," Chief Justice Menon said.
Every male citizen will be liable for NS as long as the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) issues enlistment papers to them, “regardless of how long they have spent away from Singapore or the extent to which they have benefited from Singapore citizenship", the Chief Justice said, “except in truly exceptional cases" he added, citing the case of Seow Wei Sin v Public Prosecutor.
Turning to the standard of performance of a defaulter, the court said: “It is the obligation of every male Singaporean to do his best in NS. This is simply a matter of national pride and loyalty.”
For a defaulter to be rewarded for doing no more than what his “law-abiding” fellow National Servicemen are doing “seems wrong”, Chief Justice Menon said, and would create a “perverse incentive for fit Singaporeans to choose unlawfully to do their NS later".
“In any event, we also fail to see how we, the courts, can be in a position to assess what constitutes good enough performance for this purpose.”
As to the question of voluntary surrender and plea of guilt, this is “fact-specific”, the court ruled.
EVERY SERVICEMAN COUNTS
The prosecution, led by Solicitor-General (SG) Kwek Mean Luck, argued for stiffer jail terms for the three men, citing the importance of general deterrence. “A signal must be sent to those who seek to game the system that NS evasion will be met with stiff penalties," SG Kwek said.
“New threats have emerged and existing threats have evolved. Such threats underline the importance of having a credible defence force in Singapore, central to which is having sufficient soldiers who are fit to take up combat vocations," he said.
As Singapore’s fertility rate falls, so will the pool of male Singaporeans who are fit for enlistment, SG Kwek said. Citing MINDEF statistics, he said this is expected to fall by about 30 per cent by 2030.
“Every person who is fit for enlistment counts and must be enlisted for Singapore’s defence and security," he told the court.
SG Kwek also pointed out that the number of transnational marriages is on the rise, as is the number of Singaporeans living overseas. As a result, “the potential for NS default would increase", he said.
ANG EVADED NS FOR MORE THAN 23 YEARS
Ang remained outside Singapore without a valid exit permit for 23.5 years, the longest possible default period.
He “timed his eventual return", prosecutors said, coming back to Singapore after he had turned 40 and was no longer a person subject to the Enlistment Act, having evaded his NS obligations completely.
Ang’s lawyer said his entire family remains in the US, where Ang lived for decades. He came back because he missed Singapore, the lawyer added.
THE CHIDAMBARAM BROTHERS
Brothers Sakthikanesh and Vandana left Singapore when they were babies, in the early 1990s, to live in India.
Though they returned to Singapore several times over the years to visit relatives, both defaulted on their NS obligations to complete their university education - Sakthikanesh for more than five years and Vandana for more than three years.
Their lawyer urged the court to consider that the brothers had ultimately served NS and are young enough to complete at least 10 years of reservist as well.
But the court was not persuaded and the brothers were taken into custody on Tuesday to serve their extended jail terms.